How Ford City helped create union laws Canada has today

A 99-day strike at the Windsor Ford Motor company plant that ended in 1945 changed union laws in the country.

'Bitter... pivotal strike in the union movement' that established unions, says historian

Raising funds for Christmas baskets for needy Windsor families Roy England, left, President of the Ford local of the United Automobile Workers Union, and Rhys M. Sale, Ford of Canada President, sell Christmas editions of the Goodfellows Club newspaper outside the factory. The club sponsors the campaign. (The Canadian Press)

Ford City has a rich history of people working to build automobiles, but it's the day that 17,000 employees at the Ford Motor Company plant stopped assembling them that may have had the farthest reaching impact on the industrial landscape in Canada.

When the strike started on September 12, 1945 the Ford Motor Company in Windsor was the largest employer in Canada following the war.

"Ford City...was very much at the forefront of the union movement," said Herb Colling, an author who is finishing a book on Ford City and wrote 99 Days: The Ford Strike In Windsor, 1945.

Colling said the "pivotal, bitter" strike hinged on two things: union security and better collection of union dues. 

"The men had just returned from war and they didn't want to be dictated to when they returned to their jobs," said Colling, sitting inside of his writer's room in Belle River. 

Workers at Ford in Windsor created their union in the early 1940's, but by 1944 the company had started to return to pre-war conditions, according to Colling.

Author Herb Colling said that the 99-day strike was a pivotal and bitter step in the union movement for Canada. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"Ford said 'Well we don't really want this union thing here so maybe what we should do is get rid of the union and if you really want a union - we'll set one up for you,'" said Colling. 

After long negotiations, employees decided to go on strike.

"As I said a very bitter strike, but a very pivotal strike in the union movement because it established what we know of unions today," said Colling. 

Strike Conditions

Workers parked cars on the street blocking off sections of Ford City as they were on strike — mainly at Riverside Drive and Drouillard Road.

"They just plugged up those intersections and they called it a model T that Ford wouldn't like," laughs Colling. 

He said there was a lot of community support, with gifts of food from people in the neighbourhood. The movement even gained support from the city's mayor at the time, Arthur Reaume.

"He basically more or less sided with the union which kept him in power," said Colling

Employees working at the Ford factory in Windsor. (CBC)

​But some of the tactics used by striking workers went beyond picket lines and protest signs.

"They shut the plant down," said Colling. "They kicked out management, they kicked out all the non-union workers, they kicked out workers that weren't within their union and they just shut the whole place down."

Rand Formula

In December workers voted to go back on the job while a federally appointed arbitrator reviewed the two sides' positions: Supreme Court judge Ivan Rand.

The 99-day strike in 1945 led to the Rand formula that's used by unions across Canada today. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

That's where the Rand formula was born. 

"It established that you didn't have to belong to the union or join the union but you did have to pay dues - and the company would collect those dues," said Colling.

Rand also made a point of condemning both the union and the company for their behaviour during the strike while instituting financial penalties for unions that starts an illegal or 'wildcat' strike.