A Treasured Reminder of the Stratford Strike of 1933 Stratford-Perth Archives

Photos: Stratford-Perth Achives

This article is one of a continuing series that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stratford-Perth Archives and its treasures. This treasure is a series of photographs of the strike that came to the archives in 1992 as “copy loans,” meaning the original photographs were returned to the donor.

1933 was a difficult year for working people in Canada. A quarter of all wage earners were looking for jobs and many needed “relief” to cover the basics.

And yet, that fall, hundreds of workers at Stratford’s furniture factories decided that years of wage cuts and unpredictable shifts could no longer be tolerated. Most workers were getting $10 or $11 per week. Meanwhile, the federal government estimated that an average family needed $16 per week to make ends meet. Some – mostly women and very young men – were taking home as little as $5 for a week’s work. They joined the Chesterfield and Furniture Workers’ Industrial Union, recently established by the Workers’ Unity League, and went on strike.

Women working as chicken pluckers at the Swift food processing plant walked off the job. They were no longer prepared to endure terrible working conditions and “abusive and vile” language from their foremen for the reward of two cents per chicken. They were later joined in the strike by men from the butter, egg and cream departments.

The city’s unionized railway workers supported the strikers. There had been layoffs and wage cuts at the CNR as well.

Talks were held at five of the factories on Sept. 22, with negotiations breaking down for all the plants by the next day. Mayor G.I. Graff was asked to provide police protection to allow replacement workers into the factories. The police chief estimated that 1,000 strikers and their supporters were at the Swift plant when they arrived. Strike breakers were escorted out with police protection as power lines had been cut and rocks and eggs were being thrown.

Extra provincial police had arrived to help and were needed again the next day. Billy clubs and tear gas were used on the strikers and their supporters. The factory foreman promised to meet with the striking workers the next day and peace was restored. However, such incidents convinced provincial attorney general William H. Price that the police needed assistance from the military.

On Sept. 27, two companies of the Royal Canadian Regiment and “baby tanks” (actually Carden Loyd machine gun carriers) arrived from London on a passenger train and waited for trucks to take them to the Armouries on Waterloo Street that were now surrounded by barbed wire. Thousands gathered at the lakeside band shell that night, demanding the troops be sent away and that the mayor resign. There was another parade on Sept. 28, complete with a mock-up tank named Big Bertha, escorted by guards wearing pots and pans as their steel helmets.

Carden Loyd Tankett

The parade formed at the strikers’ headquarters in the former Brooks Steam Motor Co. plant on Ontario Street and wound its way through the east end of the city, past the furniture factories and then through the downtown section passing the Armouries on two occasions. As they passed the building, loud boos and jeers were hurled at members of the militia units who were leaning out of the upstairs windows and apparently enjoying the demonstrations.

At the end of the parade, the crowd learned that replacement workers had returned to the Swift plant and they rushed over there. Oliver (O.J.) Kerr, a long-serving machinist and chair of the shop committee at the Stratford Chair Company, as well as a city alderman and the de facto leader of all of the striking workers, convinced the crowd not to storm in and arranged for a committee to meet with company executives later. The Swift plant closed indefinitely on Sept. 29. The troops did not leave until Nov. 4.

In the meantime, the strikes continued, with factory owners now refusing to negotiate with the Chesterfield and Furniture Workers’ Union because of its relationship with the Workers’ Unity League.

In early October, some Toronto radio manufacturers sent workers to pick up cabinets and cabinet parts from Preston-Noelting. The striking workers retaliated by scattering lumber piles from a couple of the factories onto railway sidings. The freight car containing the cabinets was set on fire while sitting in the Kitchener rail yard. There wasn’t much damage, but the radio manufacturers declared they would remove the rest of their cabinets from Stratford “if it takes the whole army and navy to do it.” In spite of some more vandalism, they were successful in doing that. Many freight cars and trucks moved inventory from the Stratford factories during the strikes.

As things dragged on, benefit rallies were held in nearby cities to collect money, food and clothing for the workers and their families. Yet, morale was sinking. Winter weather was coming in and the factory owners seemed to be making plans to relocate. More or less identical contracts were signed by early November with all of the furniture factories. The Swift strike also ended on Nov. 3.

Nancy Stunden wrote her master’s thesis on the Stratford Strikes in 1975. She concluded that “the Stratford furniture and food workers ended their strikes because they realized that to continue would be pointless and self-defeating. …The Stratford workers did not win their strikes in 1933. However, they did achieve substantial improvements in their working conditions and they demonstrated their determination and ability to stand up to their employers. …Their triumph came one month later when O.J. Kerr led a slate of labour candidates to victory over the Property Owners’ Association in the most hotly contested municipal election ever witnessed in the city” to become mayor of Stratford along with six labour councillors. Source: Stratford-Perth Archives