Spirit of ’46
The Stelco Strike of ’46
Seventy-six years ago, on July 15, 1946 Hamilton, Ontario steelworkers took on the country’s biggest steel producer in a crucial strike for union recognition. With strong community support, they held the line for almost three months to win an historic victory, with the strike ending October 4, 1946.
Throughout the world at the end of World War II, hundreds of millions upon millions of working and oppressed peoples yearned for and were demanding change. The imperialist socio-economic system was weakened. A new socialist state existed on one-sixth of the globe. There emerged a continuing upsurge in the industrialized countries and movements for rights, national independence and national liberation in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In the U.S. and Canada big capital was fat with war profits. The war economy was of no benefit to working people at home or abroad. A massive strike movement broke out, known as the Spirit of ’46, which embodied this striving. In the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the 18 months that followed, some seven million workers engaged in the largest, most sustained wave of strikes in U.S. history. About 144 million days of work were lost in those 18 months, more than in the entire decade of the 1980s or the 1990s and just slightly less than the total “days idled by work stoppages” in both those decades combined. In Canada, there were 70,688 workers out on 36 strikes in June 1946.
The Spirit of ’46 announced to the world the workers’ claim to the wealth they create and the standing of their collectives, including putting union recognition on a legal basis.
Canadian Stelco steelworkers waged a historic strike in Hamilton in 1946 to force the government to recognize their union, USW Local 1005, and to improve their wages and benefits, and establish their pensions. When the company was organizing to have the Ontario Provincial Police and RCMP attack the workers’ picket lines, the people of Hamilton from every sector rallied around the striking workers. At a crucial moment in the strike, hundreds of World War II veterans marched from Woodlands Park down to Stelco’s gates. The strong Italian contingent of striking workers often held mass buffets, with men and women preparing food for thousands of hungry strikers. One night, over $6,000 in donations was collected, and the “money used to further the strike by providing more food and other necessities. Some local merchants and farmers displayed their sympathies by extending credit and donating tons of food. Entertainers regularly visited the picket lines.” This was concrete public support that greatly assisted the workers.
In 1946, the workers and their communities were able to make headway because the union fought and a critical mass of workers and the people of Hamilton stood with it in the face of great difficulties. Throughout its history, Local 1005 has faced constant attacks from directors and executive managers who wanted to smash it and impose their will on the workers with impunity. The workers have always fought to uphold their rights and the rights of all, especially since the anti-social offensive was launched with one of its aims to dismantle the union, refuse to negotiate in good faith and treat the workers as expendable. Hamilton steelworkers have shown time and again that security lies in the fight for the rights of all. On this basis, they can achieve success. They have inspired the labour movement and all Canadians nationwide.
1. It Started with a Whisper: A History of the 1946 Strike, published by USW Local 1005 on January 1, 1996 on its 50th Anniversary, page 26.
2. “The Siege of ’46,” on the history of the 1946 Stelco strike, part of a digital collection on the history of labour and technology in Hamilton and district posted on the McMaster University website, part of the SchoolNet Digital Collections program of Industry Canada.