*(Please note that all respondents' names have been changed to protect their anonymity)

While the modern Canadian economy was founded on the extraction and export of staple commodities (furs, fish, wheat, metals), the auto industry has probable been the most strategically important single industry in the post-WWII era.

Free trade agreements with the U.S. and Mexico and the demise of the (1960s ‘Autopact’ (which guaranteed privileged access to U.S. markets) now threaten the future sustainability of Canadian auto plants, the industry still remains vital to the economic health of the nation.

The Canadian auto industry employs one of every six working Canadians. One out of every five Ontarians owes her or his job to the auto industry. 90 percent of the Canadian auto industry is located in Ontario. Auto accounted for approximately 7% of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product if related industries (like rubber, steel) are taken into account (Kempston Darkes, 1995). The auto industry represents just over 10 percent of Ontario’s economy.


For those of you who are not familiar with Oshawa, it's the Flint (or Detroit) of Ontario and the heart of the automobile industry in Canada. Oshawa is the heart of Canada's automobile industry, with about 25,000 hourly, unionized employees in auto parts manufacturing and automobile assembly. It’s also the site of General Motors of Canada's (GMC) head offices and the GMC "Autoplex" – one of the largest auto assembly complexes in the world (at one time it was second only to the Lada assembly plant in the former Soviet Union).

The GM Autoplex is the largest automotive assembly complex in North America and includes two car plants, a truck plant, a fabrication and battery plant. GM is obviously the largest employer in the City of Oshawa. Oshawa, with population of around 146,000 just east of Toronto, was the home of the McGlaughlin Carriage Company, sold to General Motors in the 1920s and has continued to be dominated by the auto industry.

As of 2003, the typical GM assembler’s wages are $28.34/hr (48 hr/wk.= $71,735 yr.). Skilled Tradespeople, like electricians, earn $34.44 /hr. (48 hr/wk.= 85,962 yr.). The lure of this extensive a wage and benefits package drew 26,000 GM job applicants to line up on cold winter days in January 1995 to obtain secure, unionized, high-paying jobs in Oshawa.

This is an area of relatively stable job security. The existence of a strong trade union is at the core of Oshawa’s historic sense of security and has wide community effects. Oshawa also enjoys one of Canada’s highest per capita family incomes.

The Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) is the largest industrial union in the country with over 220,000 members in Canada. CAW’s largest local is in Oshawa. Local 222 is comprised of workers at the GM car and truck assembly plants and several other smaller related units located in Oshawa, and totals about 20-25,000 members [in 1996] and making it one of the largest union locals in the country.

The largest unit within Local 222 is GM, with around 11,500 members. GM experienced a drop of approximately 4,000 workers between 1996 and 2001 in spite of the addition of over 1,000 workers to staff the only third shift in a North American car plant.

The unionized GM workforce had historically been almost exclusively male (93%) and white. After the 1993 ‘absorption’ of the laid-off workforce from GM’s nearby Scarborough plant, many women entered Oshawa’s assembly plants for the first time since World War Two. These were also joined by a small influx of visible minorities for the first time in Oshawa’s history. According to Lewchuk et al. (1996), the male Oshawa car plant workforce had shrunk to 88 percent male when our study was conducted (1995-1997).

This an aging workforce with an average age of 47 for production workers (48 for skilled trades). The average plant seniority is 20 years, reflecting the fact that there had been virtually no hiring during this period while layoffs occurred according to seniority.

(Note the inclusion of an expanded 'contingent army' of labourers at Oshawa's 3 assembly plants. These are called "Temporary Part-Time" workers. These are college or university students who work without benefits, pension or seniority/bumping rights, and are called upon to work overtime. Time was these were Summer replacements only. Then the use of TPTs was expanded to Friday nights (lots of absences) and Saturday overtime. Today TPTs are working from Thursdays to Mondays. It is one way to make up for an increasingly aging workforce.)

** Author's note: The following study -- and quotes -- are based on an OISE/UT project led by D.W. Livingstone entitled "The Working-Class Learning Strategies" (WCLS). This study, held from 1995-1997 was designed to document the full range of informal, out-of-institution, learning, with a focus on primarily unionized working-class members and their families within Ontario. For the purposes of this study, formal learning is defined as credentialized education which takes place within an institutional setting; non-formal learning occurs within the classroom but outside the institutional public education system and informal learning takes in all other forms of out-of-classroom learning generally uncertified in any way and therefore unrecognized by people and institutions. This particular portion of the study was conducted with workers at the General Motors (GM) car and truck assembly plants located in Oshawa, Ontario. All the workers interviewed for this study were members of the GM unit of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union, Local 222. Thematic, oral-history interviews were conducted with Local 222 members using a oral life-history questionnaire, within a participatory-action research model. These interviews provide both a detailed account of workers' out-of-institution, everyday learning experiences and a backdrop to the cultural life of working-class auto assembly workers.**


Economic security for Oshawa autoworkers was won through historic struggles, most notably the fight to join the United Auto Workers (UAW) union in 1937. The Oshawa strike of 1937 enjoyed the support of the entire city, including the mayor and local businesses, as well as two provincial cabinet ministers who later resigned (Abella, 1975:1).

According to Charlotte Yates (1993), the 1985 separation between the UAW and the CAW can be attributed crucially to the democratic organizational structure of the then-Canadian Region of the UAW, as well as a more class-based, collective identity among its members, and its anti-concessionary economic strategic direction.

In contrast to the UAW which provides few intermediate structures, a democratically elected Canadian Council is a fundamental internal mechanism which endows a voice and vote to elected rank-and-file delegates. This body both debates and decides the direction of the national leadership, and played a pivotal role during the UAW-CAW split.

More recently, rank-and-file members responded to lean production measures in October, 1996 with a GM strike and subsequent plant occupation. Local 222 still appears to be a fertile site of oppositional working-class struggle. As Greg, a plant operator told us:

I think people are gettin’ tired of being threatened. I mean GM’s mentality is, "we keep threatening them enough, you take a little bit here an’ a little bit there, then they’ll give a lot more here." Well, people are fed up with it. I mean i t’s great to say "oh ... I got a job." But ... what cost are you gonna give for your job?

Local 222 members are represented by numerous elected union representatives: full-time shop floor representatives (committeepersons, district committeepersons and plant chairpersons) whose task it is to police the negotiated union-company contractual agreements.

These shop floor representatives are assisted by a team of service representatives who assist workers in navigating the various negotiated benefits ( including sickness and accident insurance, life insurance, a dental plan, legal assistance benefits, an extensive prescription drug plan, a short work week benefit which guarantees a full forty hours worth of wages under conditions of a shortage of work, eyeglass, prosthetics and hearing aid benefit, Supplemental Unemployment Insurance Benefits (SUB), vacation pay, one Scheduled Paid Allowance (SPA) week per employee, per year and one of the most envied private-sector pension plans in Canada ).

In a traditional democratic trade-union practice, these groups and the local administrative body (the executive board) are elected from the shop floor by the entire membership body.


Our interviews took place shortly after a massive January 1995 lineup of 26,000 GM applicants in Pickering, Ontario (twenty minutes west of Oshawa). Applicants responded to GM advertisements in what were previously unimaginable numbers, during two of the coldest January days in a decade. Desperate to ‘share the wealth’ enjoyed by current GM employees, this event was noted in some way by almost every respondent interviewed. Harry, an assembler, summarized his own in-plant experience and the almost daily use of the "Pickering army of the unemployed" threat by shop floor management to intimidate workers who fall out of line:

I mean in our times right now ..with General Motors, you say something [they] say "Hey, you don’t like it there’s 30,000 people were lined up and freeze their butt to get in here." "You can’t do it, somebody else can do it."

In light of what they viewed as a deliberate, manipulative and inflammatory act, respondents keenly sensed their dispensability and feelings of job insecurity. This took place during a tense leadup to what was viewed as an inevitable strike against GM in the Fall of 1996. The themes of anger, insecurity and a belief that GM was not dealing fairly with workers, were perhaps the most persistent during these interviews. At the same time, workers also have contradictory feelings of their power, particularly during pivotal, collective events such as strikes and sitdowns. The atmosphere of unease, reinforced by the memory of thousands of eager applicants ready to assume GM jobs, often made for a resentful and angry group of respondents. Tim, a body shop operator, was agitated enough to make the claim that General Motors planned to eliminate the CAW from their Canadian plants. He cited a cluster of North American auto plant closings and the enormous two-day lineup as a signal of certain conspiracy:

..[T]here’s so many things that have gone wrong lately that I have to question why, and I still ... haven’t found a reason for it. Twenty-five thousand applications were taken in Pickering, General Motors ... ahead of time which plants are going to be idled or closed, and so ... and therefore should be well aware that there would be a massive pool to draw employment from, and yet took twenty-five thousand [sic] applications in Pickering. I have to question why.

In addition to the ‘Pickering lineup’, GM unintentionally fed workers’ anger when the corporation distributed (black) coffee mugs to all of their unionized, hourly assembly workers in celebration of GM’s announced record annual profit of $6.9 billion (US). The mugs, imprinted with the inscription "On track...In the Black," (a reference to GM’s newfound fiscal solvency) were in celebration of: "General Motors of Canada Ltd. [which] broke the record for annual profit by a Canadian corporation with a $1.391-billion tally that helped the parent company set a record high of its own" (Keenan, 1996, p. B1). GM Canada’s contribution to its parent corporation’s coffers was well out of proportion to the size of its market or workforce. The in-plant reaction was furious and the ‘gift’ only added fuel to the fire. Unfortunately the intended effect was lost on Oshawa’s workforce who calculated the ‘true’ cost of the now-famous coffee mug. As Harry put it:

Everybody say[s] "Oh, that’s a 25,000 dollar cup!" If you figure it out, that’s what it is. Well, you take the 6.2 billion and you split it into the people who get the cup, that’s how much it is...They want [to] insult me? Go ahead. Insult me. But don’t insult my intelligence. ... The reaction was..everybody was pissed. ... Everybody ... smashed them [mugs] ... just outside of the parking lot.

These sentiments contributed to the extremely strong support from Local 222 members during the 21-day Fall 1996 strike where issues of job outsourcing and mandatory overtime were the principal concerns. The feeling of being "ripped off" probably fostered the GM plant occupation which took place in direct reaction to GM’s threat to remove crucial parts dies from the plant.

As soon as word of the plant occupation spread, Local 222 members from across Oshawa flocked to the North plant gates. During the course of the day, many striking workers jumped over the plant gate to join their mates inside – an act which may baffle outsiders, this action remains symbolic of a unified common culture and shared economic understanding.

In this case, workers won their demands and returned home that evening. The strike was considered a significant union victory and the North Plant takeover was the pivotal turning point. The North Plant occupation provides an illustration that there is a world of difference between the comfortable, established society outside and this working-class community with shared, deeply-held values which require that, on occasion, its members step outside of society’s comfort zone.

As my interviews generally suggest, Local 222 is one of the most concentrated and well-organized working-class communities in the country. At this particular union local, and more generally within the CAW, there is probably more extensive engagement of political education than in most other Canadian union.

Alienation on the Line

According to Wayne Lewchuk’s 1996 study, the majority of workers at all auto assembly sites under examination reported that they could not alter the pace of work, nor could they talk to fellow workers outside of scheduled breaks. Additionally workers even had a difficult time finding a temporary replacement worker (a ‘relief man’) which would allow a trip to the washroom. The study found that autoworkers had to work at top speed only to keep up with the pace of the assembly line — building up a surplus supply of parts was no longer the practice. Therefore, it is no surprise, as seen in Lewchuk’s study, that General Motors workers at all Canadian sites reported low autonomy and control at significant levels.

Given the mix of job insecurity, the lack of on-the-job control which is reportedly at levels 30 percent higher than those found at other Canadian auto assembly plants and the diminutive sense of accomplishment achieved through their work, who can blame General Motors workers for voicing feelings of resentment such as this:

My attitude with GM is I go and I do my job that they give me every day, to the best of my ability and I get my paycheque and I come home.

Assembly line workers battle managers and supervisors in a daily attempt to rebalance an unequal power relationship. At times workers simply rebel out of a feeling of sheer boredom, a response to the repetition (and lunacy) of the assembly line. Life as an auto assembler verges on madness for many. Milkman (1997, p. 43) observes in her study of a GM factory in California: "the metaphor of imprisonment was central to the self-conception of most GM workers ... because they hated their jobs so intensely" In this alienating atmosphere, an escape is needed but no other line options are more appealing for most assembly workers. As Greg says in candid response to whether there was another job at GM he might prefer: "Yeah, retirement, I got x years, y months and z days remaining."

The contrast in the skilled trades workers’ accounts of their jobs is quite stark. Gerhard is a fully certified millwright who works in maintenance through the plant. He describes his work with some relish:

Whenever something’s goin' on Central Maintenance has to go. So it's quite interesting....I love work, I never hardly make a break (laughs) I know guys probably think I ..don't play with a full deck eh?...I do enjoy it, right. You see everything comes together nicely.

His views on assembly work are even more harsh than those of assemblers themselves:

On the line I would not feel the same. To be on the line day after day after day. I think this is punishment (laughs).... I think it must be awful. Be nobody, be like an ant who.. takes a leaf, cuts the leaf off and then carries it down in a hole. It 's really..not a little bit of independence, not a little bit..who's thanking them? ... I mean you're every day eight hours or longer in-- and gettin' go go go go go go.... Somebody pushes the button like and the line stops. It doesn't take ten seconds that the foreman is there, "what's going on?" "T-th-aoo!" that is, that must be a tough job. That must be a tough job.

These comments serve to underline the gulf between trades and production work in the plant and the strong desires of production workers for more diversity and control over their labour process.

As Barney says of his operator job:

I never dreamed that your body could get wore down the way it does from doing repetitive work, being such a big place that people always had to go to the same job every day and wear out the same joints until the joints were no good any more. When it's such a big place with so many jobs that you have to go to the same one every day, year in, year out...wearing out your body, bending, turning , twisting or whatever the job is, the same way year in year out, it's just too hard on your body and doesn't make sense for you or the company, cost-wise, physically-wise for you, just doesn't make sense to me at all.

But some aspects of the effects of lean production are clearly shared by all 222 assembly and trades workers, as management tries to implement more directive control of all areas of the labour process in the plant. Tim expresses a common perception of current labour-management relations when he says:

The approach in the last 3 years has been drastically changed. It seems that the shop-floor management, by and large, have taken a very dictatorial approach and it seems that their hands are tied and that decisions are made ahead of anything discussed. There is no room for the union reps to have a discussion with management, to resolve problems...When I started over ten years ago, the ability of a supervisor to resolve issues that pertained to the shop floor were his individual choice and now it doesn't seem to be that way. More direction is coming from above on what can and cannot be done and by and large, most of it is unresolvable as far as the first level of management is concerned. ...It may not be really new, but it's drastically more evident that they're either unwilling or unable to resolve issues at the first step which is between a worker and a supervisor directly or within the first level of union representation in the grievance procedure. Today because of the way management works, is because you didn't give them a weeks' notice, they seem very unable or unwilling to accommodate requests like, "my daughter's in the hospital, could you put me in for 8 hours pay and take it out of my Paid Absence Allowance bank?" Today's response would be "no, you're not getting that." A few years ago, the supervisor on the floor'd say "no problem, I understand".


The UAW was an early leader in providing labour education programs in Canada (see Yates 1993; Friesen, 1994; Spencer, 1994). But since the inception of the CAW in 1985, these programs have been both deepened and widened substantially. In conjunction with the CAW national bargaining committee as well as through local initiatives, Local 222 has negotiated one of the most extensive union-based worker education programs in Canada. The array of programs is illustrated in Table 1 (Table 1 about here). This includes a large array of CAW national programs of one or two weeks duration, local weekend seminar courses on a wide array of workers’ rights issues, and many joint programs supported by both GM and 222 The most distinctive of these programs is probably EDGE (Education, Development, GM-CAW, Employability). This joint management-labour program allows Oshawa workers the opportunity to take virtually any course at area community colleges, school boards and universities, with tuition and books paid for by GM. Participation in this program grew rapidly after its inception in 1993 (Burn, 1997).

While the EDGE program permits a wide array of subject choices at local educational institutions, the CAW's internal education programs (CAW Canada web page, 1997) generally follow one of two paths. First, local union education committees design and deliver 'tool-based' weekend or evening courses, covering committee person (or steward) training, grievance procedures, collective bargaining, workers' compensation and the like. Second, there are programs which seek to develop a social union cadre, including: Workplace Change and Competitiveness, Unions and Politics, Human Rights, Empowering Workers of Colour, Womens' Activism, and the Paid Educational Leave (PEL) program.

The CAW's PEL program is a four-week, adult education course first negotiated in 1977 by the UAW's Canadian Region. PEL is a residential program at the CAW's Family Education Centre, located in Port Elgin, Ontario. The PEL curriculum includes subject areas such as labour history, sociology, political science and economy as well as public speaking, communications and media literacy (Gindin, 1995). PEL's goal is to build leadership within the ranks and to cultivate activists with a commitment both to the union and to social transformation. The CAW Family Education program also brings social union principles to the member's family and community (Roth, 1997).

Other respondents involved in union activities have ample opportunity to participate in relevant courses at the local union hall. Several times a year the Local 222 education committee, in conjunction with the CAW National Headquarters, organizes a one-day seminar for any interested Local 222 members on a variety of subjects; some are tool-courses, while others attempt to analyze the current state of labour. Tim describes his experience of these courses:

..these one-day seminars, stuff at the [union] hall for committee people, for the time study was two days ... the union came down and gave us 16 hours of training on what was happening with the government changes, labour legislation and that was where I got a lot of training or more knowledge.

Our respondents also mentioned a variety of broader social interests, including greater political awareness.Anti-racist education and critiques of the excesses of capitalism are prime features of PEL and other CAW programs (Sugiman, 1994). Malcom, a white male worker in this predominantly white and male workforce, expressed his PEL experience this way: " I came back into the plant with an immense socialist vigour especially against racism."

For production workers there is scant chance of advancement on the line and therefore little immediate advantage in acquiring advanced technical job-related knowledge through these courses. But, among one's peers within the workplace or union, the multiple opportunities to deepen and display one's knowledge through this vast array of union-based courses suggest that that 222, if not the Autoplex itself, is a 'learning community'. Unionized workers here find much more autonomy within their union structure and greater opportunity to exercise their intellectual muscles, in contrast to their highly regimented assembly line jobs.



Even assembly line workers facing detail tasks formally designed by engineers must pace themselves, consider alternative routes to completing tasks and frequently deal with deficiencies in the design of parts or engineering.

The onset of lean production with intensification of technical tasks and a more authoritarian management approach has undoubtably diminished line workers’ discretionary control.

GM’s cost-saving strategy of downsizing through not replacing full-time retiring 222 members and increasingly relying on a contingent army of temporary part-time workers without effective bargaining rights is also closely related to company efforts to reduce the general education provisions established under the Fordist regime.

The CAW/GM plant is easily the richest of all work sites in this study in terms of the provision of union-based education programs. Oshawa’s autoworkers have choices well beyond those of their counterparts at most unionized workplaces across Canada. The CAW’s education programs provide a strong foundation for progressive struggle for change

Courses remain readily available even in those areas apparently unrelated to work activities and local leaders have fought to retain these provisions. The combination of the PEL and EDGE programs, as well as the local’s weekend and evening labour courses, continue to provide an exceptional platform for collective worker education and learning.

Whether these rich organized opportunities for collective education and worker solidarity will continue to sustain comparable informal learning opportunities is the unanswered question.. Our research cannot provide any definitive answer. But Local 222 workers clearly have the financial ability, the time and spaces and the easy availability of relevant learning materials to pursue an abundant informal labour-oriented learning agenda, if they so wish.

This local has one of the most fully developed, worker-controlled educational programs in existence.

Local 222's strong union culture has helped workers to appropriate notions of education that included them, in spite of often difficult early schooling experiences.

This highly-evolved workers’ learning culture, dominated by a cohort of white, middle-aged males, remains one of the largest, most concentrated and well-organized working class communities in Canada.

While the opportunities for engaging in critical collective informal learning for progressive workplace and social change should not be idealized, they evidently remain very substantial. But many PEL-trained activists and others at 222 deeply understand, engaged dialogue with other rank-and-file workers remains imperative to sustain any real democratic cultural and political change through this community. As Pete, the young assembly line worker profiled at the outset of this chapter, puts it:

You've got to understand. If there's a [social union] agenda that you want to put across to people and you want to build a movement, you have to have some knowledge on what the issues are. You have to be able to explain them on the shop floor if you want the support because as a union we're only going to move forward or push an agenda if we have the support of the people....We're going to have to pave the road before they'll drive down it. It's a dirt road and they're not ready to drive down some of these roads yet, but they will, or we're going to lose. We're at a bit of a crossroads. We have to change. We can't stay the same, but we can't forget our past and we can't give up the gains we've made. So this means new ways of fighting for things and sometimes the new ways of fighting things are going back and doing the old way. For example, young guys who've never been on strike have to learn how to picket and how prior strikes contributed to increased workers' and civil rights.

As the Fall 1996 strike and plant occupation and a sit-in at GM Canada national headquarters in August 1998 demonstrate, Local 222 represents a fertile site for critical social learning and collective action to assert workers’ rights.






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CAW Canada Education Department. 1995. Paid Education Leave Program [training manual in 4 volumes], Vols.I-IV. Willowdale: CAW Canada.

CAW Canada Web page. 1996a. "How Workers Learn." CAW Statement of Principles: Education. 15 November, 1996. http://www.caw.ca/caw/cawedu.html.

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Kempston Darkes, Maureen. 1995. "Remarks to Laurentian University." Sudbury, Nov. 7, 1995.

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Traill, Bob. 1996. Video. CAW 1996 Local 222 strike against General Motors as seen through the eyes of Bob Traill. Oshawa: amateur video. Oshawa: Copies available from Bob Traill 905-723-4858.

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