By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
When the last vehicle rolled off the production line at Oshawa’s General Motors assembly plant on Dec. 18, 2019, it brought an end to a century of auto manufacturing in the city.
But the ripple effect of the plant’s closure wasn’t felt only by the employees but by many others as well.
As previously reported by The Oshawa Express, Unifor Local 222 president Colin James admitted there is uncertainty for the union itself, which has lost the majority of its members.
In the wake of this, a longstanding and highly active charitable organization folded in December.
CAW Family Auxiliary #27 was established more than 80 years ago and boasted a membership of many wives and partners of dedicated General Motors workers.
Originally known as UAW Women’s Auxiliary #27, it was chartered on July 30, 1937, during the GM employee strike where the members could be found supporting their men on the picket lines.
It was the first UAW Auxiliary in Canada, and up until its demise, it remained the largest in North America.
When they weren’t on the frontline, they were making sandwiches and providing coffee for workers as they fought their way to become unionized.
According to information provided by final president Jackie Finn, the original objective of the auxiliary was to educate the women of the automobile industry, workers and their wives in the principle and ideas of trade unionism.
The first president of the organization was Gladys Harmer, although, at the time, women were recognized by their husband’s names so she would have been known as Mrs. William Harmer.
Other charter members include Hilda McGregor, Vera Ann Pearn, Emma Parish, Jean Hurst, Anne Jones, Lillian Weeks, Sabrina Swallow, Violet Davey, and Sarah Burt.
In 1942, during the midst of the Second World War, a soldiers ‘committee was struck. The auxiliary sent cigarettes every few months to Local 222 members serving in the armed forces, and also sent Christmas parcels overseas.
The next year, the auxiliary began an affiliation with the Oshawa District Labour Council.
Member Alice Reardon was heavily involved with the labour group, also serving as a member on city council.
As the auxiliary’s mandate was to support trade unions, their support wasn’t localized just to General Motors.
Over the years, they stood in solidarity with Oshawa employees at Robson Leather Company, the Malleable Iron Company, Oshawa Times, and Miracle Food Mart.
Their efforts extended to other provinces including lumber workers in B.C., miners in Nova Scotia, and steel and mine workers in Sudbury and Atlantic Packaging.
Members were also heavily involved in municipal, provincial and federal elections.
In a Canada-wide “roll back price” campaign, members participated and joined other women from across the nation in a march on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to present signatures on a petition protesting the lifting of rent and price controls, looking for an end to rationing of soaps and fats, and opposing the use of the police in the Seaman’s strike.
Here are just a few of the other causes the Ladies Auxiliary supported over the years
– removing the means test from Old Age Pension qualifications
– supporting rent controls in the City of Oshawa
– Protesting the Harmonized Sales Tax in Ontario
– Opposing the U.S. government creating nuclear bomb sites on Canadian soil
– Objecting to the North American Free Trade Agreement
– Requesting Prime Minister Jean Chretien and the Liberal government to ban goods made through child labour
– Asking former Oshawa Mayor Nancy Diamond and council to reconsider laying off unionized parking meter readers to contract the work out to a non-unionized company.
Auxiliary members’ work did not extend just to labour-related measures, assisting Local 222 with teenage dances held at 44 Bond St. E. and canvassing at the Oshawa Centre for the Greater Oshawa Community Chest.
Another enduring community initiative of the auxiliary was a five-pin bowling league with lasted 55 years and saw members participating in the inter-area bowling tournaments held across the province.
Over its more than eight decades in the City of Oshawa, the auxiliary has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars back into the community through its catering services.
“Over the past few decades, we’d given an average of $30,000 to $35,000 a year through the community,” Finn noted.
One of the major charitable projects the auxiliary was involved with was a challenge to service organizations in Durham Region to raise money for a kidney dialysis machine at the Oshawa General Hospital, now known as Lakeridge Health Oshawa.
In the end, nearly $24,000 was raised through the campaign.
Over the years, the auxiliary has held its meetings at several homes.
They originally met at Ethel’s Hall, before meeting at the original Local 222 Union Hall at 17 1/2 Simcoe Street North above the local A&P store.
Eventually, the women moved to the new union hall at 44 Bond St. E. in 1951. They remained at that location for 39 years until 1990 when they again moved to the current union hall located on Phillip Murray Avenue.
Speaking to The Oshawa Express at the Local 222 hall shortly after their last catering event, Finn and Verna Parker said the demise of General Motors in Oshawa was very troubling.
“It really gets you. It’s heart-wrenching. So many people out of work are young people who just came in the past few years,” Finn said.
At the same time, with the future of Local 222 up in the air, Finn says the auxiliary’s end was set in stone.
“We just thought the writing is on the wall. Nothing much [would be going on], so we thought we’d be having meetings with just a handful of members coming out,” she said.
When it folded, about 50 members were remaining, although less than half were active.
With that said, Finn proudly noted they had three members, Anne Black, Betty Rutherford, and Viola Pilkey, who all joined in the 1940s.
At its peak, she estimates there were about 150 members.
Recalling all the hard work of the members in the kitchen at the union hall, Finn notes how every summer they’d prepare thousands of meals for the annual retiree luncheon at Lakeview Park.
“That was one of the big activities every year. We worked on that for three days, because we made everything from scratch,” Finn explained.
The meals were then transported down to the park in a refrigerated truck where they were then enjoyed by the retirees.
Finn and Parker offered their gratitude to everyone in the city who supported the auxiliary over the decades.
“We very much appreciate them choosing our hall to have their social functions, as subsequently, that has allowed us to be so generous to the community,” Finn said.
And last not but not least, Finn said they couldn’t have lasted so long without the 100 per cent support of Local 222, the union that spurred the auxiliary’s creation.