by George Mathewson for the Sarnia Observer

(2003) Holmes Foundry is an abandoned shell today, its history buried under weeds and broken glass. But in 1937, the engine-block factory was the scene of a wildcat strike that sparked a nasty race riot and helped plant the seeds of industrial unionism in Canada.

For years, most of the foundry’s grunt work had been done by poor immigrants, mainly Poles and Italians, who lived nearby in a cluster of shacks known as Berkeley Row. But as the Depression deepened and jobs dried up, the immigrants were squeezed out by native-born men who were suddenly willing to tolerate the heat and dust. Tension between the two groups was already running high when the immigrants handed the company a list of demands that included an eight-hour shift, pay of $5 a day, showers and toilets, and recognition of their union committee.

The boss refused. The workers laid down their tools. By evening, production had stopped and the second sit-down strike in Canadian history was underway. Two days later, 300 “Canadian-born” men armed with blackjacks and bullwhips gathered outside the plant demanding the strikers give up so they could go to work.

Naturally, the Canadian Observer was there. “In a pitched battle in which crowbars, sticks and fists were used without discrimination, and in which 30 or more men engaged in a fierce struggle on the roof of the factory, the strike breakers emerged victorious from a two-hour struggle watched with tense excitement by several thousand citizens,” noted the reporter who slipped into a stock room to better see the action.

The strike breakers later swarmed Berkeley Row, rousting strikers and looting homes. When it was over, 50 people were injured including several who needed hospitalization. Curiously, Sarnia Police stood by, claiming the plant was in Point Edward and not their responsibility. Yet when the fighting was over they moved in quickly and arrested the immigrants for petty trespassing. Meanwhile, Point Edward’s police chief was beaten with sticks by a group of women.

The strike was a failure and the fledgling union crushed. Its members lost their jobs and were denied welfare. At the trial, the judge called the strikers “stupid” and warned them to live by “our” laws. But a growing resistance to deplorable working conditions couldn’t be swept under the rug. A successful strike followed a month later in General Motors in Oshawa, Ont. And the modern industrial labour movement was born.

Canadian Forum magazine predicted: “The time will come when Sarnia and Ontario and all Canada will remember what happened at Sarnia on March 3, 1937 and be ashamed.”