Canadian Westinghouse

(1898) Corner of Sanford Avenue North and Myler Street

Workers at Westinghouse were hit hard by the Great Depression in the 1930s; work was scarce and so was money. Charles Olds, Fred Purser, Bert McClure and Floyd Reid remember life at Westinghouse.


At the northeast end of Woodlands Park loomed the huge former Westinghouse industrial complex. The company opened a smaller air-brake factory in 1898, then expanded enormously in the first years of the 20th century. The elegant seven-storey building at the southeast corner of Sanford Avenue North and Myler Street is all that remains of this once-sprawling complex. For generations, it housed the offices of Hamilton’s largest employer. The fate of thousands of workers was determined here.

The opening of the Westinghouse Company’s small air brake factory on this site marked the beginning of a new industrial era for Hamilton. Westinghouse became the first American branch plant to grow into a major Hamilton industry. It was also the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based company’s first manufacturing operation outside the United States. In this plant, approximately 80 workers produced about 9,000 sets of air brakes annually for Canada’s railway industry.

A vastly expanded plant opened on this site in 1905. By 1915, over 3,000 men and women produced electrical machinery here — motors, generators, transformers, turbines and more. This was a new kind of factory. It was larger, more mechanized and carefully designed to smooth the flow of production. It was also more closely controlled from management offices. “Efficiency” was the new watchword.

Westinghouse tried to draw its large workforce into one big happy corporate family. But not everyone liked the new ways. Some workers battled with bosses over management styles imported from U.S.-based Westinghouse plants. Many of these protests were spontaneous and confined to one part of the plant. In 1913, for example, meter-assembly workers marched off the job after management violated their work-distribution system. In another protest, punch department workers laid down their tools over the increased use of time clocks to monitor them.

Company president George Westinghouse declared in 1903 that he would never allow unions in his plants, but they began to form nonetheless. These craft unions were made up of highly skilled workers. First came the moulders, who were the city’s most determined unionists. Their union fought Westinghouse and other local manufacturers in 1913. After months on the picket line, they returned to work defeated. In 1916, in the midst of the wartime boom, the machinists at Westinghouse and other munitions plants hit the bricks, this time for a nine-hour day. Again they lost, although, in the end, many won the shorter day.

In 1918, company executives tried to divert unionism in the plant by creating the Westinghouse Veterans’ Association. Employees with 10 years of service were given a week’s vacation each year and a pension plan financed through payroll deductions. Many no doubt appreciated these gestures. For others they were not enough, although they dared not complain.

In 1937, Local 504 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) began an organizing drive from its base at the Catharine Street Labour Temple. It spread the message of industrial unionism at noon-hour meetings in Woodlands Park and through its newspaper, the Union Light. Many new members were signed up and prospects looked good. But the economy slumped again in the late 1930s, and workers became anxious.

Organizing slowed, but didn’t stop after the Great Depression. Westinghouse tried to channel the patriotic fervour of World War II into a new company union — the Canadian Westinghouse Employees Association. “This was phony from the word go,” declared 504’s first president Alf Ready, “They got all the suckholes in place.” The union’s big break came in 1942, when the toolmakers signed up. They were the most highly skilled workers in the plant. Others followed suit. In 1944, the union won recognition in a landslide. But it took a bitter strike in 1946 to nail down the gains made during the war.