Playhouse Theatre

West side of Sherman Avenue North just north of Barton Street East

Feeding hungry strikers, 1946

Hear original participants of the ’46 strike, Bert McClure, Jake Isbister, Bill Scandlan, Mary Fiori and Louis Fiori recount their stories.

The Playhouse Theatre was an important meeting place for workers and activists. In the 1940s, within these walls, members of the United Steel Workers of America (now USW) Local 1005 launched a strike that would make or break industrial unionism in Canada.

A group of steelworkers met here on July 14, 1946, to debate whether to defy a government order not to go on strike against Stelco boss Hugh Hilton. They decided that they couldn’t hold out any longer. A “feeling of freedom” gripped the unionists as they spilled through the theatre’s front doors. On the street, they were greeted with the enthusiastic cheers of hundreds of Westinghouse and Firestone workers already embroiled in strikes of their own. With thousands of supporters in tow, the steelworkers pushed their way down Sherman Avenue North towards Stelco’s Wilcox Street gates. There they hastily assembled a picket line.

The “Battle of Stelco” became the key to the future for industrial unionism in Canada. Tire builders at Firestone and electrical workers at Westinghouse had successfully shut down their Hamilton plants. Workers in Canada’s two other basic steel plants, Dosco and Algoma, had also brought production to a halt. Stelco was the one remaining holdout.

Outside the plant, 2,000 unionists manned the picket lines. Inside, an equal number kept the wheels turning, proudly calling themselves the “Loyal Order of Scabs.” These workers received immediate 10-cent raises and triple time for their eight-hour workday. Weeks earlier, management had ordered the construction of a landing strip so that supplies could be flown in during a strike. They brought in huge supplies of food. Beds arrived by the railway car load. They were in for the long haul.

The strikers were aided by Mayor Sam Lawrence, who declared himself “a union man first and a chief magistrate second.” Two days into the strike, he led a parade of 10,000 strike supporters through the streets. He also used his influence as a member of the Hamilton Police Commission to block a call for extra police at the picket line.

Community support was key to this struggle. Strike-support committees went door to door collecting food and money to help strikers. Unions everywhere provided financial aid. An army of women worked diligently to feed strikers, preparing huge pots of spaghetti and an estimated 300,000 baloney sandwiches. Strikers could stop in at one of the many ethnic halls and churches around Barton Street East for a free cup of coffee or a bite to eat. Waitresses refused service to RCMP and OPP officers billeted in the city. To boost morale, nightly entertainment was offered on the picket line. World War II veterans walked the picket line and paraded in support of striking steelworkers.

This support paid off. At the end of September, Hugh Hilton agreed to meet with United Steelworker president Charles Millard. An agreement was reached “in five minutes.” On September 28, union members voted to accept the offer. By October 4, members of Local 1005 were back at work with higher wages, a dues check-off and a grievance system in place. Other city employers soon fell in line, many of them using the Stelco contract as a model for settlement. A new form of unionism — industrial unionism — had won the day. Today’s unions find their roots in the struggles of workers in Hamilton and across Canada in 1946.