From the archives: Tempers flared during wartime transit strike

From the archives: Tempers flared during wartime transit strike
From the archives: Tempers flared during wartime transit strike

Craig St. tramway terminus at what is now St. Antoine and St. Urbain Sts., circa 1932. Société de transport de Montréal

This story was first published on April 1, 2002, in the Montreal Gazette.


Far-reaching disruptions and hobbling of industrial, commercial and general community life resulted yesterday from the complete suspension of street car and bus services throughout the Montreal area. Up to a late hour last night, there were no signs of any abatement of the tie-up today. … Main through-streets were black with people walking to work well into the morning.

Gazette, Tuesday, March 30, 1943


The authorities, right up to the federal cabinet in Ottawa, were alarmed. A long-brewing strike had paralyzed Montreal Tramways, the company that ran the city’s transit system. Montreal was Canada’s industrial powerhouse, and if men and women could not get to work, the war effort would be seriously compromised. Major employers like Canadian Car and Foundry, Noorduyn Aviation, Northern Electric, Montreal Locomotive Works and Canadian Marconi, now converted to producing war material, were every bit a part of Franklin Roosevelt’s “great arsenal of democracy,” no less than their counterparts in the United States.

Yet workers in Montreal were restive, squeezed by a rising cost of living and conscious of the better pay that men and women got in neighbouring Ontario. In 1942 and 1943, there would be strikes at the Vickers shipyard, at Canadian Pacific’s Angus shops and at the huge Canadair aircraft plant. Distillery workers, tobacco workers, shoe-factory workers, even bank tellers would walk; so would Montreal’s police, firefighters and blue-collar workers.

The March transit strike lasted scarcely 48 hours and hinged on what seems in retrospect a trifle: which union should be exclusive bargaining agent for the employees. Membership in the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees had been growing, but the company refused to budge from a 1940 understanding with an affiliate of the American Federation of Labour.

Doubtless because the strike didn’t last long, tempers didn’t especially fray. Violence on the picket lines was minor, and injuries were few. Even the inevitable confrontations between non-striking workers who wanted to roll out the buses and trams and CBRE workers who didn’t want to let them often had an air of comedy. Consider our report of an incident on St. Denis St. when a “gang of wrestlers” tried to get in among strikers blocking the tram they were in.

“We are not a gang of wrestlers,” interrupted a well-known figure in local small-time wrestling circles.

“What are you?” asked the police officer.

“I am, but they are not. They are just my gang. Why hurt wrestling that way?”

“Oh, shut up, before you get thrown into that crowd,” one of the policemen muttered before allowing the “little, lump-eared wrestler” to go.

Good humour could also be seen among the company’s more regular passengers. Many were able to take private buses and trucks shuttling between the war factories and central drop-off points. Others tried cycling: “Homeward-bound on Dorchester west, a well-dressed gentleman of about 50 – complete with Homburg and cane – pedalled sedately on a brand-new bicycle, so new, in fact, that the sales tag was still attached to the handlebars across which the executive-looking gentleman had carefully placed his cane.” Even more adventurously, a janitor at Pepsi-Cola hitched three dogs to a makeshift buggy and drove in 12 miles from Montreal North to work.

Thousands, however, either had to walk or forget about work completely. There were far fewer private cars in those days, and in any event, strict fuel rationing was in effect. But those cars in evidence generally stopped for hitchhikers – especially, The Gazette noted, if they were of the right sex: “Women workers got a priority on lifts from autoists, most observers reported. Girls who started walking from Outremont saw a steady stream of men wending their way down Park Ave., walking in the middle of the road on the car tracks. Girls who kept to the sidewalk got rides by motor cars.”

Not everyone was so sanguine. The Gazette’s editorial page wanted the War Measures Act imposed, and one J.D. Peters wrote a letter to the editor calling on Ottawa to show some gumption by calling on “a few veterans … with fixed bayonets and live ammunition” to force the transit workers back to their jobs.

Ottawa was certainly concerned but chose a less volatile solution, waiting just a day before flying in the noted labour lawyer H. Carl Goldenberg to conciliate. And surely indicating the fundamentally trivial nature of the dispute, Goldenberg had a deal overnight. Even though the strike was illegal, he “had to face the facts as they were. … In a democracy, the will of the majority must prevail.” The CBRE had most of the company’s workers and so would be declared the victor.

The Gazette was furious. Goldenberg’s statement was “one of the most casuistic … ever put out by a person acting in an official capacity.” The 1940 agreement had been pushed aside by the dire urgency of the war situation, weak governmental and civil authority and the “Brown Shirt tactics” of the CBRE. “If the settlement of this strike is evidence of a new kind of Democracy,” we thundered, “then Canada wants none of it.”

That concern, however intemperate, had substance. Goldenberg’s solution was aimed simply at restoring service quickly; issues like wage hikes were put off to another day. Sure enough, the March transit strike was not the only one that troubled year, and after a later walkout lasting 11 days, it was not a lightning visit from Ottawa that was finally needed but emergency legislation by Parliament.

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