In March 1978, women workers at Fleck Manufacturing walked off the job — and into history.
Fleck was a small auto-wiring plant located outside London, Ontario, that was the scene of bitter, notorious strike involving 80 low-paid women, which embarrassed the Ontario government into making the 33-year-old Rand formula — or union security — mandatory.
The strike also challenged the labour movement to address women workers’ needs. And it created as strong a bond between organized labour and the women’s movement as anywhere in the world.
Fleck workers endured horrific conditions: rats, injuries from dangerous machinery so frequent a local doctor called it “a butcher shop”, so cold in winter that women wore snowmobile suits, so hot in summer, they would collapse from the heat. Workers frequently stood for entire shifts with their feet in inches of water. Sexual harassment from male supervisors was rampant. They were paid $9.50 in 2016 dollars ($11.25 an hour is today’s Ontario’s minimum wage), with no benefits.
Lorna Moses, an organizer with the-then United Auto Workers Union (now Unifor), helped a group of Fleck workers sign up 82 per cent of their co-workers within one week. Of the 146 workers, five were men.
“Management ripped down my notice about an organizing meeting,” recalled Sheila Charlton, a leader in the organizing drive, “so I wrote the notice on my tee shirt with a black marker and wore it to work. Everyone was running over to see it.”
The Ontario Labour Relations Board certified the new local — UAW Local 1620 – granting it the right to bargain for Fleck workers. The company refused all union demands, including sexual harassment protection and, in a move that had all but disappeared from the province’s labour scene, the Rand formula.
This hard-won Ontario innovation, the Rand formula, helped secure a union’s survival by making mandatory the payment of dues from all workers covered by a collective agreement. Workers did not have to belong to a union, but since they enjoyed the benefits and protection bargained by the union, they had to contribute to it. Most workers, in fact, joined their unions. But a new union had to bargain the Rand: it was not required by law. For the first time in many years, an employer was refusing to allow the Rand formula to be included in a first contract.
Without the Rand formula, Local 1620 would not survive. Eighty Fleck women were prepared to defy their employer to assure their new union’s survival, and went out on strike March 7, 1978.
The company hired school buses to drive strikebreakers — “scabs” — across the picket line, always a source of escalating tensions on any picket line. Police reaction was extreme, including arresting the UAW’s mild-mannered representative Al Seymour, throwing him in jail, and placing a peace bond on his head.
“Everyone one of was scared to death,” said striker Mary Lou Richard to reporters. “My legs were shaking. And when they brought the riot police against our picket line …hundreds of cops, helicopters,..they had these shiny black helmets and big riot sticks. It was like the movies.”
Over the course of the next few days, more than 450 OPP officers arrived to interfere with picketing, including the black-clad riot squad of 30. There was speculation that the company’s close connection with Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Government accounted for the police over-reaction.
Not surprisingly, the strike was receiving extensive media coverage, even at the national level.
The UAW fought back hard, sending in thousands of picket line reinforcements, who were volunteers drawn from UAW plants across the province.
The UAW also decided to fight the strike as a women’s fight. Organized by women, led by women, fighting the low-wages and humiliating working conditions endured by so many women, the new local became a standard bearer for women’s rights within labour, first inside the UAW itself, and then, all of labour. “Fleck is everyone’s fight” was the slogan on the union’s button.
Ontario’s labour feminist group, Organized Working Women, founded in 1976, responded swiftly, organizing a woman’s picket for May of 1978 that witnessed 300 Toronto women clambering aboard school buses at 3:30 in the morning to make their way to the Fleck picket line. They succeeded in shutting the plant down. Women actors from Theatre Passe Muraille spent several days with the Fleck strikes and then performed the resulting play to standing room only audiences in Toronto. International Women’s Day organizers asked Fleck women to lead the International Women’s Day Parade, the beginning of a bond between the IWD, labour, and union women, ensuring the intersectionality of class and gender in the women’s movement in Ontario.
After months of picket line violence, after the union laid charges of unfair labour practice against the company at the Ontario Labour Relations Board, and after the outspoken criticism of the company’s stance by key Ontario Cabinet Ministers, the company finally relented in August 1978, agreeing to the Rand formula and wage increases.
The Fleck women’s victory had repercussions far beyond their own workplace. Although the 90-per-cent-male UAW was considered a progressive union, unlike some public sector unions it had never bargained so-called women’s issues. But after Fleck, the union’s bargaining platform contained such demands as maternity leave, family responsibility leave, sexual harassment protection, childcare support, and affirmative action. All these demands and more were eventually achieved.
Other private sector unions were also encouraged to join the struggle, as the incredible courage, grit, and sass of the Fleck women inspired ferocious fight backs by other women when employers at Irwin Toy, Radio Shack and Blue Cross refused to bargain the Rand formula. The picket line violence was producing labour turmoil, and the Ontario government finally bowed to public opinion and made the Rand formula a legal requirement in union contracts.
The women at Fleck had changed the labor movement, the women’s movement, and Ontario labour law. Would all this have happened if the strikers had not been women Sheila Charlton was asked by reporters. “No way,” she replied. “The men would never have had the guts to do what we’ve done.”
In 1978 Wendy was the Communications Director for the United Auto Workers in Canada, and a member of the Ontario Federation of Labour Women’s Committee and Organized Working Women
*Quotations are from the Toronto Star article “Fleck Women Put Fire Back Into Feminism,” by Michele Landsberg. Original publication date was May 16,1978.