East York Workers’ Association

The East York Workers’ Association (EYWA) was an unemployed workers’ movement that was active during the Great Depression in the township of East York, Ontario.

East York (a working-class suburb of Toronto) felt the effects of the depression critically. This was largely because the community was made up of young, working-class families who were struggling even before the Depression began. There were high levels of unemployment, relief costs (government subsidies) were rising, and tax arrears (taxes owed to the government but not paid) were significant. Therefore, the impact of the Great Depression was devastating to much of the population of East York. For example, in February 1935, 45% of residents were receiving support from the government. The town council pursued various strategies to cut costs, including cutting township employee salaries by 10%, and sending single men to construction work camps outside of the township.

In March of 1931, 200 residents of the township met to discuss the unemployment program in East York. A few months later, in June of that year, the East York Workers’ Association was officially established. It is unclear whether this was the result of a grassroots movement, or through the involvement of local socialist organizations, but it was likely a combination of the two that led to the development of the organization. By 1934, the group had 1600 members, who met regularly for discussion groups, to listen to speakers, and to debate current affairs. The EYWA also hosted study groups, as well as social activities for members of the community.

The primary goal of the EYWA was to receive more money from the township’s council. At the time, all relief payments came through vouchers, and the EYWA took issue with this system for several reasons. They felt that allowances for particular services were inadequate, that vouchers gave individuals less autonomy over their own spending, and that many business owners took advantage of this system by arbitrarily determining the value of vouchers. The group organized a sit-in at the council offices and, as a result, the council agreed to abolish the voucher payments in favour of a cash-based relief program.

Although they were successful in achieving this goal, the workers of East York continued to struggle for basic necessities. When the council proposed cutting workers’ benefits to save money, the EYWA called a strike on November 5, 1935. When the strike began, it had wide support, with approximately 2700 families involved. The council attempted to put pressure on workers by reinstating the voucher program. However, in response, the workers pulled their children out of schools across the township. This affected the provincial education grants that the township received, and so the council agreed, once again, to a cash relief program. However, the cash relief program was ultimately short-lived. After a meeting at Queen’s Park [the Ontario legislature] on November 25, the council learned that the province was refusing to cash cheques from the township of East York, and that the township would have to absorb the costs of benefits provided by the province. In an attempt to save funds, the council once again abolished the cash relief program, this time successfully.

The EYWA suffered further defeats after this when, after almost a month of striking, it was announced that all strikers would be cut off from relief if they did not return to work. This undermined the effect of the strike significantly. The council also played on tensions within the EYWA by blaming the strike on “communist agitators”. The EYWA, a primarily socialist organization that was at this time affiliated with the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (a social-democratic political party and a rival to the Community Party), did not want to be seen as associated with the Communist Party. On December 18, after 6 weeks, the strikers voted to return to work.

Although the failure of the strike dealt a blow to the EYWA, they experienced a victory later in 1935, when Arthur Williams, the leader of the strike and founding member of the EYWA, was elected to the position of reeve on the town council. This lent not only credibility, but also political influence, to the organization. With Williams’ support, the EYWA developed several strategies for combatting the growing housing crisis in East York. The association prevented several pending evictions in East York, by arriving in large numbers at the scene of any evictions, and simply carrying furniture back into the houses of those being evicted after it had been removed. At council, Arthur Williams pursued a long-term solution by creating red tape to make it more difficult for evictions to be ordered. He passed a regulation that required all bailiffs had to be licensed to order evictions, and then refused to issue licenses to all of the bailiffs applying.

However, despite Williams’ attempts to support the EYWA on the council, he also undermined some of their efforts in his attempts to cut costs. For example, one of the way he tried to save money for the township was by targeting fraudulent claims for relief. His efforts to do so were aggressive, and the punishments handed out to offenders were seen as unnecessarily harsh. After several attempts to act more conservatively to trim the township’s spending, Williams began to face political opposition from his own supporters, and was defeated in the election the following year. This was another loss for the EYWA, but by the late 1930’s East York was beginning to emerge from the worst of the depression. The numbers of relief recipients were in decline, and the township began to restore the wages that had been cut for all township employees.

Although the EYWA was not active in local politics following the depression, the legacy of progressive politics in East York continued on the path laid out by the association. The CCF Club in East York continued to be called the “East York Workers’ CCF Club”. In 1943, Arthur Williams won a provincial seat for the district of Oshawa as a representative of the CCF. When Agnes Macphail took her seat as the first woman to sit in Canadian parliament, she did so for the township of East York.

References & Related Reading:

Schulz, Pat. The East York Workers’ Association: A Response to the Great Depression. 1975.

Palmer, Bryan D.; Heroux, Gaetan. Toronto's Poor: A Rebellious History. 2016.

Subject headings

Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)East York, OntarioEconomic CrisesEconomic DepressionThe PoorPoverty/FamiliesReliefSocial AssistanceSocial WelfareUnemployed MovementUnemploymentWorkers’ History