Winnipeg General Strike

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The following article was researched and written by James Billard. More contributors.



The Winnipeg General Strike

What was the Winnipeg General Strike ?

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was an important event in the history of Canada. It was an event that garnered the attention of local and national politicians and the general public.


Significance of the Winnipeg General Strike

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was an important event in the history of Canada because it was a turning point. The strike was an illegal six week action fought by underprivileged Canadian Workers to have their right of collective bargaining recognized by the Canadian Government and by wealthy business owners. It was very threatening to the Canadian Establishment because it occurred at a time in history when similar displays of activism by the movement were leading to insurrections and revolutions. The fear of revolution generated by the strike caused the government to overreact and allow the RCMP and a force of “special constables” to brutalize demonstrators and occupy the streets until the strike was defeated.


Speaker at Victoria Park during the Winnipeg General Strike


Despite the terrible tactics the government used, it was important that the strike be defeated because obedience to the law was and still is an important part of the Canadian identity. Hindsight has shown that there was no popular support for a communist revolution at Winnipeg. At the time the government had a legitimate fear that one may have happened. This is because a revolution can take place even if it is unpopular. Nonetheless, the government’s use of excessive force was morally unjustifiable.

Background of the Winnipeg General Strike

In the years following the first World War there was much unrest in Canada. The wartime economy had caused the cost of living to increase but wages had been kept low. In addition, during the war Prime Minister Robert Borden’s government had enacted legislation that made unions illegal. Despite this union membership soared during the war. The years after the Russian revolution (1917) were heady times for underpaid and militant workers.

Although there were no significant groups in Canada who were committed to violent revolution, there were many labourers and union leaders in western Canada who wanted to peacefully revolutionize Canada by radically increasing the political power of the working class.


Main Street during the Winnipeg General Strike May 15 - June 25, 1919


The preferred method of increasing the political clout of the working class in western Canada was called the One Big Union (OBU). The idea was to organize all the workers in each province into one big union. This union would have tremendous bargaining power and could use this power to better the lot of working people. In March 1919, at Calgary, the Western Labour Conference was held. The delegates at this conference agreed that Ottawa was not doing enough for the worker in western Canada.

Inspired by the apparent victory for the working class in Russia, these leaders wished to demand that the government recognize the legal right of collective bargaining for the workers of Canada. They agreed in principle on using the ultimate bargaining tool available to labour; the general strike. In May, a union organization called the Winnipeg Trades and Council (WTLC) was trying to act as a bargaining agent for the striking metal workers of the city. The owners refused to recognize the WTLC. On May 15, 1919 the WTLC called for a general strike to shut down the city of Winnipeg. According to historian George Woodcock: "(The) strike was fought as much to establish the principle of collective bargaining as to gain better wages and working conditions." (Woodcock, 1988:330)

More than 30 000 union and non-union workers joined in the strike. (Newman, 2000: 135) It included city and government workers. Even the police were sympathetic to the strike, they remained on duty only at the request of the strike committee.

The power of this strike committee became a contentious issue during the strike. Although the strike committee was supposed to be a simple organizing body to make the strike run smoothly, it ended up doing much more. A week into the strike it became apparent that certain essential services, like food delivery, needed to be maintained for the welfare of the city despite the strike. The strike committee ordered the men who performed these jobs back to work. This caused a furor among opponents of the strike and neutral observers alike who claimed that the strike committee, an illegal organization, was the de facto government of the city. Historian J. E. Rea wrote "Many began to ask the basic question of who was running the city, the elected government or the strike committee." (Rea, 1973: 8)

In addition to the illegal power of the strike committee, many Canadians feared the general strike on openly racist grounds. At the time there was a large population of recent immigrants from eastern Europe working in Winnipeg. Because of the revolutions in Russia and eastern Europe, many English Canadians feared that these poor immigrant labourers were revolutionary operatives trying to rally good Canadian workers to the side of Communism. Because of these unfounded suspicions, conservative groups set about on a campaign to scapegoat Slavic workers for the unrest. In response to these racist suspicions the government passed a law allowing the police and immigration officials sweeping new powers of deportation. Any naturalized immigrant could be deported if they were even suspected of seditious activity. (Bennett, 1989: 544)

The governments campaign against immigrant minorities was ineffective at ending the general strike because the leadership and the majority of workers were citizens born in either Canada or Britain. After five weeks of the General strike the government had enough. They fired striking government workers and hired a group of war vets to act as "special constables" to break the strike. Before sunrise on Saturday June 21st 1919, police arrested ten strike leaders including R. B. Russell and future CCF founder J.S. Woodsworth. (Newman, 2000: 135)

Later that day a peaceful demonstration began down Main Street to protest the arrests. The demonstration began to get out of hand when the protesters set fire to an empty streetcar. In response to this act of violence the police charged into the crowd with baseball bats. The crowd fought back with their fists and by throwing stones. The police then charged the crowd twice more, this time firing guns. This ended the demonstration and the crowd dispersed in fear . Two people died and dozens were injured on the day that came to be known as Bloody Saturday. After Bloody Saturday, things changed. The police and special constables patrolled the streets in cars fitted with machine guns and additional strike leaders were arrested. By June 25 the workers of Winnipeg gave up there peaceful attempt to gain recognition of their right to collective bargaining because of the threat of more government sanctioned violence. The Winnipeg General Strike ended without the workers achieving their ends.

Bibliography

  • Bennett, Paul W., et al. Canada A North American Nation. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1989.
  • Manitoba Historical Society. "Winnipeg General Strike". <http://www.mhs.mb.ca/searchresults.shtml?cx=010615179535509863828%3A7zow4hyr79w&cof=FORID%3A11&q=Winnipeg+General+Strike&sa=Search>
  • Fielding, John, et al. Canada Our Century, Our Story. Scarborough, ON: Nelson Thomson Learning, 2000.
  • Hundey, Ian M., and Michael L. Magarrey. Canadian History 1900-2000. Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 2000.
  • MacDonald, Joe & Clare Johnstone Gilsig. Video: On Strike: The Winnipeg General Strike, 1919. (The People's History of the West Series), National Film Board of Canada, 1991 Order Number: C9190 111.
  • Morton, Desmond. Years of Conflict 1911-1921. Toronto: Grolier, 1983.
  • Newman, Garfield et al. Canada A Nation Unfolding. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 2000.
  • Rea, J. E. The Winnipeg General Strike. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.
  • Woodcock, George. A Social History of Canada.Markham, ON: Viking, 1988.
  • Zolf, Larry. CBC:Canadian broadcasting Corporation: Toronto, 2003 <http://cbc.ca/millennium/timelines/feature_generalstrike.html>

References