The centenary of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike offers a unique opportunity to revisit Canada’s largest and most significant sympathy strike.
What was the context in which 35,000 workers, half of whom did not belong to a union, struck for six weeks in support of the collective bargaining goals of building and metal trades workers? What local, national and international events fueled this massive job action that saw one-half of Winnipeg’s families stand together?
Much has been written about these questions and the confrontation itself in the century since it all took place. Understanding the Winnipeg General Strike requires understanding the labour-management dynamic in Winnipeg during the war years, and indeed in the period of significant population growth in the two decades preceding the general strike.
Winnipeg’s status as a key hub-city was cemented through urban growth during the first two decades of the 20th century. The city’s population more than quadrupled between 1901 and 1920 (from 40,000 to 179,000) and Winnipeg moved from the country’s sixth largest city to its third largest.
The preponderance of British-born immigrants plus a massive influx of Eastern European citizens combined to create a very diverse and dynamic city with a host of distinct ethnic communities, not to mention very clear lines between the rich and the poor.
During this period the number of local unions tripled and demand for a better life for workers grew steadily. So too did public support for labour’s aims and for other social justice pursuits.
Two disputes in 1906 illustrate the fierce contest over union recognition that came to define the acrimony that permeated labour relations in Winnipeg.
Both the Contract Shops dispute and the strike by employees of the Winnipeg Electric Street Railway Company saw employers resort to injunctions and lawsuits, hence Winnipeg’s reputation as “injunction city.” The vigor with which employers opposed unionization fuelled solidarity among workers.
Of interest in the streetcar workers dispute was the near total public support as citizens refused to ride streetcars driven by replacement workers. The public support enabled a positive settlement for streetcar workers and it offered a glimpse of broad public support for labour’s goals.
Throughout the first two decades of the century, beyond population growth, Winnipeg displayed an activist culture in the presence of the social gospel movement and an active suffragist moment that saw Manitoba become the first province to extend the vote to some women in 1916.
Labour and other progressive forces also united to support a progressive single tax system. Each of these endeavours revealed an engaged and activist citizenry.
1913–1915 — Recession
The positive population and economic growth experienced by Winnipeg and the West in general came to an abrupt halt in 1913. An economic downturn quickly turned depression-like.
The most direct cause was a sharp decline in British investment due to power struggles centred in the Balkans. British investment in Canadian railways, towns, industries and grain elevators was converted into domestic U.K. defence investments.
The depression hit Winnipeg hard and lasted two full years. All workers felt it, particularly those employed in the building trades. Wages fell and union membership declined as unemployment rose.
1914–1918 — The Great War
The Great War helped pull the country out of recession but the improved economy did not spark wage increases. The federal government, through order-in-council P.C. 1743, outlawed strikes for the duration of war in all industries engaged in war production. This ordinance impacted all industries.
In 1918, P.C. 2525 completely outlawed strikes or lockouts in industrial disputes; this too was by order-in-council. Two further ordinances outlawed immigrant organizations and other “alien” organizations including the International Workers of the World (IWW).
All of these moves by the federal government combined to fuel worker resentment and militancy. Real wages declined during this period of high inflation.
Union membership in Canada nearly tripled between 1915 and 1919, and strikes began occurring. In Winnipeg in 1917, more days were lost to strikes than in the previous four years combined. Estimates were that one in five workers walked picket lines in Canada and the United States during this period.
Three distinct events occurred in Winnipeg in 1918 that help explain the conditions which gave rise to the 1919 general strike.
In May that year, four civic unions struck over the issues of union recognition and wages. These included waterworks, power and light, and teamsters workers. A brokered tentative deal a few days into the dispute was surprisingly defeated by a narrow vote of city council, which sought a permanent no-strike clause for all civic agreements.
This move escalated things far beyond the four civic groups. City firemen struck in support of their civic coworkers. A week later, provincial telephone operators, railway and streetcar workers and others struck in sympathy. Accounts vary, but at least 6,800 workers from outside of the civic service walked off the job.
Business interests formed the Committee of 100, and the federal government, fearing the spread of sympathy walkouts in five large Canadian cities, dispatched Senator Gideon Robertson to Winnipeg.
Robertson and representatives of the Committee of 100 commenced direct negotiations with the striking civic workers and a deal based upon the previously rejected agreement was reached. The deal provided for wage hikes, union recognition and a negotiated return to work protocol. It was a near total victory for the workers.
The second important event of 1918 was the growing militancy and prominence of the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council. In May, the council supported the job action of civic workers. In July it again voted for another general sympathy strike, this time in support of Winnipeg metal trades workers. Senator Robertson was again sent to Winnipeg and he assisted in achieving a settlement and averting a strike.
The general strike option again surfaced within the Trades and Labour Council in October 1918, this time in support of striking Canadian Pacific freight handlers in Calgary. Specifically, government plans to prosecute five strike leaders for defying an anti-strike ordinance were shelved due to the outcry from labour. The utility of the general strike weapon was further entrenched.
Thirdly and finally, a series of key events took place in December 1918. First, the Trades and Labour Council passed a resolution providing that general strike votes would require a majority of the total membership to approve, thus shifting strike determining authority to the council and away from local unions. Also that month, the fiery Machinist Union leader R. B. Russell was defeated in his bid for the council presidency by moderate James Winning.
On December 22, at a meeting called jointly by the Trades and Labour Council and the Socialist Party of Canada, a packed house of 1,700 at the Walker Theatre passed three resolutions. The first denounced the federal government’s repeated recourse to orders-in-council. The Great War was over and labour and other progressives called for the repeal of all anti-labour legislation enacted during the war years.
The second resolution called for the release of all political prisoners incarcerated during the war years. Finally, the gathering called for the withdrawal of all allied forces from Russia, and Winnipeg workers offered congratulations to the revolutionaries who had seized control from the Russian Czar.
Federal authorities had undercover agents at the Walker Theatre that day and their reports on the meeting spoke of a militant labour movement, one that was questioning the established order.
January 10, 1919 — The Majestic Theatre Meeting
The New Year began with a second major public meeting, this one called by the Socialist Party of Canada and held at the Majestic Theatre. It picked up where the Walker Theatre meeting had left off.
Speakers denounced the press for not telling the truth about events in Russia. Union leader Bob Russell, a fiery speaker, rejected capitalism and the inequalities it produced, calling for a new system in which workers would have control. Again, undercover agents attending the meeting reported to their federal authorities on the growing militancy evident in Winnipeg.
The federal government and Winnipeg business leaders clearly felt that labour sought to replace capitalism and these beliefs governed their actions going forward.
February 6–11, 1919 — The Seattle General Strike
Workers throughout North America watched events unfold in Seattle that were driven by wage demands and labour’s efforts to secure wage increases for all workers, both skilled and unskilled. The dispute was massive in scope. Essential services were provided only as determined by the strike committee, which produced signs authorizing fire and hospital laundry services, for example.
One new reality not present during the 1918 civic workers strike was the large numbers of returned soldiers, home after the Great War. The soldiers returned to high levels of unemployment. They also returned to hear some senior labour leaders critical of the war itself and the wartime government in particular.
These forces combined to create a new tension in Winnipeg, one not previously present. Shortly after the Majestic Theatre meeting a group of veterans invaded the hall of the Socialist Party of Canada, trashing it and burning books. Some returned soldiers resented immigrants (aliens) who occupied what many believed to be the jobs they held prior to the war.
It is important to note that not all returned soldiers displayed such frustration or even held such beliefs. As it became clear, there were many returned soldiers who actively supported labour during the general strike. But we cannot overstate the role that returned soldiers played within the heated labour-management debates that existed in Winnipeg in early 1919.
March 13, 1919 — The Western Labour Conference, Calgary
Western Canadian trade unionists had for some time been dissatisfied with the Eastern Canadian union leadership, a group they felt embraced craft unionism and was unwilling to challenge the system. Hence the Western Labour Conference held in Calgary, where delegates affirmed strong support for industrial unionism and workers organized industrywide, not by craft. The vehicle for this would be the One Big Union (OBU).
Delegates in debate denounced capitalism and supported resolutions calling for a five-day work week and the six-hour day. The mood in Calgary revealed a trade union leadership that was increasingly confident in the content of its new agenda and its ability to realize this vision through collective action.
That spring, the Trades and Labour Council in Winnipeg sent a couple of clear messages to the two senior levels of government. Provincially, the council refused to nominate labour members to the government’s proposed Industrial Disputes Commission. They also refused to testify before the Mathers Commission set up by the Borden government to investigate industrial relations in Canada.
Winnipeg labour leaders were in no mood to be told what the “rules of the game” were to be when it came to achieving the legitimate economic interests of workers.
The Winnipeg General Strike and its aftermath
As the preceding history makes clear, the six-week general strike that engulfed Winnipeg entirely, and was widely reported in the U.S. and throughout the Commonwealth, did not occur in a vacuum. Nor was it a spontaneous accident of sorts. The events leading up to the strike, both locally and beyond, all combined to make such a clash understandable if not predictable.
The events of the six-week struggle have been well documented and need not be recounted here in detail (see the timeline in this Manitoba Federation of Labour newsletter). What continues to spawn reflection and debate, however, are questions about the major lessons of the strike. What indeed is the legacy of this massive display of solidarity in Winnipeg? As a lifelong unionist myself, I venture to make five observations on this question.
First and foremost, the general strike was a large and difficult defeat for the workers involved. Thousands lost their jobs, thousands more returned to work and never did enjoy either trade union membership or the fruits of free collective bargaining.
Civic employees who were not dismissed had to sign their allegiance to the city and pledge to never engage in sympathy strike action upon pain of instant dismissal. Civic workers came to refer to this requirement as the “slave pact,” which stayed on the city’s books until 1931.
Second, while history has dismissed the charge that the general strike represented a Bolshevik uprising intent upon overthrowing the established order, it is important to understand how profoundly some held these views.
The Committee of 1,000 are on record stating that “some of the leaders of the strike were more concerned in setting up the Russian Soviet form of government in Canada than in settling any trades disputes, than an organized propaganda to incite Revolution in Canada was stalking under cover of this and other strikes.”
Business, by way of private prosecutions funded, we now know, by the federal government (from funds earmarked for returned soldiers), silenced labour leadership by incarcerating them. The aggressiveness of the business community response and that of the federal government were designed to put labour in its place and to prevent further massive strikes. In that goal they largely succeeded. In deputizing hundreds of so-called special constables who assumed the authority of the state, business was also able to silence elected officials and the justice system, which both opted to conduct an aggressive prosecution of the strike’s proponents.
My third observation is that labour did make achievements for all workers through the general strike. They won the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the general public and this support was not diminished by the manner in which the strike ended.
Notwithstanding the vitriolic bashing by mainstream media, the public respected those who led the general strike. Three leaders were elected in the 1920 provincial election from their jail cells. The public did not view them as criminals. Labour candidates in Winnipeg enjoyed similar electoral success at the federal and civic levels.
Labour’s successful participation in the political process achieved two important outcomes. Firstly, it put the lie to any notion that the leaders of the general strike were out to overthrow the system. People don’t run for office in systems they want to destroy.
The leaders of the 1919 general strike also established a political constant that has survived for a century in Manitoba: labour is still a force politically, and its vision for a more caring and sharing society enjoys widespread public support in the province.
A fourth observation about the strike’s legacy has to do with how we organize as workers. Labour in 1919 Winnipeg had its own daily newspaper. It had open air meeting attended by thousands. The result was a citizenry that was conscious of its class and aware of the issues of the day. In today’s digital age of unlimited information, one is left to wonder how it is that labour’s view of the world has so much less currency with the general public than it did 100 years ago.
Finally, there is something to be gleaned from how we have commemorated the strike at different points over the past century. In 1969, Winnipeg city council debated a motion to recognize the general strike on its 50th anniversary. It was an acrimonious debate and a small plaque ended up being placed in low-profile location at city hall.
The events of 1919 were still too raw, even a half-century after the fact. Winnipeg was still too divided a city, at the family level and within the broader community itself, for any widespread discussion of this key event in the history of Manitoba.
By 1994, on the 75th anniversary of the general strike, all the participants were gone, which allowed for both celebration of the event and, more importantly, public discussion on this most significant of events in the history of Winnipeg, and indeed of the Canadian labour movement. Another plaque was erected in the Manitoba legislature that captures the difficult challenge of summarizing just what the general strike meant and means. That plaque reads as follows:
On May 15, 1919 some 30,000 workers in the City of Winnipeg went on strike in support of building and metal trades workers, who had walked out seeking union recognition, collective bargaining, higher wages and a shorter working week.
The Winnipeg General Strike was widely reported throughout North America and the British Empire, and was a watershed event in Canadian labour history. The general strike concluded at 11:00 a.m. on June 26, 1919.
In the years since the strike, the province of Manitoba has enacted legislation which recognizes workers’ rights to participate in free collective bargaining, to organize and to healthy and safe workplaces.
This plaque commemorates the 75th anniversary of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. A landmark in Canadian History.
Today, a century on from the general strike, the issues that gave rise to it remain both unresolved and arguably more pressing than ever.
The right to form unions and to engage in free collective bargaining remains contested terrain in much of the world, including Canada. There continue to be many disputes centered around union recognition.
Inequality—locally, nationally and globally—is a dominant issue and the gap between the rich and the poor has never been wider.
As was the case in the Winnipeg of 1919, the backlash against immigrants and refugees is a global phenomena and these divisions hurt both communities and economies.
Many governments in many countries continue to spend more on weapons and defence than on services for people such as health care and education.
In terms of class consciousness, how we can better educate workers and equip them to distinguish between false or inaccurate reporting and valid, fact-based information remains a key challenge.
And fundamentally, what has come of the belief that true freedom and fairness means that none can truly be free if even one is not?
Winnipeg General Strike leader Bill Pritchard, in his famous address to the jury, spoke to the workers he served, challenging them as follows:
The great appear great to us because we are on our knees. Let us rise!
It is a message worth remembering, and repeating.
Paul Moist is a research associate with the CCPA-Manitoba and past National President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.