Beginning promptly at 11:00 a.m., Thursday, 15 May 1919, between 25,000 and 30,000 Winnipeg workers walked out on a general strike. Work stopped quickly at the big railway shops and yards across the city, while and all factory production ceased. Winnipeg had no mail, streetcars, taxis, newspapers, telegrams, telephones, gasoline, or milk delivery. Most restaurants, retail stores, and even barber shops closed. Police, fire fighters, and employees of the water works shocked and frightened many in Winnipeg by joining the strike. Canadians across the country wondered what was going on in Winnipeg. The Winnipeg General Strike would last six weeks until it was finally brought to an end by the tragic events of Bloody Saturday.
Much was at stake in the strike. Conflict between the labour movement and local employers had been brewing in Winnipeg for many years. Indeed, in 1918, the city had witnessed a smaller general strike that ended in partial victory for the strikers. Relations between labour and governments and courts also had been poisoned over the years. Union leaders viewed governments with mistrust, arguing the state came too quickly to the aid of employers in industrial disputes. Indeed, they complained that Winnipeg had become know as “Injunction City” because of the frequency that local courts granted employers injunctions against strikes and picketing.
In the spring of 1919, Winnipeg was a hot bed of militant unionism and radical politics. Sympathy for creating the One Big Union (OBU) was strong and interest in socialist ideas was intensifying. In this charged atmosphere of class relations, councils of unions among the metal and building trades entered negotiations with their respective employers’ federations. The workers’ demands included higher wages and union recognition. Employers simply refused to negotiate with the metal and building trades councils. This rejection propelled the explosive issues of union recognition and workers’ rights to collective bargaining to the fore.
When no resolution to the conflicts appeared possible, the metal and building trades councils asked the bigger Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (WTLC) for help. On May 6, the WTLC met and decided to poll all of its members on whether or not to launch a general strike to support the metal and building trades workers. On May 13, the WTLC announced the results: over 11,000 in favour of striking and fewer than 600 opposed. The overwhelming vote for strike action surprised even the most optimistic labour leaders. They expected solid support from railway, foundry, and factory workers, but were greatly surprised by the equally strong support coming from other unions. For example, city police voted 149 to 11 for strike action, fire-fighters 149 to 6, water works employees 44 to 9, postal workers 250 to 19, cooks and waiters 278 to 0, and tailors 155 to 13. With this overwhelming endorsement in hand, the WTLC declared a general strike to begin on May 15, at 11:00 a.m. A large Central Strike Committee was created to oversee the conduct of the strike.
Employers and local government officials wasted little time in responding to labour’s challenge. They established the Citizens’ Committee of 1000, a group of Winnipeg’s wealthiest manufacturers, lawyers, bankers, and politicians. The Citizens’ Committee ignored the strikers’ basic demands for improved wages and union recognition, concentrating instead on a campaign to discredit the labour movement. It branded the strikers as Bolsheviks and “alien scum.” It declared the strike a revolutionary conspiracy. The Citizens’ Committee had no evidence to support such charges, but used them as a means to avoid conciliation.
As word of the general strike spread across the country, workers in other locales declared solidarity with the Winnipeg strikers. Sympathy strikes were called in Brandon, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Regina, Vancouver, New Westminster, Victoria, and in as many as 20 other towns.
Worried by heightened tensions in Winnipeg and across the country, the federal government decided to intervene. Several cabinet ministers travelled to Winnipeg to meet with local government officials and the Citizens’ Committee. They refused requests from the Strike Committee for similar consultations. On the advice of these cabinet ministers, the federal government aggressively supported the employers. Federal employees were ordered back to work or faced dismissal. Then, the Federal Immigration Act was amended quickly so that British-born immigrants could be deported and the Criminal Code’s definition of sedition broadened. These changes were undertaken in conjunction with the arrest of ten strike leaders. All these actions were taken to intimidate the strikers into submission. Nevertheless, the strike continued.
On Saturday, June 21, thousands of strikers and their sympathizers gathered in downtown Winnipeg to protest the arrest of their leaders. The Mayor called on the North West Mounted Police to disperse the crowds. In the ensuing confrontation, two strikers were killed and at least 30 injured. As the crowd scattered onto nearby streets and alleyways it was met by several hundred “special police” deputized by the city during the strike. Armed with baseball bats and wagon spokes supplied by local retailers, the “specials” beat the protesters. Soon the army was also on the streets, patrolling with machine-guns mounted on their vehicles. On Thursday, June 26, fearing yet more violence, strike leaders declared an end to the strike.
The end of the Winnipeg General Strike did little to bring labour peace to Canada in the summer of 1919; in fact, turmoil lasted into 1920. In the coalmines of Alberta and Nova Scotia confrontations continued into the mid-1920s, but labour’s postwar revolt had ended for the most part by the early 1920s. It was the dark clouds of a post-World War I depression rolling across the country in the autumn of 1920 that proved to be the turning point in business-labour relations. Once again, the labour movement confronted a combination of rapidly rising unemployment and aggressive campaigns by business and governments to discredit it. The OBU and the industrial solidarity it represented received the most determined opposition from labour’s opponents. In this battle, more conservative craft unions threw their lot in with the OBU’s adversaries.
At this time, several new elements entered anti-union campaigns. In addition to the time-honoured use of such tactics as firings and black listings, corporate and government leaders used the Red Scare, or so-called communist threat, to discredit union organizing. In another development, some employers established shop committees, which they controlled carefully, within their factories. In Quebec, the Catholic Church took these measures one step farther and established its own trade union. In 1921, the Church created the Canadian and Catholic Confederation of Trade Unions. Catholic priests were assigned to oversee union affairs and ensure that secular unionism was kept at bay.
Labour did have one last gasp before the dark years of the 1920s and 1930s. It was at the ballot box in the provincial elections in 1919-1920. In Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Ontario labour parties won substantial numbers of votes and seats. Without a strong labour movement to sustain them, their victories were short-lived.
The legacy of the 1919 revolt was a mixed one. The crushing of the Winnipeg General Strike and hundreds of other disputes across the country demoralized workers. Many were prevented from returning to their jobs and those who did found conditions, at best, unchanged. It would be another generation before the labour movement would regain the popularity it enjoyed in this era.
The postwar movement was the broadest based movement in Canada. It cut across ethnic and gender differences to a remarkable degree. But more action was needed in this direction if labour was ever to build a viable movement in a rapidly changing industrial world. On the other hand, many years later a significant number of workers still found inspiration in the solidarity of 1919. As Jacob Penner, a participant in events of the time reminisced in 1950,
The Winnipeg General Strike is immortal. It lives in the memory of those that are still with us and who took such an honourable part in the struggle for the rights of the producers of wealth. It lives in the memory of the sons and daughters of those that participated and to whom this story is being related by their parents during quiet family hours.