May 1919: When the workers ran Winnipeg

Ninety years ago today, May 15 1919, at 11 a.m., the Winnipeg General Strike began. Until the Quebec General Strike of 1972, the 1919 strike stood as the most profound class confrontation in Canadian history. The article here is based on a talk delivered 10 years ago, on the 80th anniversary of the strike. • Workers’ power – the working class of the world sweeping away the corporate directors, the financiers and the back room boys of the state apparatus – workers running the world without the bosses. It is an inspiring vision. And when we examine a page of Canadian working class history, it is clear that, in the right conditions, the vision can become a reality. Eighty years ago this month that page was written in the 41-day Winnipeg General Strike.

It began Thursday May 15, 1919, as a near-unanimous show of support by the workers of Winnipeg for their co-workers in the building and metal trades.[1] The demands of these tradesmen were very humble. The Metal Trades Council struck May 2 for shorter hours (a 9-hour day!), a wage increase and union recognition. The Building Trades Council had struck a day earlier over similar issues. The economic demands were modest enough in a situation where wages, throughout World War One, had not kept pace with inflation. Canadian socialist Ross Dowson, writing 31 years after the strike, said that between 1914 and 1919, wages had gone up only 18 per cent, while prices had skyrocketed by 80 per cent.[2]

But for the employers, it was not the economic issues that were central. This was the first attempt by both the Building and Metal Trades Councils to represent building and metal workers industry-wide. Industry-wide bargaining gives the workers much greater power than bargaining shop by shop, plant by plant and was to prove one of the biggest issues in the great industrial unionizing drives of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) in the 1930s and 1940s. The Winnipeg metals and trades employers wanted to end industry-wide bargaining before it got started, so they refused even to negotiate with the two councils.

GENERAL STRIKE

So the two trades struck, and on May 15, all 12,000 unionized workers in Winnipeg went on a sympathy general strike in their support, to be joined within a few days by all other 15,000 wage-workers in Winnipeg – organized, unorganized, women and men. Virtually every working person in the city went out on a general strike; 35,000 workers who, with their families, represented the vast majority of Winnipeg’s 170,000 people. “It wasn’t just the trade unionists who threw down their tools and walked off the job,” said Fred Tipping, socialist and one of the strike leaders. “It was workers everywhere. There was no strike pay for anyone. They had nothing to live on,”[3] and still they went on strike.

The breadth of the strike is difficult for us to imagine whose only experience with a general strike is the one-day variety of October, 1976 or the series of one-day rotating strikes during Ontario’s Days of Action. Even the police, by a vote of 149 to 11, joined the strike. But with that vote began a new dimension to the strike. The police voted to go on strike, but stayed on the job at the request of the newly constituted Strike Committee. This committee was composed of the executive of the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council (TLC), five rank and file members of the council, and three delegates from each and every union in the city, and as the strike progressed, it began to function more and more like the city’s government.

At the request of the Strike Committee: waterworks employees went back to work to maintain sufficient pressure for domestic use; staff was supplied to the hospitals; and after they met with the frightened (and powerless) members of the old City Council, milk and bread delivery carts made their rounds through the city with large signs on their doors, BY AUTHORITY OF THE STRIKE COMMITTEE.

The Women’s Labor League set up a kitchen financed by donations and collections taken at mass meetings to feed women strikers free and supply them with funds for room and rent. Anyone without funds and with a ticket from the Strike Relief Committee was given free meals – 1,200 to 1,500 meals were served daily. By authority of the Strike Committee, a daily paper, the Western Labor News was started up. Without the authority of the strike Committee, nothing moved in Winnipeg.

In these events is one of the most significant lessons of the strike. The working class downed tools and closed down the city of Winnipeg in defiance of their employers and the law. And then, through their own committees, their own organizations, began to open the city up again. For over a month, the city of Winnipeg was effectively under workers’ control: not to the extent of challenging political power – the Winnipeg workers never attempted that – but to the extent of keeping a city functioning and alive in siege-conditions.

CLASS and the STATE

Through the Citizens’ Committee of 1,000 the employers began to regroup. David Jay Bercuson describes this committee as mainly comprising members of organizations such as the Board of Trade, the Manufacturers’ Association and the Bar Association. They represented Winnipeg’s social, economic and political elite.[4] Their first tactic was to try and divide the ranks of the strikers. They called a meeting of the war veterans (who looked like likely allies – two months previously they had rioted and raided the Socialist Party headquarters in the city). The Citizens’ Committee tried to get the veterans to oppose the “alien, bolshevik” strike. Instead, the veterans used the meeting to declare their support for the strike and elect delegates to the Strike Committee.

This made it very clear that such attempts at “divide and conquer” were fruitless. Increasingly, the employers turned more and more to various levels of government for support.

First the municipal government stepped in. The Police Commission instructed police to sign a pledge indicating that they would not join any sympathetic strike or affiliate to any labour body. None signed, all were fired. Next the federal government stepped in. Throughout 1918, a hotly debated issue had been whether or not public employees should have the right to strike, an issue, 80 years later, with which we are all too familiar. Senator Robertson, acting on the authority of Tory Arthur Meighen (then Minister of Justice, soon to be Prime Minister), called a meeting of all postal employees, all of whom were on strike. But in good postal worker fashion, the meeting was boycotted. Undaunted, Robertson still managed to hand them an ultimatum to return to work on May 26, to never again take part in a strike, to sever all connections with the Trades and Labour Council – or lose their jobs, their pensions and their right to ever again work on a government job. Only 16 returned to work. A similar ultimatum was handed to women strikers at the Telephone Exchange with similar results. Once the strike was smashed, the state held true to its word – 403 postal employees, 119 telephone workers and 53 firemen got the sack.

But that is jumping ahead. While the strike was on, as other tactics failed, the various levels of government more and more resorted to force. The fired municipal police were replaced by some 2,000 vigilantes. On June 6, these were reinforced through the federal government by units of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (RNWP), predecessors of today’s RCMP. That same day, an amendment was passed to the Immigration Act by the Ottawa government, in such a manner, that it should forever put to rest the impression that our bureaucracies can only move at a snail’s pace. The amendment made it possible for Canadians not born in Canada to be arrested on charges of sedition, tried in secret without being present at the enquiry without access to a regular court, trial by jury or appeal to any court or judge, and deported to the land of their birth. The amendment (directed at the strike leaders, some of whom were British immigrants) was given the necessary three readings and given the Governor General’s assent in an unheard of 45 minutes.

With the weight of the federal government thrown into the balance, the strike was defeated. On June 16, ten leaders of the strike were arrested in line with the Immigration Act amendment. On Saturday, June 21 – after a nation-wide storm of protest – six of the arrested strike leaders were released on bail, the last victory the strikers were to have. In Winnipeg: that same day, 10,000 veterans massed to stage a silent, peaceful parade in support of the strike. The peaceful parade of the unarmed veterans was to turn into the strike’s “Bloody Saturday.” It was dispersed by the armed forces of the special constables and the RNWP. Armed with clubs, the mounted police charged the demonstrators, and were met by a hail of stones. The next time they charged, they used guns, killing one demonstrator and injuring 30. With clubs and baseball bats, the “specials” finished the mopping up. The Western Labor News was banned and on June 25, the Strike Committee called off the strike. It petered to an end about one week later.

But if the strike was defeated in terms of its immediate demands, in another sense it was a great success. It was a magnificent school for tens of thousands of young workers.

The strike showed that when militant action is taken, there could be massive support and sympathy all across the country. On May 20, organized labour in Toronto voted 17,700 to 6,250 in favour of a sympathetic general strike in support of Winnipeg (which was unfortunately, never called). On May 26, 41 unions in Calgary walked out. On June 2, 42 unions went out in Vancouver. Within days, the whole city was shut down, a general strike with its own strike committee and aspects of workers’ control not unlike those in Winnipeg. On June 23, 5,000 Victoria metal trades workers struck in sympathy with Winnipeg. On June 18, New Westminster went out in a general strike. General sympathetic strikes of at least some duration occurred in “…all other Western cites, the Lakehead, Toronto and some Nova Scotia points.”[5] In Calgary, workers called for a Canada-wide strike. Union after union, local after local, called upon the Dominion Labor Congress for one-day strikes, or for an indefinite general strike.

The strike showed that unity could be created between the “two solitudes” of English-Canadian and Québécois workers. “On May 28, a mass meeting was held at Maisonneuve market in the East End of Montreal, bringing together English-Canadian, immigrant and French-Canadian workers. Many of them were strikers from the Canadian Vickers plant.” The 2,000 in attendance unanimously passed a motion, read first in French and then in English, which pledged “… moral and financial support to our brothers [on strike in Winnipeg] in order that they may secure a complete victory in the present struggle; and in the event of a general strike being called in Montreal, all here present are prepared to bear their share of the burden.”[6]

But the strike also revealed a stark divide between ordinary workers in the ranks of the movement, and the union bureaucracy which dominates the movement. A nation-wide general strike was possible, and could have led to victory for the Winnipeg strikers. But in spite of repeated calls for solidarity action, Tom Moore, president of the Canadian Council of Trades and Labour (CCTL), remained silent, and then two days after Bloody Saturday in a letter addressed to the Winnipeg Council, “formally withdrew his support for the general strike.”[7] Some of the leaders who didn’t remain silent, probably should have. M.T. Provost, a union leader in Montreal, justified his refusal to call a sympathy strike saying: “We are not Bolsheviks nor anarchists. What the others are complaining about doesn’t concern us … As far as we are concerned, there will be no sympathy strike. We will fight that till our death.”[8]

It also showed the class nature of Canada and the reality of its “impartial” state. It painted in clear letters the word PROFIT over the democratic façade of society. It showed, when it came to the crunch, democracy, freedoms, living standards, even human lives would be sacrificed to maintain the sacred profits of the capitalists and their state. The 1919 strike showed, in other words, that to win workers were going to have to challenge not just economically, but politically as well.

This lesson was learned in different ways by different people. J.S. Woodsworth was one of those arrested in 1919. Two years later, he was elected to the House of Commons, and would of course go on to be central in the founding of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), predecessor to the NDP. “When the Meighen Government arrested me,” he said, “it nominated me for Ottawa.”[9]

Less well known are the young workers who went through the school of Winnipeg, and became part of the early years of the Communist Party of Canada, a party which was to be a the centre of the great industrial union drives of the 1930s. There is no question that without the deep political lessons of Winnipeg 1919, there would have been a much weaker foundation for the radical left of the 1920s, and the unionization drives led by that left in the 1930s.

The society we have today is one where profit still trumps democracy, where union bureaucrats still sit idly while workers’ suffer, and where it is still necessary to forge political alternatives based on the self-activity of the oppressed. We should learn well the lessons of Winnipeg so we will be ready for the Winnipegs which lie ahead.

© 2009 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Information for the article comes from three main sources. Norman Penner, ed., Winnipeg 1919: The strikers’ own history of the Winnipeg General Strike, (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1975): David Jay Bercuson Confrontation at Winnipeg (Montreal: Queen’s University Press, 1974): and Bercuson, “The Winnipeg General Strike” in Irving Abella ed., On Strike (Toronto: James Lewis & Samuel, 1974). See also articles in Labour/Le Travail 13, Spring, 1984 and Paul Jackson, History of the General Strike: Winnipeg 1919 (Montreal: Red Flag Publications, 1979).
[2] Ross Dowson, “The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919”, in Labor Challenge, June 1950, p. 4.
[3] Fred Tipping, interviewed in Canadian Dimension, June 1969, p. 11.
[4] Bercuson, Confrontation at Winnipeg, p. 121.
[5] H. Clare Pentland, “Fifty Years After”, in Canadian Dimension, June 1969, P. 16.
[6] Cited in Jackson, p. 3.
[7] Jackson, p. 3.
[8] Cited in Jackson, p. 12.
[9] Cited in Penner, p. viii.

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