Winnipeg General Strike

Crowd gathered outside old City Hall during the Winnipeg General Strike, June 21, 1919

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was one of the most influential strikes in Canadian history, and became the platform for future labour reforms.

Although many Canadian companies had enjoyed enormous profits on World War I contracts, wages and working conditions were dismal and labour regulations were mostly non-existent.

In March 1919 labour delegates from across Western Canada convened in Calgary to form a branch of the "One Big Union", with the intention of earning rights for Canadian workers through a series of strikes.


[edit] Laying the Groundwork: The 1919 Strike

[edit] End of the War

The immediate post-war period in Canada was not a time of peace. Social tensions were exacerbated as soldiers returned home from war to find soaring numbers of immigrants crowded into their cities and occupying their former jobs.[1] High rates of unemployment among returned soldiers only compounded their resentment towards the immigrants.

The Bolshevik Revolution frightened governments everywhere in the Western world particularly because they worried that the Bolsheviks would transmit their revolutionary ideology into their nations. Canada–s large immigrant population was a concern for this reason as they were believed to hold Bolshevist political views. The Canadian government and businessmen saw the Bolshevik Revolution as an example of what have happen if popular unrest got out of hand. Their fears of a possible uprising led to increased efforts to control radicals and immigrants at home.[2] Threats of strike, which could be considered radical criticism, were therefore dealt with in a quick repressive manner.

[edit] Cause

With the cost of living rising due to the inflation caused by World War I, the City of Winnipeg's teamsters, electrical workers, water works employees and office workers approached City Council in April 1919 for a wage increase. Their proposal was rejected and City Council offered the four departments war bonuses, with a promise to revisit the topic after the war. City Council's new proposal was unsatisfactory to the four departments, and the municipal Electrical Workers took action and began striking on May 1, 1919, with the waterwork and fire alarm employees joining a few days later. City Council considered the strike actions of the civic departments unacceptable and, after warnings to strikers, the Council dismissed the striking workers on May 4. This action, however, would not discourage the strikers but strengthened their cause as other civic unions joined the strike out of sympathy with the dismissed strikers.

[edit] From Wages to Ability to Strike

On May 13, City Council gathered again to review the proposed agreement issued by the strikers. Once again, City Council did not accept the proposal without their own amendments, specifically the Fowler Amendment, which read that "all persons employed by the City should express their willingness to execute and agreement, undertaking that they will not either collectively or individually at any time go on strike but will resort to arbitration as a means of settlement of all grievances and differences which may not be capable of amicable settlement." [3] This amendment incensed the civic employees further, and by Friday, May 24, an estimated total of 6,800 strikers from thirteen trades had joined the strike.[4]

[edit] The Settlement

Fearing that the strike would spread to other cities, the Federal Government of Canada ordered Senator Gideon Decker Robertson to mediate the dispute. After hearing both sides, Robertson settled in favour of the strikers and encouraged City Council to accept the civic employee's proposal. Bolstered by their success, the labour unions would use striking again to gain other labour and union reforms.

[edit] The Strike

[edit] Organization

In Winnipeg, workers within the building and metal industries attempted to strengthen their bargaining ability by creating umbrella unions, the Building Trade Council and Metal Trade Council respectively, to encompass all metal and building unions. While employers were willing to negotiate with each union separately, they refused to bargain with the Building and Metal Trade Councils because they disagreed with which unions were included and the inability to meet mass wage increases. Due to the restrictions of labour policy in the 1900s, a union could only be recognized voluntarily by employers, or through strike action. Therefore, workers from both industries went on strike to gain union recognition and collective bargaining.

The Building and Metal Trade Councils appealed to the Trades and Labour Union, the central union body representing the interests of many of Winnipeg's workers, for support in their endeavours. The Trades and Labour Union, in a spirit of solidarity, voted in favour of a sympathetic strike in support of the Building and Metal Trade Councils. Ernest Robinson, secretary of the Winnipeg Trade and Labour Union, issued a statement that –every organization but one has voted in favour of the general strike– and that –all public utilities will be tied-up in order to enforce the principle of collective bargaining".[5] By suspending all public utilities, the strikers hoped to shut down the city, effectively forcing the strikers– demands to be met. The complete suspension of public utilities, however, would prove a slight exaggeration. The Winnipeg police, for example, had voted in favour of striking but remained on duty at the request of the strike committee to prevent the city from being placed under martial law.[5] Other exceptions like this would follow.

At 11:00 a.m. on Thursday May 15, 1919 virtually the entire working population of Winnipeg had gone on strike. Somewhere around 22,000 workers in both the public and private sectors walked off their jobs.[1] Even essential public employees such as firefighters went on strike, but returned midway through the strike with the approval of the Strike Committee.

Although relations with the police and City Council were tense, the strike was non-violent in its beginning stages until the confrontation on Bloody Saturday.

[edit] Opposition

The local newspapers, the Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune, had lost the majority of their employees due to the strike and took a decidedly anti-strike stance. The New York Times front page proclaimed "Bolshevism Invades Canada." The Winnipeg Free Press called the strikers "bohunks," "aliens," and "anarchists." They ran cartoons depicting hooked-nosed Jewish radicals throwing bombs. These anti-strike views greatly influenced the opinions of Winnipeg residents. However, the majority of the strikers were reformist, not revolutionary. They wanted to amend the system, not destroy it and build a new one.

A counter-strike committee, the "Citizens' Committee of One Thousand", was created by Winnipeg's wealthy elite. The Committee declared the strike to be a violent, revolutionary conspiracy by a small group of foreigners. On June 9, at the behest of the Committee, the City of Winnipeg Police Commission dismissed almost the entire city police force for refusing to sign a pledge promising to neither belong to a union nor participate in a sympathetic strike. They were replaced by a large body of untrained but better paid special constables. As well, the City of Winnipeg appealed for federal help and received extra reinforcements through the Royal North-West Mounted Police. Despite these drastic measures, control of the streets was beyond the capacity of the city in the period between June 9 and Bloody Saturday.

The Citizens– Committee saw the strike as a breakdown of public authority and worried that the Strike Committee was attempting to overthrow the Canadian government. The Citizens' Committee met with federal Minister of Labour Gideon Decker Robertson and Minister of the Interior (and acting Minister of Justice) Arthur Meighen, warning them that the leaders of the general strike were revolutionists. Meighen issued a statement on May 24 stating that he viewed the strike as –a cloak for something far deeper an effort to –overturn– the proper authority–.[6] In response, he supplemented the army with local militia, the Royal North West Mounted Police and special constables. In addition, Legislation was quickly passed to allow for the instant deportation of any foreign-born radicals who advocated revolution or belonged to any organization opposed to organized government. Robertson ordered federal government employees back to work, threatening them with dismissal if they refused. The two ministers refused to meet the Central Strike Committee to consider its grievances.

[edit] Violence

On June 17 the federal government ordered the arrest of ten strike leaders (including J.S. Woodsworth and Abraham Albert Heaps). Four days later, about 25,000 strikers assembled for a demonstration at Market Square, where Winnipeg Mayor Charles Frederick Gray read the Riot Act. Troubled by the growing number of protestors and fearing violence, Mayor Gray called in the Royal North-West Mounted Police who rode in on horseback charging into the crowd of strikers, beating them with clubs and firing weapons.[1] This violent action resulted in many people injured, numerous arrests and the death of two strikers. Four eastern European immigrants were also rounded up at this time and eventually two were deported, one voluntarily to the United States and the other to Eastern Europe. This day, which came to be known as –Bloody Saturday–[7], ended with Winnipeg virtually under military occupation.

At 11:00 a.m. on June 26, 1919 the Central Strike Committee officially called off the strike and the strikers returned to work.

[edit] Aftermath

The eight strike leaders arrested on June 17 were eventually brought to trial. Sam Blumenberg and M. Charitonoff were scheduled for deportation, however, only Blumenberg was deported, after he voluntarily left for the United States. Charitonoff appealed to Ottawa and was eventually released. Of the other eight leaders, five were found guilty of the charges laid against them. Their jail sentences ranged from six months to two years.

The Royal Commission which investigated the strike concluded that the strike was not a criminal conspiracy by foreigners and suggested that "if Capital does not provide enough to assure Labour a contented existence ... then the Government might find it necessary to step in and let the state do these things at the expense of Capital." [8]

Organized labour thereafter was hostile towards the Conservatives, particularly Meighen and Robertson, for their forceful role in putting down the strike. Combined with high tariffs in the federal budget passed in the same year (which farmers disliked), this contributed to the Conservatives' heavy defeat in the 1921 election. The succeeding Liberal government, fearing the growing support for hard left elements, pledged to enact the labour reforms proposed by the Commission.

J. S. Woodsworth, a strike leader who was sentenced to one year in jail, eventually went on to found the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which was the forerunner of the New Democratic Party.

[edit] Commemorations in Popular Culture

Among the remembrances of this event in Canadian popular culture is the song "In Winnipeg" by musician Mike Ford, included in the album Canada Needs You Volume Two.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b c Francis, Daniel (1984). "1919: The Winnipeg General Strike". History Today 38: 4–8. 
  2. ^ Bumsted, J.M (1994). The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919: An Illustrated Guide. Canada: Watson Dwyer Publishing Limited. pp. 2–3. 
  3. ^ Fowler Amendment, as quoted in Bumsted, J. M. (1994). The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919: An Illustrated History. Watson Dwyer Publishing Ltd.. pp. 12. ISBN 0920486401. 
  4. ^ as quoted in Bercuson, David Jay (1990). Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press. pp. 62. ISBN 0773507949. 
  5. ^ a b Bumsted, J.M (1994). The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919: An Illustrated Guide. Canada: Watson Dwyer Publishing Limited. pp. 28. 
  6. ^ Bumsted, J.M (1994). The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919: An Illustrated Guide. Canada: Watson Dwyer Publishing Limited. pp. 37. 
  7. ^ Bloody Saturday CBC Television documentary
  8. ^ Justice H. A. Robson's report, quoted in Fudge, Judy; Tucker, Eric (2004). Labour Before the Law: The Regulation of Workers' Collective Action in Canada, 1900-1948. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. pp. 112. ISBN 0802037933. 

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