It is the most famous single event in Canadian labour history. For six weeks in the spring of 1919, some 30,000 workers in Winnipeg went out on a general strike that brought the city to a standstill. It ended in arrests, shootings and defeat. One hundred years later, the Winnipeg General Strike is recognized as an event that helped shape modern Canada.
The demonstration of solidarity was extraordinary. The strike was led by the unions, but at least half of the participants were not union members. And they came from many occupations and backgrounds. Almost everyone was a recent immigrant to this booming western city, whether from Eastern Canada or Eastern Europe, the British Isles or elsewhere. There were notable numbers of women among the strikers, including the telephone operators who were the first to pull the plug on the morning of the strike. And the supporters included many returned soldiers, men who came back from the Great War knowing that the “war for democracy” was not over.
All these people came out in support of union members who were attempting to settle contracts in the construction and metal trades. But most people had nothing to gain directly from the labour disputes that started the strike. They had their own concerns about exploitation – conditions such as low wages, high prices, bad housing, long hours, low standards of public health. They knew that a better world was possible and that action was needed. For these reasons, the general strike is sometimes described as “a community strike” and “a rebellion of hope.”
The other key element in these events was the high level of repression directed against the strikers. The local establishment claimed the general strike was the beginning of a revolution led by anarchists and Bolsheviks. Local, provincial and federal governments seemed to agree. Parades and demonstrations were banned. Special police were signed up. Strike leaders and supporters were arrested and held under threat of deportation.
The turning point came on a day that is remembered as Bloody Saturday. When a large crowd gathered in front of City Hall for a protest march, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police prepared to clear the street. When the crowd stopped an streetcar operated by a strikebreaker and pushed it off the tracks, the Mounties charged up Main Street, clubs ready and revolvers drawn. Dozens in the crowd were beaten or wounded by gunfire. Two were killed.
General strikes are unusual events in Canadian history. Apart from the one-day strike against wage controls in 1976, there has never been a country-wide general strike. But in 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike drew attention across the country. Some workers went out in sympathy, and some launched their own local general strikes, including one at the factories in Amherst, Nova Scotia. When the Winnipeg strike leaders were denied bail, unions threatened a national general strike before the authorities backed down.
Historians now understand the period from 1917 to 1925 as a long wave of social unrest, a time when rising expectations met strenuous resistance. Some workers became interested in new forms of labour organization, such as the “one big union” idea. Others looked to socialist ideas and the Russian Revolution for inspiration. Farmer and labour candidates won elections. Political parties promised reforms –but failed to implement most of them.
Some unions made lasting gains during this period, but most did not. In that sense, the Winnipeg General Strike was the thunder before a storm. It took the Great Depression, the Second World War and another long upsurge of popular unrest before some of the changes promised to Canadians at the end of the Great War were written into Canadian law.
What did New Brunswickers know about the Winnipeg Strike in 1919? Local newspapers told readers the strike was a threat to law and order. They warned that “anarchistic elements” had gained control of the labour movement, but they were hopeful that “saner elements” would prevail once the strike ran its course.
For those who wanted to know more, there was a visit by a Winnipeg labour leader. Fred Tipping, a former president of the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council and a member of the Strike Committee, toured the Maritimes in the summer of 1919 to raise funds for the arrested strike leaders. He was an English-born immigrant, with a background as a preacher and a carpenter, who taught industrial arts in the Winnipeg schools. Like many of the strike leaders, he was a socialist but did not
think of himself as a revolutionary.
At public meetings in Saint John and Moncton, Tipping explained that the strike was about defending labour solidarity and resisting government reprisals. Speaking at the Seamen’s Institute in Saint John, he said that the strike started as a fight for union recognition but turned into a larger struggle. When so many workers came out in support, it proved they were no longer going to be “docile.” At City Hall in Moncton, he told listeners that the government seemed to be trying to “do away with labour organizations” but that workers were “out to fight for their rights, as the producers of the world’s wealth.”
In Moncton, a vote of thanks was proposed by Célime Melanson, the Moncton machinist who was the first Acadian to serve as president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour. Only a few months earlier, delegates to the annual meetings of the Federation had adopted a Reconstruction Programme calling for major social reforms and improvements in the rights of workers. In its call to “open the doors of opportunity” for all citizens, this historic document reminds us of the part organized labour has played in promoting social progress in the province.
Meanwhile, back in Winnipeg, seven of the strike leaders were convicted on sedition charges and sent to jail. Two were acquitted. One of their supporters, J. S. Woodsworth, was charged with seditious libel for publishing reports and comments on the events of Bloody Saturday. He was never brought to trial. Instead, Winnipeg workers sent him to Ottawa as a labour Member of Parliament. A decade later, he was a founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of the New Democratic Party.
The court documents in Winnipeg in 1919 included a long list of alleged co-
conspirators from across Canada. This was part of the “red scare” fantasy that the general strike was the start of an attempt to overthrow the Canadian government. Four of the names on the list were from New Brunswick, all of them members of the Socialist Party of Canada, a party that was generally more “evolutionary” than “revolutionary” in its approach to social change.
A century later, the legacy of 1919 is highly visible in Winnipeg, where there are public memorials to the strike and a school is named after one of the leaders. A popular musical about the strike has been revived for the outdoor stage this summer and will also be released on film. There is a new edition of the strikers’ own history of the strike, originally published in 1920, as well as a new graphic history to introduce the story to the next generation of readers.
The battles of Winnipeg are not over. A tour of the city or a walk through the streets is enough to show that insecurity and inequality remain part of the Canadian way of life. Rights to union membership and collective bargaining now exist in law, but most workers are not in a position to benefit from these provisions, and those who try to exercise their rights are often under attack and prevented from using them. Still, organized labour has remained central to the history of social progress in this country. At their best, unions have challenged the inequitable distribution of wealth and power under the prevailing economic system. They have not always succeeded, far from it.
As in 1919, time and again the unions have served as catalysts in building coalitions and promoting changes that benefit all workers. That is one of the reasons they have often attracted support well beyond their numbers. To follow this story, the Winnipeg General Strike is a good place to start.
David Frank is a professor emeritus in Canadian history at the University of New Brunswick. His publications include Provincial Solidarities: A History of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour.