Winnipeg General Strike
In the spring of 1918, there was a growing resentment amongst Winnipeg Labour Unions. Fed up with the wage restraints, poor work place conditions, rampant inflation and sacrifices they were being asked to make for the war effort. The economy, for the first time in a century, was being hit with rampant inflation of 40 to 60%. The industrialist, while making huge profits, claimed that workers were ungrateful, and that all the good workers had already joined up to fight in the war effort.
In April, 1918, the bubbling labour troubles came to the surface, when a dispute between the Winnipeg City Council and some of its employees broke down, resulting in a strike. While Council debated if employees of the city should be allowed to strike, thousands of other workers, both members of unions and non-union, went on strike in sympathy for the city workers. Ottawa sent out a representative to act as a negotiator. The strikers demands were met. A new sense of the power of the union was born.
In July, 1918, letter carriers went on strike across Canada. The eastern members of the union settled quickly, but western members did not end until the Post Master General travelled to Winnipeg and met with union leaders. He agreed to a number of new demands by the union. The sense of the power of the worker grew with each new success.
The bloody world war finally came to a conclusion in November, 1918. The Government of Sir Robert Borden was faced with 500,000 returning soldiers, tens of thousand wounded vets, 60,000 dead soldiers and 300,000 unemployed munitions workers. Parades were held for the returning soldiers, but once the parades ended, the vets found that the appreciation they had anticipated for their sacrifice, was not there. Many of the returning soldiers were thought to have had their thoughts taken over by the Bolsheviks. The fear of the recent Russian Revolution and the overthrow of the Czar in 1917, was the top thoughts of the leading Canadian industrialists.
In the March of 1919, a gathering of top labour leaders took place in Calgary. 239 delegates attended. Out of this emerged several resolutions: they denounced censorship, demanded a 6-hour-a-day, five day work week, and denounced Government by Order in Council
More importantly, the unions agreed they should form 'One Big Union', to press their demands. The mood amongst most Canadian unions was militant. In Winnipeg, the mood amongst the Winnipeg unions was positively hostile.
Shortly after the conclusion of the labour congress, building trades demanded higher wages. They were rebuffed. The metal trade workers demanded higher wages, the militant metalworkers did not even get a hearing with their employers.
On May 2, 1918, the building trades went on strike in Winnipeg. Four days later, on May 6th, striking building trades asked the Labour Council for help. The Council agreed to poll its members, and on May 12th, the results were tallied. 11,000 in favour of a strike; 500 against. At 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, May 15th, 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike began.
There were only 12,000 union members in the city of Winnipeg, but the numbers swelled by the addition of 25,000-30,000 non-union workers. The workers ranged from delivery men to firemen, telephone operators and militant mailman, all joined the ranks. The Winnipeg police force offered to walk off on mass, but the union leaders declined this offer.
The spring of 1919 was a particularly hot month. It was not long until the stench of uncollected garbage filled the air. Striking workers were urged not to march, carrying placards, or to wear buttons supporting the strike, but to "eat, sleep, play, love, laugh and look at the sun." Most striking workers spent their days in the park with their families to escape the stench of rotting garbage.
In response to the general strike, a Citizens Committee was formed. Unlike their conciliatory predecessor that dealt with the General Strike of 1918, this committee, which numbered 1,000 members, was not in the mood for compromise. For three weeks, Winnipeg stood still. A propaganda war was launched against the strikers by the Citizens Committee. Strikers were accused of being Bolsheviks who were trying to undermine Canada. Strikers should be considered communist traitors.
Ottawa became involved in the strike, with the Borden Government increasing the penalty for sedition and issued warrants for the arrest of the union leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike. At the same time, the Winnipeg Police Force was fired on mass. They were replaced by untrained, enthusiastic special officers, drawn from the ranks of the Citizens Committee. The strikers, outraged by the firing of the police force, and accusations that had been leveled against their leaders of being treasonous, took to the streets. On June 10th there was a mini inconclusive riot on the streets of Winnipeg. The mini riot gave the government the excuse they were looking for. In a pre-dawn raid on June 17th, the newly appointed special constables raided the homes of strike leaders. 12 were arrested and charged under the new sedition legislation. In addition, 6 were identified as being ęaliens'.
In response to the new aggressive government action, strikers, led by pro-strike veterans, took to the street on mass. On Saturday June 21st, thousands of the strikers gathered in front of the legislature. Looking for some way to vent their aggression, strikers stopped a passing streetcar, smashed the windows and turned the streetcar onto its side. The North West Mounted Police formed on the other end of Main Street, and charged into the crowd, sidearms drawn, firing both into the air and into the crowd. The mounted police were followed by the special constables, who chased strikers down side streets. The fighting continued throughout the day, but as evening fell, the crowd had been dispersed. Two strikers lay dead, hundreds from both sides of the clash were wounded. Dozens were arrested.
Saturday, June 21st, 1919, would be known as ęBloody Saturday'. Reverend J. S. Woodsworth and Fred Dixon took over as editors of the strikers' newspapers. When they referred to the action of the police as being similar to that of the Kaiser, they were arrested and placed in jail, along with the other strikers. On June 25, 1919, 42 days from the beginning of the Winnipeg General Strike, leaders were jailed, members were penniless, hungry and defeated - the strike was over.
A few other urban centres across Canada had brief general strikes, but they were short- lived. The most effective were in Toronto and Vancouver. The sympathy strikes as an effective bargaining tool, however, were over. Ramifications of the Winnipeg General Strike would echo long after the sounds of gunshot had faded. One of the most enduring legacies was the result two Methodist ministers J. S. Woodsworth and William Irvine, who formed the CCF party, which eventually evolved into the New Democratic Party. The concept of One Big Union died on the streets of Winnipeg.