On June 25, 1919, the strike committee leading the Winnipeg General Strike called off the strike, effective the next morning. Perhaps the most famous strike in Canadian history and unquestionably the largest, this event demonstrated the lengths that the Canadian government would go to crush unionism while also laying the groundwork for the nation’s eventual unionization a few decades later.
Much of the western world suffered from an economic depression at the end of World War I. The economy suddenly did not need to produce material for the war and soldiers came home, creating a major glut in the labor market. This was true to some extent in the United States, but more so in Canada, which had been more dramatically transformed by the war. Unemployment spiked and in cities such as Winnipeg, there were housing shortages. Moreover, Winnipeg and much of Canada had seen large-scale immigration for decades before this. Like in the United States, many of them were socialists or anarchists fleeing political persecution. They were highly involved in the labor movement. With the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, radicals were emboldened to think there was a better future ahead if they could muster worker militancy. In Calgary, many labor leaders from western Canada met in March 1919 and created a set of demands that included the five-day workweek and six hour day. Moreover, while not exactly members of the Industrial Workers of the World, they demanded the opening a new union called the One Big Union as a syndicalist effort to organize Canada’s workers for radical direct action.
The Winnipeg General Strike started in the building and metal trades. They were demanding wage increases from employers, who refused. Through the early days of May 1919, short strikes broke out. But the employers would not budge. So, on May 15, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council called for a general strike. It was not a close vote–in the Labour Council, it was a 8,667 to 845 vote to strike. Thirty thousand people joined them within hours. This was nearly the entirety of the Winnipeg workforce. The strike committee consisted of both moderate building trades members and a few One Big Union advocates. Many of the strikers were public employees. The police had voted to go on strike as well, but the Strike Committee asked them to stay on the job to maintain order. The city waterworks workers also remained on the job to provide water to everyone.
Said one union newspaper about the strike strategy, “The only thing the workers have to do to win this strike is to do nothing. Just eat, sleep, play, love, laugh, and look at the sun. . . . Our fight consists of doing no fighting.” Women played a key role in the strike. Two were on the Strike Committee and they often spoke at public gatherings. Women also did collective cooking for the community, pooling scarce resources to feed everyone. The Strike Committee also worked out a deal with bread and milk delivery drivers to make food deliveries, provided that the trucks had stickers on them from the Committee.
The inclusion of the police threatened the enforcement of order–and the use of the cops to bust strikes–that the upper classes relied upon to maintain their superiority. Moreover, the strike was uniting native-born Canadians with foreign-born workers, which undermined the long-running strategy of dividing workers by ethnicity.
In response, Winnipeg’s elite established the Citizens’ Committee of 1,000 to organize against the strike. This included the city’s leading politicians, businessmen, and media figures. They claimed this was a Bolshevist strike led by un-Canadian foreigners attempting to destroy the nation. Their impromptu newspaper, the Winnipeg Citizen, ran said of the action, “the so-called general strike is in reality revolution – or a daring attempt to overthrow the present industrial and governmental system.” Now, there’s no evidence that the Winnipeg building trades were a bunch of radicals. The general strike has often been used, when it was legal in the U.S. at least, by rank and file workers to promote solidarity rather than political radicalism. That was mostly the case here too. There was some influence from the One Big Union syndicalists, but they certainly weren’t leading the strike any more than the trades. The city banned public demonstrations on June 5 to stop the parades of striking World War I veterans.
However, the Canadian government came down in support of the Citizens’ Committee. Worried about the strike spreading to other cities, it actively helped the Winnipeg elite. The city was then able to fire most of the police and rely on the Mounties to bust the strike. Parliament changed the Immigration Act so they could deport British-born citizens for radicalism and it also expanded the code to broaden the definition of sedition. In fact, there were smaller strikes from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, to some extent in solidarity with Winnipeg and somewhat for the workers’ own demands and interests.
Winnipeg workers did not take this lying down. On June 17, police arrested ten strike leaders and two One Big Union leaders. In response, workers held a silent parade on June 21 in support of their incarcerated leaders. When a few workers vandalized a streetcar, the Mounties were sent in to raise hell. They started firing into the strikers and beating them with clubs. Two workers were killed and another thirty injured. The names of the dead are Mike Sokolowski and Mike Schezerbanowicz, exactly the type of names the Canadian government thought deserving of murder. Bloody Saturday meant the workers could not hold out much longer. Some of the leaders were released, but now facing the overwhelming violence of the state and employers, on June 25, they called off the strike, having kept it up for an impressive six weeks, but without achieving a victory.
In the aftermath, Canada convicted seven strike leaders with plotting to overthrow the government and gave them prison sentences of up to two years. Yet, many strikers also then went into politics. Three of the imprisoned leaders were elected to the Manitoba legislature while still behind bars. Strike leader J.S. Woodworth went on to a long and important political career. He helped found the Co-operative Commonwealth Foundation, a socialist political party, which is the root of the New Democratic Party. The One Big Union faded out by the early 1920s, but it laid the groundwork for Canadian industrial unionism, though they did not receive collective bargaining rights until about a decade after the United States, in the late 1940s.
This is the 317th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.