The Winnipeg General Strike

The province of Manitoba has endured a tumultuous history. It was born as a result of the Riel rebellion and its capital city, Winnipeg, was the sight of the only general strike in Canadian history. The Winnipeg General Strike, which took place shortly after the end of the Great War, brought, in the eyes of some, the specter of revolution to Canada. In the end, however, the strike was, from a labour standpoint, an abject failure, as virtually no long-term gains were made.

1 It is difficult to comprehend how this strike, which lasted from May-June 1919 and began with between twenty-four and thirty thousand workers walking off the job (only 12,000 of whom were unionized)2, could end in failure but, when the events of the strike are examined in detail, it becomes apparent that the strike leaders themselves were, ultimately, responsible for their lack of success as they continually took steps which undermined their ability to force a resolution on their own terms.

Labour unrest had been rampant in Winnipeg for many years and, although trade unions had made some modest gains, it was the employers, backed by government and the courts, who usually emerged victorious from the numerous work stoppages which took place. Employers, in fact, relied on the courts as a means of settling labour disputes to such a degree that Winnipeg became known, in colloquial terms, as 'Injunction City. '3 The result was that a climate of conflict and mistrust existed between employers and employees which was difficult to overcome.

Although employers, no doubt, believed they were protecting their interests by using court orders to defeat the various unions during work stoppages they were, in actuality, setting the stage for more serious labour disputes in the future. In addition to labour unrest Winnipeg was also experiencing a growth in class consciousness and division while the city was rapidly becoming a hotbed of militant unionism. Socialist ideals were readily received on the shop floors and there was sympathy for, if not an outright desire to create, the One Big Union.

The Winnipeg General Strike, which lasted from May-June 1919 began innocently enough. The building and metal trades resorted to strike action at the beginning of May in order to resolve disputes with their various employers. 4 Their demands were reasonable and were, in fact, the same as many modern day demands which result in labour disputes and strike action. The building trade unions were seeking higher wages as their pay had only increased 18% in recent years while the cost of living had increased approximately 75% during the same period.

5 Employers admitted that the workers claims were reasonable but insisted that they were unable to meet these wage demands due to higher costs which they, as employers, were forced to endure even as the amount of construction taking place in the city decreased. 6 The metal trade unions, in contrast to the building trade unions, focused their demands not only on higher wages but, also, on formal recognition of a common Metal Trades Council as their primary bargaining unit.

7 Although employers saw the building trades unions' demands as reasonable they did not see the metal trades unions' demands in quite the same light as the metal trade workers seemed to be determined to achieve a higher degree of control which the employers were unwilling to permit as they feared it would, ultimately, lead to demands for higher wages once the power of the employers had been decreased. 8 This set the stage for a labour conflict which would be difficult to resolve as neither side would be willing to back down for fear of relinquishing control over their industry.

In order to garner support for their cause when their employers refused to negotiate both the building trades unions and the metal trades unions took their cases to the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council on 6 May 1919. 9 The timing was critical because, at this juncture, an atmosphere of confrontation existed in Winnipeg due to the fact that "Two trades were on strike, one was threatening to strike, and two were just emerging from bitter negotiations.

"10 If this was not enough to cause the labour movement to unite in a show of solidarity with the building and metal trades unions another event took place which served only to fan the flames of labour unrest in the city. During the meeting it came to light that a German worker, who had been visiting metal trades shops on the instructions of his union local, had been arrested. 11 This inflamed the passions of many of those present and some went so far as to form a delegation which went to investigate the arrest.

This group was successful in securing the worker's release from custody but this did little to placate those assembled who felt that this occurrence was, simply, another example of collusion between employers and the local government. 12 The meeting went on to examine the ways in which solidarity could be shown for the building and metal trades workers and it was unanimously agreed, in light of recent progress in organizing non-union workers throughout the city, that a general strike would be the most effective tool for advancing the worker's cause.

A referendum was taken during which over 11,000 members declared their support for a general strike while fewer than 600 stood opposed. 13 Although support from other unions was expected it is unlikely that the organizers of the strike were prepared for the overwhelming show of solidarity which was expressed by other unions in the city.

Although each union voted individually it had been declared that, in the event a majority of unions voted in favour of a general strike, all unions, including those that had voted against the measure, would cease work. 14 In the end this declaration was unnecessary as each member union voted in favour of participating. 15 Both the Mayor of Winnipeg and the Premier of Manitoba attempted to intervene in the building and metal trades disputes in the hope of averting a general strike but were unsuccessful.

The general strike was, therefore, set to begin on 15 May at 11:00A. M. 16 When the general strike was called it was decided that a committee of five would oversee all aspects of the strike but this soon proved to be too great a task and, as a result, on 21 May, it was determined that each union should appoint two delegates to a central strike committee while the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council elected five of its own members, in addition to its executive officers, to similar posts.

17 This committee was to report back to a larger body of labour officials, numbering approximately 300, which would decide all matters of policy for the duration of the strike. 18 The formation of this committee, while seemingly a prudent measure, did, in actuality, contribute significantly to tensions within the city and would be a primary factor in the failure of the strike as public opinion began to turn against the strikers when many came to view this committee as the de facto government of Winnipeg.

When resorting to strike action in order to achieve their goals unions, typically, attempt, as much as is possible, to avoid direct confrontation with the public as they see this as detrimental to their cause. During a general strike, however, the goal is not only to inconvenience employers but, also, the general public in the hope that this will lead to calls for a resolution on the striker's terms.

While this sort of public outcry was, undoubtedly, the goal of the Winnipeg strike leaders they were, nevertheless, unwilling to permit a complete breakdown of society and this, perhaps more than anything else, led to the failure of the general strike. While it is certain that the strike committee wished to prevent a complete breakdown of society so that public opinion would not turn against their cause this approach seriously undermined the effectiveness of the strike.

Had the strike committee taken a more radical approach, as some within their ranks advocated, it is conceivable that they would have been successful in achieving their goals provided, of course, that they managed to win the public relations battle by convincing the general public that their fight would result in advancements for all members of society. In the end the strike committee chose a more conservative approach and this, combined with their loss in the public relations battle, made their defeat inevitable.

As the strike became a foregone conclusion employers and government wasted little time responding to labour's challenge and proceeded to establish the Citizens' Committee of 1000. 19 This organization was comprised of the city's most influential manufacturers, bankers and politicians and, rather than giving the strikers demands any serious consideration, the Citizens' Committee, with the support of Winnipeg's leading newspapers, declared the strike to be a revolutionary conspiracy organized and led by a small group of foreigners directed from Moscow.

20 The Citizens' Committee ignored the strikers' basic demands for improved wages and union recognition, concentrating instead on a campaign to discredit the labour movement. John Dafoe, the influential editor of the Manitoba Free Press, advised that the best way of undermining the movement was to ". . . clean the aliens out of this community and ship them back to their happy homes in Europe which vomited them forth a decade ago. "21.

The Citizens' Committee regarded themselves as neutral in the initial disputes between the building and metal trades unions and their employers but felt that a general strike could paralyze the city and they, therefore, demanded that all three levels of government act decisively against the strikers and, in particular, against those public employees who had gone out in sympathy with the metal and trade workers. The first priority of the Citizen's Committee was the replacement of those members of the Winnipeg police force who were refusing to pledge themselves not to strike. 22 When the majority of the city's 200 police were dismissed on

June 9, the Committee financed the enlistment of 1800 special constables. Most of thesemen were drawn from the Anglo-Saxon middle-class regions of the city. 23 When the strike began at 11:00A. M. on 15 May approximately 30,000 union and non-union workers walked off the job in an astounding show of support for the building and metal trades unions. 24 This demonstration of solidarity was so unexpected that a group of strike leaders, who had gone to a favourite restaurant for lunch, were surprised (although it must be assumed that their surprise was a pleasant one) to find the establishment closed.

25 Despite the widespread nature of the strike the city, at first, seemed to take events so much in stride that the Free Press, in its last issue before the onset of the strike, declared "Winnipeg passed through the first day of the general strike without disorder, and without that tie-up of everything that some feared . . . "26 When milk was not delivered the next morning, however, the attitude displayed by the press towards the strike changed dramatically not only in Winnipeg but across Canada.

The failure of the strike committee to provide for the delivery of this necessity not only prevented the general public, as well as strikers and their families from receiving milk deliveries, but, also, resulted in charges that the strike committee was attempting to further its cause by starving infants and invalids.

While these charges were certainly untrue they still represented a public relations defeat for the strikers and, undoubtedly, led to the decision by the strike committee, reached during a meeting held at City Hall on 16 May, to avoid a complete breakdown of society by restoring some essential services. 28 This decision, taken as much for positive publicity as for humanitarian reasons, sounded the death knell for the striker's cause as the restoration of these services could serve only to reduce the severity and, thus, the effectiveness of the strike.

Milk was delivered to hospitals immediately and normal milk delivery was resumed on 18 May. 29 It was also decided, at the meeting of 16 May, that bread delivery, which had been suspended in the same manner as milk delivery when the strike began, would also be resumed on 18 May. 30 This decision undermined, in exactly the same manner as the decision to restore milk delivery, the position of the strikers and, thus, further weakened the effectiveness of their job action.

When these two decisions are taken together, however, it becomes apparent that, regardless of the strike committee's motives or the events which would transpire over the coming weeks, the strike was doomed at this early stage due to the minimization of its impact on the general public. Had the strike committee held fast it is possible that the strike might have been successful.

In addition, if they had been able to adequately explain to the general public that, although these services would be provided in emergencies, they could not be fully restored until their demands for better wages and the right of collective bargaining had been met, it is conceivable, in light of the class divisions which existed in the city, that the strikers might have persuaded the public to endure the hardship for the common good.

Milk and bread deliveries were not the only essential services which were withheld at the onset of the strike as restaurants were closed, oil and gasoline were not delivered, the postal service was disrupted, communications broke down, police and fireservices were unreliable, garbage was not removed, and the availability of water was reduced. 31 Just as with milk and bread deliveries the strike committee decided that, to a certain degree, each of these services must be restored in order to avoid complete societal breakdown.

When combined with the decision to deliver milk and bread the restoration of these services severely weakened the striker's position.

It is difficult to understand how the strike committee could not foresee that they were undermining their own cause each time they capitulated and restored a service which both they, and the government, deemed essential when, by doing so, they were, essentially, depriving themselves of their most effective weapons. In the food service industry, which had voted unanimously in favour of the strike, some restaurants were forced to close but the strike committee determined that it would in their best interest to keep as many as possible open.

An agreement was reached with proprietors which would guarantee delivery of supplies on the condition that establishments were kept open. 32 Keeping restaurants open could serve no useful purpose and was, in fact, detrimental to the strikers cause. That the strike committee still chose to keep these businesses open is another example of how their determination to avoid a complete societal breakdown undermined their efforts during the strike. Many restaurants did continue functioning for a time but, eventually, even those which had initially remained open were closed. When these closings occurred many strikers claimed that it was an effort to starve workers into submission.

This claim was untrue, however, and it is difficult to understand how the strikers could have made such allegations against establishments which had done their best, under difficult circumstances, to continue operating. Their belief that the closure of restaurants was designed to starve them into submission clearly demonstrates the divisions which existed within the city but the strikers who made these claims obviously failed to comprehend that these businesses closed due to difficulties in obtaining adequate supplies.