Anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike
May 1-June 25, 1919
Largest Social Revolt in Canadian History
The Winnipeg General Strike, which took place May 1 to June 25, 1919, became known as the largest social revolt in Canadian history. It is the subject of many studies as concerns not only the role of the government and police forces but also the role played by unions, communists, socialists and the traditional political parties. The strike remains of great significance to the subsequent development of the Canadian working class movement for emancipation.
At the time of the strike, World War I had ended but it did not end the greed of the power-hungry men who had started it in the first place. In Canada the war was a pretext to suppress resistance to imperialist war and conscientious objection to participating, as well as to attack organized labour and revolutionary politics. The War Measures Act remained in effect for over a year after the end of the war and was used against organizers of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919. After the war, Canadian forces along with troops from 10 other countries, at the instigation of Britain and France, were also sent to invade Soviet Russia in a vain attempt to maintain the privileges of the Czarist regime negated by the establishment of the world’s first socialist state. Meanwhile, soldiers who survived the experience of trench warfare, many of them suffering injuries and the unrecognized effects of mustard gas and post traumatic stress, were discouraged by post-war inflation and unemployment. Thousands more died following the war of the Spanish flu.
In these circumstances, Winnipeg’s metal and building workers went on strike, demanding higher wages and shorter hours. They were joined by iron workers who were fighting for company recognition of their union, the Metal Trades Council. On May 15, with the overwhelming support of its 12,000 members, the Winnipeg Labour Council called a general strike. Thirty thousand union and non-union workers walked off the job. Among the first out were the city’s telephone workers. Sympathy strikes were organized in Edmonton and Calgary in support of the Winnipeg General Strike.
Women workers played strong roles in the strike. They acted as strikers and supported other striking workers. They set up the food kitchens and simultaneously tried to look after their families. Women telephone workers on strike unplugged the telephone lines, took to the streets during protests, and confronted scabs. Women were members of the Central Strike Committee as well as members of the Women’s Labour League. In fact, women began the general sympathetic strike in support of the already striking metal and building trades workers on May 15. When 500 telephone operators, 90 per cent of whom were women, clocked out at the end of their shifts at 7:00 am, no other workers came in to replace them. Winnipeg had no phone service for a week. On May 20, the Western Labour News announced an all-day organizational meeting for all women workers.
The context for this strike was the grave economic crisis in which Britain and, by extension, Canada found themselves following World War I, as well as the unconscionable treatment the workers received when they returned from fighting the trench warfare in which thousands were used as cannon fodder in the euphoria for empire which preceded the war. The war quickly smashed that euphoria, leaving Canada at a crossroads, not only flailing in the throes of an economy whose old basis had been smashed by the war but also without an aim rooted in the former empire-building. The service of governments to alien interests and the moloch of capital with which the workers definitely did not identify put a severe strain on the ability of governments to maintain labour peace.
The Government of Canada, along with the Manitoba provincial government, also clearly feared a revolution similar to the one that had just happened in Russia. They spread lies that claimed “immigrants” were behind the strike. The Government of Canada amended the Immigration Act so that even British-born immigrants, who in those days were automatically granted citizenship rights, could be deported. It mobilized the police forces against the striking workers and resorted to violence to crush the strike. The response of government to the terrible plight the workers were in at that time clearly revealed the role of the state in suppressing the struggles of the workers who had just sacrificed so much in the trench warfare of World War I.
In June, the federal authorities officially resorted to deportation threats to suppress working class politics, even though they attempted to deceive the public by avoiding the word “political” in their accusations. Amendments to Section 41 of the Immigration Act defined “a prohibited immigrant” as “anyone interested in overthrowing organized government either in the Empire (at the provincial level in Canada too) or in general, or in destroying property, or promoting riot or public disorder, or belonging to a secret organization trying to control people by threat or blackmail.” After nearly a month, Winnipeg’s mayor called out special constables whose presence fueled the strikers’ fire. Their leaders were arrested. The North West Mounted Police (which became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920) and special constables fired on the workers, killing two men. An additional 34 people were wounded and 80 arrested. A few days later, the strike ended with a protest march organized by war veterans on June 21.
1. Barbara Roberts, Whence They Came: Deportation from Canada (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1988), p. 84.