Anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike
May 1-June 25, 1919
Context and Multiple Causes of the Strike
The causes of the Winnipeg General Strike were multiple. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier had declared to the Canadian people that the 20th century would “belong to Canada.” From 1898 to 1912 economic growth was rapid and the population of the Canadian west was growing. There was an air of optimism and the ruling class promoted euphoria about empire. Winnipeg was a major industrial centre in Canada’s heartland, the depot of three major railways: the Canadian Pacific, the Canadian Northern, and the Grand Trunk Pacific. The movement by rail of new immigrants from east to west and of grain from west to east generated a great deal of wealth for the owners of capital.
Winnipeg rail workers began organizing themselves in the 1890s. Machinists and toolmakers were the first to organize and other workers followed. A Trades and Labour Council was organized to unify workers, a labour-oriented newspaper called the Western Labour News was created, and a labour candidate won a parliamentary seat. Several militant strikes were fought in the railway system, including where workers faced off against machine guns and imported strikebreakers. At the same time, the local economy continued to grow and unemployment was kept at bay by the large number of available jobs, especially in construction.
The situation changed when Britain began to shut down some of its production facilities. By the time World War I was declared in 1914, Winnipeg was in a virtual depression with many unemployed workers walking the streets. Those employed worked at low wages for long hours in poor working conditions and inflation ran rampant. Winnipeg began producing war materials and munitions in 1915 but the amount was comparatively small. Many workers opposed conscription, viewing the war mainly as a scheme to send workers to their death to increase capitalist profits. It was well-known that certain individuals were making huge profits supplying war materials. Farmers faced high tariffs and falling grain prices. When the war ended, soldiers came home, not to a world “safe for democracy,” but to unemployment, poverty and neglect.
During the war, the number of organized workers in Winnipeg grew by one-third. The main focus of labour activity became the Metal Trades Council, formed in 1918 to represent machinists and toolmakers. Workers in the three railway-owned shops worked for wages. The non-union contract shops were owned by Manitoba Bridge (Deacon), Vulcan (Barrett brothers), and Dominion Bridge (Montreal capitalists). They paid workers less than the railway shops using a piecework system. One of the Metal Trades Council’s main goals was to enforce wage parity in all six shops. The Winnipeg General Strike essentially grew out of the May 1 strike of the building trades union and the May 2 strike of the metal-trades workers at the three contract shops. The strike lasted 41 days and an estimated 25,000 workers participated.
Greatly inspired by the 1917 victory of the Bolshevik Revolution, a May 22, 1919 editorial in the Western Labour News said: “The fight is on. It overthrew the government in Russia, Austria, Germany, etc.” In Winnipeg, accused strike leader William Pritchard during his courtroom defence vigorously highlighted the contributions of Marx and Engels to the labour movement. On the other side, the “Committee of 1000,” the anti-strike organization of the local and national capitalists, including the Canadian Manufacturers Association, the Bankers Association, and Imperial Oil, claimed that the strike was the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in Canada and that all the workers were dangerous radicals who were determined to wreck the existing institutions and establish a Soviet government.
On June 22, 1918, Prime Minister Borden had approved sending Canadian soldiers to Siberia to join the ultimately unsuccessful reactionary crusade of 14 countries which sought to crush the Bolshevik Revolution. On December 22, 1918, a mass meeting in Winnipeg condemned that intervention.
Conditions at the Time of the Strike
World War I and the post-war crisis had radically undermined Britain’s monopoly position among capitalist states. The post World War I period was characterized by various powers manoeuvring for greater market share, mainly at the expense of Britain. The war had shaken up the pre-war relations and new forces were entering the market including not only the United States but also Germany, Japan and other countries as well as Britain’s own dominions and colonies, including Canada, which had managed to further develop their own economies during the war. The new competition and loss of market share made it more difficult for Britain to extract profits by plundering of markets and sources of raw material, including in Canada. In response, British capital endeavoured to restrict production, or at any rate not to expand it indiscriminately.
As profits in Britain and its colonies declined and the few crumbs which fell to the working class dwindled even further, workers began to resort more and more frequently to direct struggle against capital. Canada was still mainly under the control of Britain. The aim of the British and the capitalist ruling elite in Canada, Manitoba and Winnipeg itself, was to secure the maximum possible profit by exploiting labour irrespective of the needs of the workers and society. In the conditions of the war and post-war, such intense exploitation inevitably led to resistance on the part of the workers and to their fight for higher wages and better working conditions, among other things.
Contrary to the myth that the Winnipeg General Strike was an “anomaly” because the working class movement in Canada has been “well-behaved” throughout its history, even a cursory look at labour history verifies that there had been decades of organized struggle against capital, including numerous strikes. The Halifax General Strike and other strikes in Nova Scotia were also taking place at that time. Just prior to the Winnipeg General Strike, Winnipeg civic employees, supported by other public service unions, had won a strike. The General Strike was only one of many such strikes, albeit one of the larger, longer, and more significant ones in terms of advancing the fight for workers’ rights and laying the claims on society which belonged to the working people by right. The workers heroically faced the intransigence of the owners, whose contempt for the workers, bullying and use of the state to protect their interests were without limit.
The expansion of Canadian capitalism included the capitalists’ continuous striving to reduce costs of production in their industry. The fact that the metal workers were the target of the main blow in this case was no accident. They were skilled workers with a high level of expertise and experience who knew their worth in the process of production. Their work generated large profits for the railway capitalists who were one of the most powerful owner groups in Canada. Also, as the first large group of workers to be organized in Winnipeg, the metal workers represented an advanced detachment of the working class. It was the strategy of the ruling elite to crush them in order to lower their wages and lengthen their working day, and secure the compliance of the rest of the working class. Everyone must toe the line. But the result was the opposite of what they wanted. Instead of being cowed, thousands of other Winnipeg workers and other workers in Canada, such as in Toronto, Vancouver, Regina, Edmonton and Calgary, eagerly supported the metalworkers with strikes of their own.
In 1919, Canada was governed by the Robert Borden-led Conservative Party which declared itself a most bitter enemy. This was the same Borden who, in June 1918, had helped draft the British resolution asking for “immediate Allied armed assistance to Russia” with the aim of crushing the workers’ revolution there. Two months later, Borden called for the dispatch of Canadian troops to Siberia. During the Winnipeg General Strike, the Borden government violently attacked the strikers and their allies while the monopoly press in the service of the owners of capital repeatedly blamed the strike on immigrants and Bolsheviks.
As the course of the strike showed, the Canadian capitalists and the government formed by the Conservative Party, proved to be more experienced, more organized, and therefore stronger, than the Winnipeg workers and their leaders. They entered the conflict fully armed and prepared to crush the workers.
On May 22, the federal government sent battalions of soldiers armed with machine guns to Winnipeg. On June 6, the government amended the Immigration Act to permit deportation of immigrants accused of “sedition.” On June 10, “special police” recruited from among scabs and thugs attacked a peaceful demonstration. On June 16, some of the strike leaders were arrested and imprisoned and placed under threat of deportation. They then organized for compliant labour leaders to step into the vacuum to undermine the strike.
June 21 has gone down in history as Bloody Saturday. Armed Mounties and soldiers viciously attacked a peaceful protest by unarmed workers and killed two strikers and injured 30 others. The leaders of the Canadian labour movement seemed to have been caught somewhat unawares and unorganized. Only a week before the conflict those leaders were expressing their conviction that there would be no conflict.
On June 23 the president of the Canadian Trades and Labour Congress stated that the strike was “officially over” and the time had come for the workers to put their energies into winning elected positions on the Municipal Council. The fact was that the Strike Committee was already organized to keep the city’s essential services functioning, showing the ability of the working class to organize the society according to its needs.
J.S. Woodsworth, future leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, forerunner of the New Democratic Party, took over the Western Labour News, organ of the strikers, when its editor was arrested. His every speech and editorial were filled with reformist illusions and promotion of a peaceful parliamentary path to victory for the workers.
Several leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike received their schooling as labour leaders in Britain, during that period when British capital was raking in super-profits and could shower favours on the labour leaders and use them to obtain compromises with the British working class. Many such leaders were blinded by the glamour of capitalism and became divorced from the workers. Instead of fighting for the workers, they took up capitalist ideology and became enamoured with “getting ahead.” Engels called such leaders bourgeoisified. Ramsay MacDonald, who was the first British Labour politician to become Prime Minister, is one example. After 1931, MacDonald was repeatedly denounced by the British Labour movement as a traitor to their cause, although some of his critics were certainly no shining examples of working class leadership themselves.
The Borden-led Conservative Party realized the major political importance of the Winnipeg General Strike, that such a strike could be seriously fought only by a combination of political measures, such as the changed immigration legislation, and military measures, and the mobilization of police and troops to crush the workers. The Strike Committee was not experienced enough to recognize the political importance of the general strike and limited the action to exclusively economic demands, the fight for fair wages, better working conditions, and a shorter working day.
The general staff of the capitalists understood that wide-ranging union support of the Winnipeg General Strike would be dangerous to their cause. This fueled their anti-communist, anti-immigrant propaganda. The federal Minister of Labour, who was a former vice-president of the Typographers Union, agitated strongly against the workers and called for the detention of their leaders. The One Big Union, known as the Wobblies, supported the strike but did nothing to organize or lead it. Other international union leaders openly opposed the strike under the hoax that its real agenda was not to advance the cause of the workers but to put an end to international unionism.
Public statements were even made that the strikers did not intend to turn the struggle into a political struggle and that the Strike Committee had no intention of raising the question of political power. As history has shown, a general strike which is not turned into a political struggle will leave the working class to face the organized political power of the capitalist class unprepared.
The situation facing the capitalists and their government was made even more serious by the fact that many soldiers who returned from the war played an important role in the strike. To deal with this, the government and capitalist media played on their loyalties to split their ranks. To this end, the executive of the Great War Veterans Association (GWVA) attempted to foment racism by propagandizing that while the soldiers had been overseas fighting in the war, “alien” workmen, i.e., immigrants, had been taking their jobs and that these “aliens” were those who had gone on strike. For its part, the Western Labour News, in a May 20 editorial, urged the workers who were also veterans to help remove the reactionary executive of the GWVA. Overall, soldiers with a labour background supported the strike while others were indifferent or opposed. Pro-strike soldiers were the main organizers of what they called “parades” which brought the workers out into the streets in protest. Anti-strike soldiers organized counter-demonstrations.
Several workers’ organizations that were active at the time, such as the Independent Labour Party (Winnipeg, 1895), the Socialist Party of Canada (1904), the Manitoba Labour Party (1910), and the Social Democratic Party (1911) held meetings and conferences, including the big Western Canadian Labour Conference which was held in Calgary in March 1919. That conference adopted strong resolutions in support of socialism and in defence of Soviet Russia and even “full acceptance of the principle of the ‘Proletarian Dictatorship.’ The Canadian Communist Party was subsequently founded two years later and held its first Convention June 18-19, 1921 in Guelph, Ontario.
Some Lessons Learned
The first-hand experience of the strike showed the workers that the chief obstacle to the workers achieving their goals was the political power of the capitalists, in this case exercised by the Conservative Party government. While the Canadian Trades and Labour Congress seemed afraid of admitting the inseparable connection between the economic struggle and the political struggle, the workers gained through their struggle the increased understanding of the fundamental question of which class holds political power and that the state is not neutral in the struggle between capital and labour. The strike tore the veil off the political power showing it is indivisible and that the struggle of the workers must target it so that they can deploy the strength of their numbers and organizations in their favour so that it cannot be effective as a weapon wielded by those in power against the workers.
The course and outcome of the strike showed the workers the unsuitability of those labour leaders who were infected with the bourgeois striving for personal wealth, power and privilege. The strike showed that such leaders must be replaced by revolutionary leaders who do not espouse such things. The strike also showed the Winnipeg workers and workers elsewhere in Canada that it was critical for the entire working class to support individual strikes in order to ensure their success. The strike brought home to the working class the truth of this important lesson.
Last and most importantly, the strike showed the workers, especially in its most difficult moments, that the existing parties were incapable of boldly and resolutely upholding the interests of the working class, which needed its own political party expressing its own independent politics, tactics and demands. The subsequent formation of the Communist Party of Canada in 1921 was intended to provide this problem with a solution which it did until it lost its bearings in the early 1950s when, in the throes of the Cold War, it created illusions about the bourgeois democracy.
That situation has changed, however, since March 31, 1970, at which time the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) was founded on the basis of the Leninist organizational principles to carry out those tasks required to open the society’s path to progress. In this endeavour, CPC(M-L) is constantly carrying out all political and ideological tasks on the basis of organizational work which serves the fundamental task of furthering the cause of people’s empowerment.
The Party succinctly summed up its mission and how to achieve it: “All the activities which CPC(M-L) has carried out since its founding have a common thread — to further develop the leading role of the working class in society. The strength of CPC(M-L) lies in its revolutionary theory, its political line and its organizations at various levels which are always paying attention to the particular tasks facing the society to open the path for progress. The cutting edge for this period is to wage the ideological struggle and engage in political work to determine the practical politics required to build the political movement against nation-wrecking. Practical politics are required to mobilize the working people and the youth and students to take up nation-building on a modern basis.
“The emphasis on organizing work is to activate the human factor/social consciousness so that responsibility is taken to turn things around. By building committees which take their own independent political stands, the working people and the youth and students can make serious advance. These committees must be established at places of work, in the educational institutions and neighbourhoods and amongst seniors where their members can take responsibility for their decisions and the actions of their peers. They can address matters of concern to themselves, the society and the world. By developing the independent politics of the working class they will provide themselves with the key to depriving the international financial oligarchs and the governments in their service of the power to deprive the people, who depend on the society for their well-being, of what belongs to them by right.”
1. A pointed example is the British General Strike of 1926 which involved 1.7 million workers and lasted nine days but failed to result in any permanent power gains for the workers.
(Photos: Manitoba and Canadian archives.)