Thirty-five thousand workers off the job. Massive protests in streets and parks. A dismissed police force replaced by baton-wielding vigilantes. A streetcar nearly tipped over and set aflame. Mounties opening fire on crowds of unarmed men, women and children. It all happened in Winnipeg, Manitoba 100 years ago in one of the most well-known and significant labour strikes in Canadian history: the Winnipeg General Strike.
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Winnipeg enters the 20th century
Veterans returning from the First World War came home to find that their families were in worse economic and social conditions than before they had enlisted.
Skilled building and metal workers, who had spent many years specializing in their respective trades, were in the midst of negotiating new contracts for wages and working conditions with their employers. The workers wanted their employers to negotiate with a trade council representing workers across their industry. But employers thought it was advantageous to continue negotiating separately with the unions for smaller sub-sections within each industry. When employers refused to negotiate collectively with the trade councils, the Winnipeg General Strike began.
At 11 a.m. on May 15, 1919, Winnipeg workers from the city’s building and metal trades put down their tools and walked off the job. They were joined by unionized workers from other occupations. But incredibly, thousands of non-unionized workers also left their jobs to join the general strike. Roughly 35,000 workers were on strike to protest their low pay and poor working conditions as well as their employers’ refusal to negotiate any of these issues. These workers were supported by thousands of pro-strike war veterans. A group of striking workers formed the Strike Committee to oversee the strike and ensure that the basic needs of citizens and the city were met. Winnipeg was now under worker control.
The whole working class feels that in the past it has suffered and conditions have been against it.
Winnipeg’s business elite were not happy with this dramatic turn of events. They quickly formed the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand to fight the strike. They did this by lobbying all three levels of government – civic, provincial, and federal – to crush the strike by any means necessary. They also published their own newspaper that painted the general strike as a Bolshevik revolution1led by foreign agitators who needed to be deported. Their message was heard far and wide, with The New York Times even proclaiming, "BOLSHEVISM IN WINNIPEG." Although the strike was portrayed as a plot to overthrow the government, this was not the case.
As the Committee of One Thousand tried to paint strikers as dangerous radicals intent on assuming power, workers in cities across Canada showed their solidarity with Winnipeg workers by holding sympathy strikes.
Many striking workers were given ultimatums by their employers: disavow the strike and return to work or lose your job. Yet, at a mass meeting at Victoria Park, strikers rejected these threats. The city’s police also wanted to join the strike though they stayed on duty at the behest of the Strike Committee. A few weeks after the strike began, however, Mayor Charles Gray fired the police because they were sympathetic to the strikers. The Committee of One Thousand began recruiting “Special Police” to replace the dismissed police officers. The Special Police tended to be returned war veterans who were against the strike. They wore armbands and badges as identification and were armed with clubs. Their appearance on the streets of Winnipeg created a new tension.
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The first clash between strikers and the Special Police occurred on June 10 at Main Street and Portage Avenue. Strikers pelted the Special Police with rocks while the Special Police swung their clubs indiscriminately. Many were hurt on both sides, but after Mayor Charles Gray called off the Special Police, calm returned to the area.
I wish to avoid the use of sterner methods if possible, but will use whatever methods are necessary to enforce law and order.
A week later, members of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (RNWMP) raided the homes of the Strike Committee leaders and placed them under arrest. Recent changes to the federal Immigration Act meant that these men were under threat of deportation for treason if found guilty.
Everything came to a head when pro-strike war veterans held a silent march on Saturday, June 21 to protest the arrest of strike leaders. Demonstrations of this kind had been banned by Mayor Charles Gray earlier that month but the veterans would not be deterred.
When a streetcar driven by a member of the Committee of One Thousand made its way south on Main Street towards City Hall, the strikers saw this act as a direct provocation. They surrounded the streetcar and tried unsuccessfully to tip it over. Undeterred, they set the streetcar on fire.
The RNWMP arrived on the scene to restore order. As they passed by City Hall, strikers hit them with rocks and bottles. Mayor Gray read the Riot Act2 and told the crowds to leave the area within 30 minutes. By then, the RNWMP had turned with clubs and revolvers drawn, and began driving the crowds of strikers and bystanders off the street. Shots were fired into the crowd and one man was killed. Strikers and bystanders began fleeing down side streets and through alleys only to run into Special Police lying in wait with batons at the ready. The local militia was called and they patrolled Winnipeg’s city centre alongside the RNWMP and Special Police. This day became known as "Bloody Saturday."
Hoping to avoid more violence, the Strike Committee met with Manitoba Premier T.C. Norris. The committee stated it would end the strike if the premier agreed to have a Royal Commission examine the root causes of the strike. With both parties successfully negotiating a deal, the strike was officially called off on June 26, 1919.
Winnipeg workers walked off the job to protest low wages, long working hours and other poor working conditions, as well as their employers’ unwillingness to negotiate. In response, they were met with clubs and bullets, a vigilante police force, the RNWMP and militia. Many strikers lost their jobs. But even though the demands that led to the Winnipeg General Strike did not materialize for striking workers, they did not view the strike as a complete failure. Instead, they looked for other ways to improve the working and social conditions of Winnipeg’s working class.
The formation of new unions and collective bargaining was another result of the strike. Politicians and labour activists continued to advocate for protections and better wages for workers, and had their voices heard. Since the general strike, workers have successfully fought for many important human rights initiatives including universal healthcare, minimum wage legislation, employment insurance and anti-discrimination in the workplace. And progress continues to be made, as more and more Canadians expand the discussion on labour rights to include groups and topics that were once overlooked, like disability rights or environmental rights. The hard-fought gains workers made over the last 100 years must still be protected. A central goal of labour rights activities today is to focus on the need to value people and to ensure fair wages and safe working environments for all. The guarantees workers have today will only remain if people continue to speak out against injustice. And so, the struggle continues.
Bercuson, David J. Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990.
Epp-Koop, Stefan. We’re Going to Run this City: Winnipeg’s Political Left after the General Strike. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015.
Dupuis, Michael. Winnipeg’s General Strike: Reports from the Front Line. Charleston: The History Press, 2014.
Kramer, Reinhold, and Tom Mitchell. When the State Trembled: How A.J. Andrews and the Citizens’ Committee Broke the Winnipeg General Strike. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.
1The Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin overthrew Russia’s provisional government in October 1917. The Bolsheviks were a left-wing revolutionary group that later became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The CPSU ruled Russia until 1991.
2The Riot Act gave Mayor Gray, as an elected official, the authority to order the crowds of strikers to disperse or face the legal consequences of their actions.