Winnipeg General Strike


Winnipeg General Strike

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was one of the most influential strikes in Canadian history. J. S. Woodsworth, a strike leader who was briefly imprisoned, went on to found the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which was the forerunner of the New Democratic Party.After World War I many Canadian soldiers returned home to find few opportunities, though many companies had enjoyed enormous profits on war contracts. Wages and working conditions were dismal and labour regulations were mostly non-existent. The Bolshevik revolution had just occurred in Russia, and some workers saw this as an example of a successful socialist revolutionFact|date=December 2007. This was the pretext that Minister of Justice Arthur Meighen used to accuse the strike leaders of being Communists, and many were deported from Canada after an amendment to the Canadian Naturalization ActFact|date=December 2007.

In March 1919 labour delegates from across Western Canada convened in Calgary to form a branch of the "One Big Union", with the intention of earning rights for Canadian workers through a series of strikes.

The Strike

Organization

In Winnipeg, workers within the building and metal industries attempted to unionize by forming the Building Trade Council and Metal Trade Council respectively, but the management refused to negotiate. Due to the restrictions of labour policy in the 1900s, a union could only be recognized voluntarily by employers, or through strike action. Therefore, workers from both industries went on strike to gain union recognition.

The Building and Metal Trade Councils appealed to the Trades and Labour Union, the central union body representing the interests of many of Winnipeg's workers, for support in their endeavours. The Trades and Labour Union, in a spirit of solidarity, voted in favour of a sympathetic strike in support of the Building and Metal Trade Councils.By 11 AM on May 15, 1919, virtually the entire working population of Winnipeg had walked off the job. 30,000 to 35,000 people were on strike in a city of 175,000. Even essential public employees such as fire fighters went on strike, but returned midway through the strike with the approval of the Strike Committee. The members of the Winnipeg Police Service remained on duty at the request of the strike committee.

The strike was generally nonviolent. Relations with police were tense but generally did not result in clashes, although a young boy was accidentally killed early in the strike.

Opposition

The local newspapers, the Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune, had lost the majority of their employees due to the strike and took a decidedly anti-strike stance. The New York Times front page proclaimed "Bolshevism Invades Canada." The Winnipeg Free Press called the strikers "bohunks," "aliens," and "anarchists." They ran cartoons depicting hooked-nosed Jewish radicals throwing bombs. These anti-strike views greatly influenced the opinions of Winnipeg residents. However, the majority of the strikers were reformist, not revolutionary. They wanted to amend the system, not destroy it and build a new one.

A counter-strike committee, the "Citizens' Committee of One Thousand", was created by Winnipeg's wealthy elite. The Committee declared the strike to be a violent, revolutionary conspiracy by a small group of foreigners. On June 9, at the behest of the Committee, the City of Winnipeg Police Commission dismissed almost the entire city police force for refusing to sign a pledge promising to neither belong to a union nor participate in a sympathetic strike. They were replaced by a large body of untrained but better paid special constables. Despite this drastic measure, control of the streets was beyond the capacity of the city in the period between June 9 and Bloody Saturday.

The Citizens' Committee met with federal Minister of Labour Gideon Decker Robertson and Minister of the Interior (and acting Minister of Justice) Arthur Meighen, and warned them that the leaders of the general strike were revolutionists and demanding action. Robertson ordered federal government employees back to work, threatening them with dismissal if they refused. Meighen had the Criminal Code of Canada amended to broaden the definition of sedition, and also amended the Immigration Act to target British-born radicals for deportation. The two ministers refused to meet the Central Strike Committee to consider its grievances.

Violence

On June 17 the federal government ordered the arrest of ten strike leaders (including J.S. Woodsworth and Abraham Albert Heaps). Four days later, strikers assembled at Market Square, where Winnipeg Mayor Charles Frederick Gray read the Riot Act. Royal North-West Mounted Police were sent and charged into a crowd of strikers, beating them with clubs and firing weapons. Mike Sokolowski was killed and at least 30 were injured in what became known as "Bloody Saturday". A number of eastern European immigrants were rounded up and deported.

By June 25, 1919 the workers were gradually giving up and the Central Strike Committee decided to halt the strike.

Aftermath

The Royal Commission which investigated the strike concluded that the strike was not a criminal conspiracy by foreigners and suggested that "if Capital does not provide enough to assure Labour a contented existence ... then the Government might find it necessary to step in and let the state do these things at the expense of Capital." [Justice H. A. Robson's report, quoted in cite book
last = Fudge
first = Judy
coauthors = Tucker, Eric
title = Labour Before the Law: The Regulation of Workers' Collective Action in Canada, 1900-1948
year = 2004
publisher = University of Toronto Press
location = Toronto
isbn = 0802037933
pages = 112
]

Organized labour thereafter was hostile towards the Conservatives, particularly Meighen and Robertson, for their forceful role in putting down the strike. Combined with high tariffs in the federal budget passed in the same year (which farmers disliked), this contributed to the Conservatives' heavy defeat in the 1921 election. The succeeding Liberal government, fearing the growing support for hard left elements, pledged to enact the labour reforms proposed by the Commission. In this way the Winnipeg General Strike can be saidWho|date=July 2008 to have resulted in much improved working conditions for millions of Canadians.

ee also

*On-to-Ottawa Trek
*Reesor Siding Strike of 1963
*Strike! (musical)

References


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