Winnipeg General Strike of 1919

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WinnipegGeneralStrike.jpg
Crowd gathered outside old City Hall during the Winnipeg General Strike, June 21, 1919

The Winnipeg General Strike was Canada's most influential labour protest.

After World War I many Canadian soldiers returned home to find few opportunities. Wages and working conditions were dismal and labour regulations were mostly non-existent. The Bolshevik revolution had just occurred in Russia and many workers saw this as an example of a successful socialist revolution.

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 overthrowing Canadian capitalism through a series of crippling general strikes.

In Winnipeg, workers at a local machine shop sought to unionize, but the management refused to negotiate. Eventually, the shop went on strike. One by one, other unions went off the job in solidarity, and within a few days, even non-union employees were leaving work to participate in the strike.

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 200,000. Even essential public employees such as firemen went on strike, but returned midway through the strike with the approval of the Strike Committee. The Winnipeg Police were technically on strike but remained on patrol in practice.

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

The newspapers were generally nothing short of hysterical. The New York Times front page proclaimed "Bolshevism Invades Canada." The Winnipeg Free Press called the strikers "bohunks," "aliens," and anarchists and ran cartoons depicting hooked-nosed Jewish radicals throwing bombs. The majority of the strikers were reformist, not radical. 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 21 the Committee dismissed most of the city's 200 police, replacing them with their own militia.

The Citizens' Committee met with federal Minister of Labour Gideon Decker Robertson and Minister of the Interior (and acting Minister of Justice) Arthur Meighen, 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 foreign born radicals for deportation. The two ministers refused to meet the Central Strike Committee to consider its grievances.

On June 17 the federal government ordered the arrest of twelve strike leaders (including J.S. Woodsworth and A.A. Heaps). Four days later strikers assembled at Market Square where the Mayor 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. Thirty were injured and one killed in what became known as Bloody Saturday. 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.

The head of the Royal Commission which investigated the strike found 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...Government might find it necessary [to intervene] and let the state do these things at the expense of Capital."

Canada's Liberal Party, fearing the growing support for hard left elements, pledged to enact labour reforms. In this way the Winnipeg General Strike can be said to have resulted in much improved working conditions for millions of Canadians. J.S. Woodsworth, a strike leader who was briefly imprisoned, would go on to found Canada's first socialist political party, the CCF.

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