As a new regular feature, Basics will cover important events in the history of popular struggle.
Canada’s working peoples have a proud history of resistance and, even today, the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike is a great example to learn from.
In spring of 1919, employers refused to negotiate with workers who wanted higher wages and union recognition in Winnipeg-based building and metal jobs. Workers turned to the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (WTLC) for help and within a week a democratic vote was held in which over 11,000 members of the WTLC chose to hold a general strike in support of the building and metal workers demands. Less than 600 votes were cast against the strike. Based on these results and widespread support from other unions, the WTLC formed a Central Strike Committee and declared a general strike.
On May 15, 1919, at 11am the general strike began with approximately 30,000 workers participating over the 6 weeks it lasted. As word of the general strike spread across the country, workers in other areas declared their solidarity. Sympathy strikes were called in Brandon, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Regina, Vancouver, New Westminster, Victoria, and in as many as 20 other towns.
The response of the federal government to the Winnipeg strikers was similar to what we might expect today: members of the federal parliament refused to meet with the WTLC or the Central Strike Committee but instead met only with a committee formed by employers, business elites and media. This group represented no more than 1000 Winnipeg citizens.
The federal government then ordered all workers back to work under threat of being fired. On June 6, the federal cabinet changed the Immigration Act to allow for the arrest and deportation of “enemy aliens”. Workers not born in Canada were targeted as agitators and publicly referred to as “alien scum”. On June 17, twelve strike-leaders and strikers born in other countries were arrested and held in Stone Mountain Penitentiary, outside of Winnipeg. Some were later deported.
Workers and strike-supporters were outraged and planned a parade and rally on Saturday June 21, 1919, now known as “Bloody Saturday”. The Royal North-West Mounted Police were used by the government to break up the crowds, which they did by killing one worker and seriously injuring at least 30 workers. A special police force put together by the City of Winnipeg and the Canadian army then beat many workers using baseball bats and wagon spokes.
Faced with the combined forces of government and employers, and under constant threats of violence and intimidation, the strikers decided to return to work in late June 1919.
The militancy set off in Canada amongst workers for almost thirty years after the Winnipeg General Strike finally resulted in a victory of union recognition, collective bargaining, and social welfare programs for the unemployed.
It is disappointing today to see these hard-won rights whittled away by high-paid labor bureaucrats like Buzz Hargrove (see CAW/Magna, p4). Let us take the lessons of the Winnipeg Strike and organize for higher wages, better working conditions in our workplaces, and a better society!