Strike 1919!For six weeks in the summer of 1919 the eyes of the world were turned on Winnipeg. What started as a simple conflict between the city’s building trade and metal shop workers and their employers had turned into the biggest strike in Canadian history. At least 30,000 people were off the job; half of them were not even union members. The event is referred to as a general strike because so many of the workers on strike were not involved the direct dispute between the building and metal trades workers and their employers.
Many observers wondered if the city were on the verge of a revolution, such as the one that had taken place in Russia in 1917. It was no secret that many of the strike leaders were associated with the radical Socialist Party and the One Big Union, the ominous sounding name of the union that the socialists hoped to create. Others felt that the strike was simply a conflict between employers and employees that had grown particularly bitter in light of the changes that Canadian society had undergone during the First World War. Prices had risen dramatically, while wages had not always kept pace. During the war there had been a rapid increase in the number of unions and unionized workers in Canada—but Winnipeg employers were particularly reluctant to negotiate with these unions. This unwillingness to even negotiate with unions was what turned a conflict between a few unions and their employers into a national crisis.
No one was prepared for the degree of support that the unions received from workingpeople across the city. It was surprising that only one union voted not to support the strike, but it was an even greater shock to discover that there were thousands of non-union workers prepared to put their jobs at risk in support of other workers. The city ground to a halt; eventually the strike leaders had to become involved in determining which services were to continue and which would be halted for the duration of the strike. If the strike committee had not stopped them, even the police officers would have gone out on strike.
The strike spurred an equally dramatic response from the city’s business community, which formed itself into the Citizen’s Committee of One Thousand. The Committee leaders viewed the strike as a potential revolt and worked with the federal government to crush it. Committee members replaced the police force with volunteers that they had recruited. At their urging amendments to the Criminal Code were rushed through parliament creating new crimes and making it easier to deport labour activists. When the time was right, Committee members oversaw the arrest and eventual prosecution of the strike leaders.
This ensured that the strike would not end with a contract, but with a show of force. In late June North-West Mounted Police officers on horse back charged a crowd protesting the arrest of the strike leaders. Shots were fired and two strikers were left dead. The strike itself was followed by a series of trials – a number of strike leaders were sent to jail, but they retained considerable public support. Several of them were elected to the provincial legislature and parliament, including three who were still in jail on voting day. The general strike was the outcome of 20 years of growing conflict in Winnipeg and Canada. It was the largest and most dramatic of a series of post-war labour conflicts that rocked Canada in 1919. It demonstrated both the bonds of solidarity that many Winnipeg workers felt towards one another, the divisions that had been created by industrialization in Winnipeg, and divisions within the labour movement itself. Its impact on the city’s development would last for decades.