The roots of the strikeThe Canadian Pacific Railway did more than bring immigrants and industry to Manitoba, it also brought trade unionism to the province. The huge CPR yards in central Winnipeg employed over 2,000 men by the late 1880s. Many of these skilled trades workers had come from England and Scotland where they been active in a revived British labour movement. Not long after their arrival in Manitoba they formed unions of their own. Soon there were unions for machinists, conductors, brakemen, and engineers. The Canadian National Railway’s decision to build a rail yard in Transcona ensured that that community would have a strong trade-union tradition. A boomtown such as Winnipeg attracted carpenters, plumbers, painters and other construction workers , each of whom soon set up their own unions.
There were no labour laws requiring employers to negotiate with unions – or to prevent an employer from firing someone simply for belonging to a union. Most unions simply posted their rates and working conditions—if an employer refused to meet them, the union would go on strike. In other cases, workers did not form a union until after an employer had cut wages and benefits. Many employers took a very hard line with unions. (Ref1, Ref2) The owners of the Vulcan Iron Works, for example, vowed they would never meet or negotiate with a union committee. In 1906 streetcar employees went on strike when two union officers were fired—a move that sparked a violent and bitter strike.
Some union leaders did not believe women workers could be unionized, but working women in Winnipeg began forming their own unions in the late nineteenth century. Winnipeg’s competitive garment trade was hit with numerous labour disputes. In 1893, 75 male and female tailors, all members of the Journeyman Tailors’ Union, struck to protest a pay cut. The strike was defeated when their employers brought in new workers from Toronto. Winnipeg’s first union solely for working women was created in 1899 when, to protest a 20 per cent pay cut, 50 women working for the Emerson and Hague tent and overall company joined the United Garment Workers. After some initial negotiations, the company sparked a strike by firing the union leaders. The strike was lost but the women found work at a new garment factory, which agreed to the union contract. In the summer of 1902, 40 women working at the Paulin-Chambers bakery struck to protest a wage cut. When the women joined the Bakers’ Union, their employer threatened to fire them and hired replacement workers. Most union women worked at jobs that were extensions of women’s traditional domestic roles—cooking, sewing, and cleaning— but some began to show up in less traditional workplaces such a printshops, where they might be accepted into the union. In other cases the wives of male union members might form a ladies auxiliary. A Women’s Labor League had been founded in 1917 to bring together women who were active in the local labour movement. The league raised funds for women on strike, helped in organizing campaigns, and supported women when they were on strike. The League played a leading role in a strike of clerks at the Winnipeg Woolworth’s store in 1917.
Winnipeg’s unionists met regularly at the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council on James Street. Here R.B. Russell, the fiery Scottish-born champion of the machinists union and the Socialist Party would debate the more moderate carpenter Fred Tipping of the Social Democratic Party and the still more moderate James Winning. Increased economic activity during the war led to a twenty per cent increase in the number of union members in the city, but the unions were having trouble translating those numbers into results. When strikes took place, the courts quickly issued orders that prohibited striking workers from picketing their place of employment. Under these conditions, employers found new workers and strikes were broken. Many unionists began to search for a new strategy. They were opposed to the existing craft union model that dictated that there should be a separate union for each craft. Under this model, machinists belonged to one union, boilermakers to another, and carpenters a third, even if they all worked in the same plant. They would have different contracts and would cross each other’s picket line. According to this model of unionization, it was not possible to organize unskilled workers who had no specific craft. Almost all of these craft unions were based in the United States and belonged to the American Federation of Labor. The Canadian craft unions were also affiliated with the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada, which was founded in 1883. Many unionists in Winnipeg and elsewhere were beginning to conclude that the time had come to organize on what was termed an industrial basis—this meant organizing all the workers in a single industry into a single union, no matter what their job or skill level. This belief would put them in conflict with the leaders of the Trades and Labor Congress and the American Federation of Labor.
A series of lost strike in 1917 also led Winnipeg unions to consider the use of general or sympathetic strikes. These strikes would see workers who were not directly involved in a dispute walk off the job in support of workers in a specific workplace. In 1918 Winnipeg city council voted to strip civic workers of the right to strike: in response 17,000 workers from a wide range of Winnipeg unions walked off the job. This strike forced the city to back down. The labour council nearly called another mass strike that year to support a metal workers strike—but the strike ended, in defeat, before the general strike vote was held. In the spring of 1919 workers in Brandon staged a successful six-hour general strike to back city workers in their demand for the right to negotiate. Manitoba trade unionists were not alone in their search for new approaches to trade unionism—in the spring of 1919 they met with similar-minded radicals in Calgary to lay the groundwork for what would become the One Big Union.