The One Big UnionThe One Big Union did not organize or lead the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, yet its history is closely intertwined with that of the General Strike. Both grew out of the growing radicalization of western Canadian workers and reflected their interest in new ways of organizing unions and society. Radical ideas were receiving a warm welcome from many trade unionists during the closing years of the First World War. Workers had turned out in large numbers to hear local union leaders speak glowingly of the 1917 Russian Revolution and to criticize the federal government for its recent decision to ban socialist newspapers and political parties. At one such meeting a speaker predicted a tremendous social conflict once the soldiers returned from overseas: “They will say ‘We have fought for this country, and by God, we are going to own it.’” At a meeting of the Winnipeg labour council one delegate said, “In Winnipeg tonight we are fighting with ideas, but soon we will be fighting with rifles.”
In the fall of 1918 Western Canadian unionists placed a number of radical resolutions before the delegates at that year’s Trades and Labor Congress Convention. In particular, they wanted the Congress to abandon craft unionism for industrial unionism, but their criticism extended to such difficult questions as conscription, censorship and the war effort. Every one of the westerners’ proposals was defeated. Before returning home, the western delegates agreed to hold a special western Canadian labour conference in 1919 to discuss ways that they could have more impact on the TLC.
By the time the delegates from western Canadian unions arrived in Calgary for this meeting in the spring of 1919 they were no longer interested in fixing the TLC. Instead, they believed the time had come to create a new industrial union that would use the general strike as a central weapon. The new union was to be called the One Big Union — as its name suggested it would attempt to organize all workers into a single labour body. Unlike the TLC it would not divide them up by skills, nor would it concentrate solely on unskilled labour.
Their plan was to hold a vote in the summer of 1919 in which union members could determine whether they would join the OBU or stick with their craft unions. One vote would be held in western Canada and one in the East. If the easterners turned down the idea, the westerners would strike out on their own. The delegates also called on the government to bring in the six-hour workday. They argued the shorter workday would create more jobs for soldiers when they left the army. To back this campaign for a shortened workday, they threatened to launch a nation-wide general strike on June 1.
By moving to create the One Big Union, western Canadian unionists had created many enemies for themselves: business, government and the craft unions all felt threatened by the OBU. Their main source of strength was the growing conviction among western Canadian workers that they had to pursue their common interests through united unions and united political action. The organizers’ plans for the union would become entangled in the Winnipeg General Strike, which started in mid-May 1919. The fledgling OBU would never be able to recover from the defeat of the Winnipeg strike.