4. The start of the strike5. The Committee of One Thousand6. The General Strike as an historical controversy
The start of the strikeIn the spring of 1919 the newly formed Winnipeg Building Trades Council, which represented the city’s building trade unions, opened negotiations with their employer the Winnipeg Builders Exchange. The Building Trades Council was an example of the way in which Winnipeg unions were working to overcome the barriers created by craft unionism by bringing workers from different craft unions together in a single bargaining committee. The workers were looking for a pay increase that would allow them to regain what they had lost to wartime inflation. The builders said that without an increase in construction they could not afford to increase wages. The employers then adopted a take-it-or-leave-it approach, saying that if the unions did not accept their pay offer, negotiations were over. In the face of this ultimatum, the construction workers walked off the job on May 1. It was the first step in a series of developments that would bring the city to a stand still.
A day after the building trades workers went on strike, the city’s metal trade workers walked off the job. They had been defeated in strikes in 1906, 1917 and 1918. In April 19191, the metal trades council, which represented the different unions in the metal trades, presented their contract proposals to the owners of the metal shops. While some of the smaller shops were willing to negotiate, the larger shops never bothered to respond to the unions. The builders and the metal shop owners had taken provocative positions—it was not simply that they were taking a hard line in negotiations—they were refusing to negotiate. The Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council took this as an affront to the entire labour movement. At its May 6 meeting the council decided to organize a vote on whether or not to hold a civic-wide general strike in support of the construction workers and the metal shop workers.
When they met a week later it was quite clear that unionized workers were prepared to support them. Over 11,000 workers had voted in favour of a general strike, with only 500 in opposition. The strike was set to start at 11 a.m. on May 15.
By noon of that day the city was at a standstill. Ninety-four unions were on strike, and over 20,000 people were off the job. In the end, it is estimated that nearly 30,000 people participated in the strike, half of whom did not even belong to unions. They were also very loyal—again and again employer threats to fire workers who did not return to the job met with limited or no success. The Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council established a General Strike Committee and a smaller Central Strike Committee: while radicals such as R.B. Russell were on the Central Strike Committee, it was dominated by moderates, including J.L. McBride of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, labour council president James Winning, typographer Harry Veitch—whose union had not even endorsed the strike, and labour council secretary Ernest Robinson.
The Central Strike Committee soon found itself having to determine which services were going to be offered to the public. As it did not wish to be accused of attempting to starve the city, the Committee continued delivery of milk and bread. When the bakeries and dairies worried that people might attack their delivery wagons if they thought they were being operated in opposition to the strike, the strikers, after meeting with representatives of city hall and the dairies, agreed to issue signs that read “Permitted by Authority of Strike Committee,” which were to be displayed on delivery wagons. The measure made sure that the milk and bread got through, but also raised questions about who was in charge. The strikers always maintained that they were not trying to take over the government of the city, but by its very nature a general strike challenges a community’s existing power relations.
The Toronto Globe estimated that 2,000 of the strikers were women. Indeed, the strike got off to an early start on May 15, 1919, when 500 female telephone operators walked off the job. Before they left work they pulled the switches, leaving much of the city without phone service. Aside from the telephone operators, retail clerk, garment workers, waitresses, bookbinders, and confectionery workers, almost all of whom were women, voted in favour of the strike. In fact, the bakery and confectionery workers went on strike the day before the strike began to protest the fact that their employer would not negotiate with their union.
Women also played an important role in making sure that businesses that were struck stayed closed. They showed up at the rail yards to stop people from going to work, and on occasion they attacked trucks that were making deliveries for businesses that were being struck. Under the leadership of Helen Armstrong, the Women’s Labor League played a central role in organizing women’s activities throughout the strike. Armstrong established a dining hall where meals were free for women strikers, while men were expected to pay or make a donation. During the strike Armstrong continued to organize working women into unions and was arrested several times.
Throughout the strike, one of the strike committee’s main concerns was ensuring that the strikers did not provide the government with an excuse (Ref1, Ref2) to use force to end the strike. For the most part, they urged people to stay off the streets or attend the large open air meetings that were held at Victoria Park near the Red River. There, speakers from the unions and the Labor Church, which had been established by William Ivens when he lost his position with the Methodist Church, spoke to the strikers on issues of the day. While the strike leaders kept their troops in line, the business community took the initiative.