The General Strike as an historical controversyThe Winnipeg General Strike is a good example of how our ideas of the past keep changing. During the strike the workers argued that they were simply striking for a living wage and the right to negotiate. The Citizens’ Committee and the federal government said the strike was a revolution in the making. For this reason they arrested the strike leaders and broke the strike. A Manitoba government commission of inquiry concluded that the General Strike was essentially a labour dispute, not a revolution. The federal government and the Citizens’ Committee refused to accept this conclusion. In 1920, they put the strike leaders on trial for criminal sedition and conspiracy. Sedition is the crime of attempting to overthrow the government. A number of strike leaders were acquitted, but most of them were convicted and sentenced to prison.
Many aspects of the trials have since come into question. The Mounted Police interviewed the jurors in advance: Anyone who was likely to acquit the strikers was not allowed onto the juries. The judge stretched the definition of conspiracy beyond its usual meaning. A ‘conspiracy’ means that people have to plan an action together before they can be charged with conspiracy. There was no evidence that the strike leaders who were charged with conspiracy ever planned to overthrow the government. The judge, however, instructed jurors that if the actions of the accused might overthrow the government, even if that was not part of a stated plan, they could convict them.
As early as 1920 it was apparent that not all Manitobans agreed with the judge or the jury. In that year’s provincial election a number of the jailed strike leaders ran for office. Even though they could not leave their prison cells during the campaign, three of them won election to the legislature. Voters in Winnipeg’s North End believed that the strike had been legitimate and they were prepared to stand behind the strike leaders. In later years, John Queen, one of the men who had been sent to jail, was elected mayor of Winnipeg. In 1921 J.S. Woodsworth, who had been arrested but never tried for his support of the strike, was elected to the House of Commons. Winnipeg workers also voted to join the One Big Union. With many of its leaders in jail or fired from their jobs and facing the opposition of employers, government, the Catholic Church, (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3) and the craft unions, the OBU remained a small regional union that was led by R.B. Russell until 1956.
Historians have continued to disagree over the strike’s meaning. Today’s debate is between historians who believe the strike was simply a local conflict and those who believe that the strike was a part of an international response on the part of working people to the social crisis created by industrialism and the First World War. Those who say it was a local conflict over simple collective bargaining issues are critical of the strike leaders, saying that they failed to recognize that a general strike would bring them into conflict with the government and lead to likely defeat. To these historians, the strike sapped the vitality of the movement.
Those historians who see it as part of a larger national and even international movement agree there was no revolutionary conspiracy afoot in 1919. Workers had however, they say, come to see themselves as belonging to a class that stood in opposition to employers. To them, the strike was not simply about the right to negotiate, but workers’ right to have a greater say in the way the post-war world would run. The fact that they lost the strike just underlined just how strong the forces were that they were up against. These historians suggest that the strike and the trials served to inspire unionists during the coming years of political and economic hardship.