News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

May 16, 2019

This Week in Class History: The Winnipeg General Strike

On May 15, 1919, labor unions across Winnipeg and other Canadian cities went on general strike in one of the best known and most influential strikes in Canadian history.

Months earlier, soldiers returning from World War I faced high rates of unemployment and bankruptcies, while building and metal industrialists were making record profits from the war. The cost of living was rising, and wages were declining. Discontent spread among the working class.

Those who still had work faced increasingly miserable working conditions: injuries due to unsafe labor practices, workers sleeping in tents and crowded bunkhouses, and unsanitary conditions, all while companies deducted pay from their workers for such generosities. Workers tried negotiating with management and the city for months before talks finally broke down. Strikes were in the air.

The Trade and Labour Union, the body representing all of Winnipeg’s workers, agreed to a general strike on behalf of the Building and Metal Trade Councils, announcing that “all public utilities will be tied-up in order to enforce the principle of collective bargaining” and demanding the right to a living wage and the right to bargain collectively. The city’s electrical workers were the first to strike, followed soon after by water and fire departments. Other unions across the city joined in as well.

By the morning of May 15, nearly every working person in Winnipeg, roughly 30,000 in total, was on strike. Sympathy strikes also broke out in other major Canadian cities.

The strike would last for another five weeks. Throughout these weeks, the strikers faced attacks from a coalition of business owners, federal police, and state administrators. The final culmination of this repression came on June 24, known as Bloody Saturday, in which the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, on orders from the country’s Interior Minister, rode on horseback into a gathered crowd of about 30,000 strikers. Two strikers died and roughly 40 more were injured. The city was placed under military rule, and the local strike paper, run mostly by striking editors and other laborers, was shut down. Strike leaders and other laborers were arrested and later sentenced to jail time, some for several months. In the face of this state repression, the union called an end to the strike and for workers to return to work on June 25.

The Winnipeg general strike became one of the largest in North America. The strike struck fear in the ruling class, already worried about Bolshevism in Canada. The Conservative party’s leading role in putting down the strike led to large electoral losses in the region in 1921, and their liberal replacements brokered deals with labor out of fear of further actions. Several Winnipeg strike leaders later went on to take positions in Parliament.

The Royal Commission, which investigated the strike on behalf of the federal government, ultimately concluded that “if Capital does not provide enough to assure Labour a contented existence…then the Government might find it necessary to step in and let the state do these things at the expense of Capital.” It would be another three decades until Canada won union recognition and the right to collective bargaining, thanks to another illegal strike by the country’s postal workers.