The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike

The Western Socialist
Vol. 36 - No. 269
No. 3, 1969
pages 12-16

I have been bombarded throughout the past half-century from many quarters to write about this event. Hitherto I have refused, being reluctant to do so, feeling that one cannot deal with events in which one may have been involved and do so with the objectivity necessary. For the same reason I refrain from reviewing books in which I may have been (honorably or otherwise) mentioned.

But now, this year being the fiftieth anniversary of that historic event, receiving an official request from the Executive Committee of The Socialist Party of Canada, and simultaneously one from The United Steel Workers of America (Canadian Section) I feel I must comply. The Steel Workers, with headquarters in Toronto, will hold their National (annual) Policy Conference in Montreal, May 1st and 2nd this year, and intend to commemorate the Winnipeg’ Strike’s fiftieth anniversary and have their proceedings covered by national radio and possibly television.

As to the Strike and myself. Contrary to the general opinion I had little or almost nothing to do with it personally, and therefore have very little knowledge of all the ingredients which led up to it. That the panic-stricken authorities pounced on me in their blind fury and were successful in having me jailed does not alter the fact. That I went to Winnipeg at the behest of a committee of workers as a spectator and in the week (approximately) I was there, sitting by invitation once with the Strike Committee, and addressing a few open-air gatherings, gave the authorities their chance and they took it.

I have no documents in my possession at the moment and must rely upon a memory which at the age of eighty-one may be defective, although my contemporaries seem to think it almost devilishly keen.

Recommended for reading, though, is a work of some years ago by Dr. D. C. Masters, and there are in Canada two other works by scholars whose names for the moment escape me. Both are from The Toronto Univ. Press. Also, I understand, a further work on this subject will shortly appear from the pen of David J. Bercuson of Montreal. These are recommended for what they might contain to students of Canadian history. I have but few reservations for the Masters opus and these only on rather minor points.

Background of Strike

To understand the Strike one should place it in the context of the social atmosphere of the country, the position of organized labor (especially in Western Canada), together with the political situation of that time.

The government was a coalition war-time product. The war (to make the world safe for Democracy) was – but not the peace (the outbreak of which was “more cataclysmic than the outbreak of war”.)

The Government had been operating for some time less and less by statute and more and more by the exigent weapon of “Order-in-Council”. The Meighen Administration came to be known as “Government By Order-in-Council”. The people were ordered not to eat meat on two days of the week but at the same time were not informed how the many poor were to get meat on the other five days. A censorship, under the erudite Col. Chambers was established and hundreds of publications were banned, the penalty for possessing any cited: twenty years in the penitentiary. The government “sublimity” slid rapidly downhill to the lowest depths of the “ridiculous”. For under this Order-in-Council such works as Darwin’s Origin of Species, Tyndall’s Fragments of Science and even the Savoy Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan were placed on the governmental “Index Expurgatorius”. This in an attempt to ban the socialist and labor classics of a century.

Rapidly rising prices affected all, particularly workers. The allowances to the wives and families of men in the service overseas had not been increased and many hardships were the lot of these folk. Scandals in connection with the war effort were popping up all over the country in which prominent patriots figured: the Ross rifle that jammed; the “Flavelle” affair; and the noise about hay for the armed forces. And when the cry about corruption in the purchase of hay went up governmental donkeys immediately cocked their long ears.

Against these growing enormities Labor, particularly in the West, protested vigorously. They accepted reluctantly the order to eat meat but not on the specified days of the week; they objected somewhat as to what they should read, or what a man might have in his own library, but when instructions appeared as to what they should think, they balked.

In British Columbia in 1918, the employees of the Street Railway Co., tied up transportation in Vancouver, North Vancouver, Victoria and New Westminster for some time, their demands being for raise in pay but more so for a reduction of the working day from nine to eight hours. As one of these strikers said to this writer at the time: “Bill, if we don’t get the eight-hour day now, it will be a long time”. Many other instances of unrest among the workers could be cited, and all this could be accompanied with the fact of West Canadian’s dissatisfaction with The Canadian Trades Congress and its generally reactionary attitude.

The Strike starts

Into this setting one must place the Winnipeg Strike. So far as I can recall it developed in this wise: The organized workers in the Building Trades tried to open negotiations with the City’s Building Masters on wages and working conditions, stipulating that they wished to have the Building Trades Council, of which they were members, act as their bargaining agency. This was refused out of hand. A long story made short is that was how the building workers went on strike. At the same time the machinists, boiler makers, etc., in what were called the contract shops tried to open negotiations with the Ironmasters of the City (Manitoba Bridge and Iron Works, Dominion Bridge Co., Vulcan Iron Works, etc.,) in order to have the rates of pay for the same categories in the railway shops. These rates had been set for the railroads by William G. McAdoo. They were working under a signed agreement, the result of collective bargaining, at approximately 40% higher rates than their brothers in the Contract Shops. As with the Building Masters, the Iron Masters refused to bargain. they, like the building trades workers, wanted a bargaining agency: The Metal Trades Council.

And that is how it started.

Some highlights

A short account of a large and important event, such as the Winnipeg Strike, requires that specifics must give way to generalities. Nonetheless I’ll try to deal with some highlights as I can best recall them from my week’s sojourn in Winnipeg during the Strike.

Early in May, 1919, the workers in the Metal and Building Trades had already “hit the bricks”. The International Offices of all these unions gave no endorsement and no help. These men were on strike for a principle and without pay. Their only recourse was appeal to the general body of the city’s workers. And this body was, of course, the Trades and Labor Council. So, May 6th, 1919, the Trades Council was confronted with the question of either giving support to the strikers, or not. Following long and heated debate the decision was made to take a vote of all the Council’s affiliates on the question of a strike in support of the building trades and metal workers.

The rest was announced at the next Council meeting, May 13th, 1919: Over eleven thousand in favor; five hundred against. The strike was called for 11 a.m. Thursday, May 15th.

Seventy unions voted, all in favor. According to the report of H. A. Robson, K. C., appointed commissioner to investigate and report on the strike the vote was fairly conducted. From questions he claims to have put to certain members and officers of eighteen unions, some of whom were opposed to the strike “stated that the large majority had voted in favor . . .”

I found out quickly what would be considered a phenomenon under other circumstances and in another geographical area. Some thirteen thousand organized workers on strike in a city, have their numbers greatly augmented, almost overnight, by the sudden strikes of unorganized workers, from candy workers to newspaper vendors. This demanded attention and forthwith organizing committees were created to organize the striking unorganized.

The police had also voted and came out on strike, only to be requested by the strike committee to go back to their jobs. The reason for this should be apparent to any serious analyst of the situation. Not until they were confronted with the demand made later to denounce the strike, express regret for their part in it did the bulk of the police force appear as strikers. They were forced out by the forces of “Law and Order”, and their places filled with an assortment of second-story men, forgers, burglars, etc., etc., chiefly imported from Minneapolis. I was to meet with and observe these pillars of justice in the County Jail later. But that is another story.

What lesson this strike committee was soon to learn (composed of men of different political outlooks though it was) was that when a withdrawal of efficiency on the part of labor takes place in a community everything stops. No milk and bread for the people, or for hospital needs, etc., and this affects not merely men and women but infants.

In this acute situation the committee acted with good sense and promptitude. The committee was composed of fifteen members and was thereupon named the “inner” committee. It organized another committee of three hundred known as the outer committee, which then subdivided into communities specifically charged with those functions that would keep the city population as a viable community. So milk and bread, etc., supplies were maintained, transportation organized, and so on. Of course, there were inconveniences but the city was kept alive – and by the good sense, humanitarianism, and organization of the workers. The bosses could not do it. Those who had performed these social services, etc., heretofore for wages now were doing it without pay. This might give one a gleam of light as to just how socially unnecessary wages and the wage system really are.

Significant too was the action of the Strike Committee in requesting the Theatre owners to re-open. This was a measure designed to keep people from congregating on the streets, a condition conducive to volatile and irresponsible action that could occur through the gathering of crowds, and one which, no doubt, would have been welcomed by the authorities as an excuse for violent repression.

So that the theatre owners would not be accused by the strikers (and one must understand that the families involved numbered well over thirty thousand) placards were placed outside the theatres “Open by Authority of the Strike Committee”. One theatre manager had thrown upon his picture screen this message, “Working in Harmony with the Strike Committee”.

Also, in contrast with so many other strikes, this had no demonstrations, protests, or those other manifestations of which we see so much today. People were exhorted to keep the peace and keep off the streets. To this end numerous public meetings took place in the various parks in the city and its environs. The only parades of which this writer has knowledge were the rather huge parades of returned soldiers sympathetic to the strike, and the significantly small parades of those supporting The Citizen’s Committee, composed chiefly of the officer caste. Common sense on both sides in this connection seemed to have been used by both parade managers. They paraded at different times, or, if not, trotted off in different directions. The Strikers’ soldier element also held sessions of what they termed their “parliament” in Victoria Park.

How Strike was broken

Attempts were made from time to time by elements on both sides to come to a compromise and end the dispute. I remember being asked to accompany a delegation in this connection to meet with one from the anti-strike soldiers. The meeting was presided over by Canon F. G. Scott, senior chaplain of the First Division in France. He came to Winnipeg to look after “his boys”, evidently had no interest in politics, a very gracious and charming individual, and with a deep sympathy for the Strike and the strikers. He seemed to me, from my short observation, to be very much attached to Russell.

The members of the delegation which I accompanied were Winning, Russell and Scoble. The spokesman of the other side was a young army officer, an attorney, Captain F. G. Thompson. My immediate impression of him as the talks opened was that he had now discovered the first arena in which he could demonstrate his legal expertise. All his questions were such as to provide material for legal action and he was definitely addicted, in my opinion, to the job of involving Russell in a legal tangle. I, thereupon, advised Russell not to attempt the answering of the obviously loaded questions. There may have been many other efforts on both sides towards affecting a settlement, but the foregoing is the only one of which I have any personal knowledge.

It was at the close of this abortive meeting that I heard Canon Scott tell Russell that he had been ordered home to Eastern Canada.

As I remember Winnipeg, during the week of my stay (I had a longer stay later on, but that was if I remember aright, quite involuntary) it was the most peaceful city I had ever seen, a well disciplined and behaved community, singularly free from the crimes which are so noticeable in our cities today, and remained so until the installation of the special police (criminals and thugs already referred to).

The strike did not seem to be weakening, not to the extent that the employers expected, so drastic action was needed. And this was used in the midnight, or early morning, raids on the homes of certain men. The six who were so unceremoniously “kidnapped” from their warm beds in the wee morning hours, were Russell, Queen, Armstrong, Heaps, Ivens and Bray. R. J. (Dick) Johns had not been in Winnipeg during the entire strike period, but was carrying out his duties as a member of the War Relations Labor Board in Montreal. I was taken from a C. P. R. train in the city of Calgary, on my way home to Vancouver.

At the same time, several labor sympathizers from North Winnipeg who had the misfortune to carry “foreign” sounding names, especially Russian, were also slipped into the net, and shipped with the rest to Stony Mountain Penitentiary. This I opine was (to slightly paraphrase the inimitable phrase of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pooh-Bah) undertaken as “merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing (narrative)”.

By this means was the strike broken. What lessons can be taken therefrom depends on how the workers now view the event. Unknown, perhaps, to a large majority of Canadian workers is the fact that what is now accepted without question – the Principle of Collective Bargaining – resulted. Today the metal contract shops in Winnipeg all have agreements with the United Steel Workers. Several other so-called problems were attended to as a result of the Mather and the Robson commissions.

Lessons of the Strike

But while forms may have changed, and some “improvements” made – for instance in the living conditions, etc., of lumber workers and others – the basic fact remains. The workers are still wage recipients and the masters the beneficiaries of the surplus value extracted from the result of labor’s effort.

The workers still must engage in confrontations and even conflicts with their masters. The labor history since Winnipeg is replete with instances: the longshoremen of Vancouver - the then only remaining organized body of waterfront workers on the Pacific Coast in 1922; the strikes of miners and lumber workers; the Kirkland Land Strike of 1941. But why go on?

Strikes may result in changes and even so-called improvements but this is but superficial. This will continue until the workers in sufficient numbers free themselves from the concepts of this society, from ideas that bind them to the notion that the present is the only possible social system, and recognize that under this system “the more things change the more they remain the same”; that even now in their struggles over wages and conditions, like the character in “Alice in Wonderland” they have to keep running in order to stay in the same place.

But the Winnipeg Strike will go down in history as a magnificent example of working class solidarity and courage.

W. A. Pritchard