The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike
The Western Socialist
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.
Vol. 36 - No. 269
No. 3, 1969
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
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
And that is how it started.
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
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,
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
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
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
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