A Hundred Years Ago: The Winnipeg General Strike
‘The Winnipeg Strike will go down in history as a magnificent example of working-class solidarity and courage’ (Bill Pritchard).
In February 1919, Seattle workers engaged in the general strike tactic, with 30,000 workers in 130 unions walking out for 5 days in sympathy with 38,000 shipyard workers. The city’s mayor, Ole Hanson, described the strike as an ‘attempted revolution’. A few months after, on 15 May, the Winnipeg general strike took place. It ended on 26 June. As in Seattle, the authorities declared that the Winnipeg general strike the first stage of a revolutionary conspiracy. For six weeks Winnipeg was the scene of a dramatic general strike when, having to endure unemployment, high prices and poor working conditions, workers from both the private and public sectors joined forces. The New York Times headline was ‘Bolshevism invades Canada’. The strikers, however, as in Seattle, sought only the right to collective bargaining and a wage increase. The evidence is overwhelming that the intent was not political revolution, and the great majority of Canadian workers, including most workers in Winnipeg, were not socialists. For most men and women, the Winnipeg General Strike arose from economic inequality that had become too impossible to ignore. Hugh Amos Robson wrote in his 1919 Royal Commission report on the causes of the strike. ‘There has been… an increasing display of carefree, idle luxury and extravagance on one hand, while on the other is intensified deprivation.’
Not a revolution
The immediate reasons for the building trades and metal workers going on strike were for better wages and working conditions, for recognition of their unions and for the principle of collective bargaining. What took place in the city was a historic labour protest and one of the biggest social resistance movements Canada has ever seen. On 1 May, after months of negotiations, building workers went on strike. On 2 May, metalworkers went on strike when the employers refused to negotiate with the union, refusing even to recognise the Metal Trades Council as a legitimate union. On 6 May both unions met with leaders of the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council who agreed to poll its other member unions on the idea of forcing the issues with a general strike. A week later, the final tally was 8,667 for and 645 against. On 15 May workers all over the city walked off their jobs. The women who worked the city’s telephones walked off their shift; nobody came to replace them. Within hours, almost 30,000 workers had joined the strike. It was almost the entire workforce of the city. Delegates elected from each of the unions formed a Central Strike Committee to coordinate on behalf of the workers so as to make sure essential services still operated in the city, such as the initiative to issue licences in order to authorise milk and bread delivery. The real lesson learned was how the workers conducted themselves during the strike. The strike demonstrated that the workers were fully capable of organising the community, and performing the jobs done for the smooth running of society.
But there were elements within the Winnipeg working class that were not sympathetic to the strike. De-mobbed servicemen returned to find many jobs filled by immigrant workers and some expressed a hostility against the presence of these people. Most veterans decided to support the strike, notably the Great War Veterans Association. On 1 June 10,000 veterans marched in solidarity with the strike and they regularly held open-air meetings. However, others formed the Loyalists Veterans’ Association encouraged by the establishment of the Manitoba’s Alien Investigation Board that allowed for immediate deportation of any immigrant deemed to be disloyal or seditious, legislation directly targeted at the immigrant participants in the strike.
There are those who claim that the Winnipeg strike was a revolution that failed as the press and authorities alleged at the time. Yet it was a strike by trade unions for very modest demands who fully understood that any attempt at insurrection would have resulted in failure and bloodshed. Socialism was not on the agenda. No bank closed its doors, and commerce and business carried on practically as normal. The workers were orderly and peaceful, avoiding any excuse which would provoke military force. Essential services were maintained. But the reaction from the employers, city council and the federal government was extreme with the federal government arming a bosses’ militia after the police voiced support for the strikers. The Citizens Committee of 1000, made up of vigilantes of businessmen and politicians, was organised to oppose the strike. It ignored the strikers’ demands and with the assistance of local press accused the strikers of ‘Bolshevism,’ of being ‘enemy aliens’ and of undermining ‘British values’. As the Citizens’ Committee was made up of members of the city’s elite, its motivations for breaking the strike aren’t difficult to see: the strike posed a threat to their businesses, and by defeating the strikers, they would continue to make their profits.
The authorities’ reaction
Federal Minister of Justice Arthur Meighen and Labour Minister Gideon Robertson met with the Citizens Committee which described the situation as a revolution and not a strike, convincing the Federal government that Winnipeg was in a state of rebellion. The ministers refused to meet or negotiate with the Strike Committee. Federal government employees, provincial government employees, and municipal workers were ordered back to work. An amendment to the Immigration Act was rushed through Parliament to allow the deportation of foreign-born strikers and the definition of sedition in the Criminal Code was expanded. The city council outlawed the regular demonstration marches.
Winnipeg’s city police had formed their own union in July 1918 and they officially joined the strike but were advised by the Strike Committee to keep reporting for duty to avoid the city from being placed under martial law. On 19 May Mayor Charles Gray instructed the policemen to sign a pledge not to participate in a sympathy strike. On 30 May the Winnipeg police refused to sign a no-strike agreement. They were all sacked bar 23. An 1,800-man force of Special Constables was hired and deputised to suppress the strike, many of them from the Loyalist Veterans’ Association who were now essentially strike-breaking goons.
At the time of the strike, daily newspapers — the Winnipeg Telegram, the Winnipeg Tribune, and the Manitoba Free Press — were the primary sources of information for the citizens of Winnipeg. The newspapers endeavoured to plant the image in the minds of the general public that the strikers were Bolshevik revolutionaries. The typographers at all three papers walked off the job on 17 May, but by 3 June the newspapers restored their regular distribution and redoubled their condemnation of the strike, misrepresenting the strikers and promoting the idea that the strikers intended to overthrow the government. The articles against the strikers became more strident in a campaign aimed at convincing the public and the world that Winnipeg was about to be taken over by insurrectionists. The Western Labour News was distributed by the Strike Committee to counter the propaganda.
The strike activists were to learn that there would be consequences from their actions. Eight involved in the strike were arrested on 18 July and subsequently brought to trial. A.A. Heaps, Reverend William Ivens, R.E. Bray, George Armstrong, John Queen, R.J. Johns and W.A. Pritchard were jointly charged on six counts of seditious conspiracy.
Bloody Saturday took place on 21 June. 25,000 workers assembled downtown for a planned march. Winnipeg Mayor Charles Gray read the riot act. When the ‘forbidden’ rally began Mayor Gray had at his disposal nearly 2,000 special constables, men from the Royal North-West Mounted Police (RNWMP), and General Ketchen’s 800-strong militia along with its armoured car with three machine guns. RNWMP rode into the crowd of strikers, beating them with clubs, and then the Specials followed up, beating protesters with baseball bats and cudgels while the army patrolled the streets. By the time Bloody Saturday was over, one man – Mike Sokolowski – was shot dead and another protestor dying a few days later from his wounds. Many were injured and many arrested. Authorities also shut down the striker’s paper and arrested the editors for commentating on the events of Bloody Saturday.
On 26 June, the strike was called off.
General Strikes as union tactic
The tactic of a general strike keeps returning so we should not be surprised that the Winnipeg Strike will receive the attention of many on the Left who think that a general strike can bring on the social revolution and the fall of the whole capitalist system. The mirage that the general strike is the way to achieve socialism must be rejected. It is impossible for the working class to take and hold industry as long as the state is in the hands of the capitalist class. Time after time we have seen general strikes defeated by the forces at the disposal of the ruling class through their control of the machinery of government. Sometimes brutal force has been used, sometimes concessions are made, and sometimes, workers are starved into submission. As James Connolly said, ‘a full wallet wins out against an empty belly.’
An ill-prepared or poorly supported general strike usually is a huge self-inflicted defeat for the working class. The groundwork for one needs to be laid in every workplace and every community to ensure that no one is under any illusions that it will be an easy fight against an alliance of employers and the government. When we speak of the general strike, we are not concerned with the all-out strike of a single trade union but of all workers. It is no longer an expression of the trade union movement but has become a class movement. For the general strike to have a chance of success, workers should be convinced of the importance of the goal. It must be shown that the purpose is legitimate and victory a realisable prospect. The general strike cannot be camouflage for revolution. The general strike, although powerless in itself as a revolutionary strategy, remains an important tool for the working class. In war, including the class war, there are only two options: fight to win, or yield. Both options produce casualties. There is no safe option for workers under attack in the class war, no place to hide in the hope of protecting one’s individual job, dignity and life. We can be certain that capital will continue to assault labour and workers will continue to defend their rights. Whether workers prevail will depend on the extent to which they fight as a class, using their greatest power – the power to stop production. Workers must use their power as a class and fight as a class. We must remember what it takes to win – fighting as a class. The general strike is a method to inflict damage upon our class enemy to protect ourselves rather than the means of our emancipation. Unions are bodies for economic defence, not political struggle. Workers join unions and go on strike to put more bread on the table. Only an independent political organisation of workers – a world socialist party – can promote the interests of the working class as a whole.
Bill Pritchard made a solidarity speech to Vancouver workers that their comrades in Winnipeg were in the fight, and it was now a question of standing by them and, if necessary, going down with them — or, later, going down by themselves. His advice was: ‘If you are going to drown — drown splashing!’ The working class must stand united, however ill-prepared their forces and however badly chosen the field.