A short account of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919
Far to the east of Seattle at Winnipeg, Manitoba in central Canada, another general strike took place. Whilst the general strike in Seattle lasted 6 days, that in Winnipeg went on for 6 weeks. In 1918 there had been the first general strike in Canadian history in Vancouver, after the murder of Albert Goodwin, who had called for a general strike if anyone was drafted into the Armed Forces against their will. This one day strike was met with violence by soldiers, who beat strikers. The strike leaders promptly resigned their position but all were mostly re-elected following a ballot, showing widespread support among workers for the strike.
Due to the War, prices has risen considerably in Winnipeg, with wages not keeping up with. Housing conditions were poor and deteriorating. There was resentment about the huge profits some bosses had made from the War. Unemployment was rising, and soldiers returning from the War found few jobs.
Metal workers and building workers in Winnipeg decided to take action. They had tried to negotiate contracts with the employers, who promptly rejected any collective bargaining. At meetings of the Trades and Labour Council, representing various union bodies, it was decided to call for a vote for a general strike.. There was an overwhelming yes vote to this idea.
At 11a.m on May 15th 35,000 metal workers and building workers went out on strike, as well as other workers in both the public and private sectors. Only a third of these striking workers were unionised. In fact, the first group to come out, female telephone operators, were not in any union. In addition most of the local organisations of returned soldiers agreed to support the strike.
Women played a key role in the strike. There were 2 women on the Strike Committee, and there were appeals to women workers via streetcorner and indoor public meetings. The Women’s Labour League raised money to help women workers pay rent.
Local businessmen and professionals grouped together in the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand to produce an anti-strike newspaper The Winnipeg Citizen. Government ministers threatened striking postal workers that they should return to work or be sacked. The Immigration Act was amended so that anyone not born in Canada could be deported for “seditious activities”.
On June 5th the Winnipeg mayor banned public demonstrations. Meanwhile workers in other urban centres went out on strike in solidarity, realising that if Winnipeg workers won, this could be repeated nationally. In Edmonton and Calgary, strikes started onn May 15th and ran through until June 15th. This involved 2,000 workers in Edmonton and 1,500 in Calgary. In Lethbridge and Medicine Hat workers voted to strike but union leaders obstructed this. Miners in Alberta and elsewhere also went out on strike. Thirty cities were effected by strike movements.
On June 17th 7 strike leaders were arrested, with the arrest of another strike leader in Calgary. In addition several foreign-born socialists were arrested.
On June 21st a demonstration called by returned soldiers in protests against the arrests. This was attacked by Mounted Police wielding clubs. Facing resistance the Mounties then fired on the crowd with their revolvers. Two strikers were killed, many injured, and there were 80 arrests. Two editors of the Strike Bulletin were then arrested. This violence broke the confidence of the strike leaders and there was a return to work on the 26th June.
In the aftermath the arrested strike leaders were put on trial for seditious conspiracy. Most received one year sentences, with one receiving two years in prison and another 6 months imprisonment. Two of the arrested foreign-born socialists were deported.
The miners in Alberta continued their strike to the end of August. Eventually after attacks by thugs hired by the mining bosses and threats by the government the miners were starved into submission.
Thus ended a key moment in Canadian working class history with the biggest strike movement recorded so far.
The above article appeared in Virus no.1 (2019) the magazine of the Anarchist Communist Group.