Calgary 1919: The Birth of the OBU and the General Strike - Eugene Plawiuk

Eugene Plawiuk's history of the Calgary general strike of 1919, which started off as a sympathy strike for the Winnipeg general strike and soon escalated into their own struggle for union recognition.

Submitted by Ed on September 21, 2007

The One Big Union was founded a mere two months before it was baptized by the Winnipeg General Strike. The founding Convention was held in the Calgary Labour Temple (which still stands today, though it has been converted into a Chinese Restaurant). Representatives from the Machinists, Miners, Lumber, Railway and Carpenter Unions, members of the now banned Industrial Workers of the World as well as the Socialist Party of Canada had come together in Calgary to formulate plans to create Canada's first Industrial Union. The delegates came from across Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They were tired of Gompers American Federation of Labor dominating the Dominion Trades and Labor Congress in Eastern Canada. They were as opposed to the AFL's craft unionism as they were to Gompers pro-war stance.

Having faced draconian anti-labor legislation during the war as well as the Federal Governments attacks on radical unions and immigrant workers, the founding members of the OBU were determined to create an industrial union that would not discriminate between skilled and un-skilled, alien or Canadian workers. A union that was opposed not only to capitalist war and war profiteers but to capitalism itself. They were prepared to battle capitalism not for a piece of the pie as Gompers and the International Unions wanted, but for the whole pie. Their weapon in this battle would be the General Strike.

Calgary had been chosen by the B.C. Federation of Labour to hold their annual convention to discuss the founding of the OBU. As strange as it may seem today, Southern Alberta was a hot bed of radical labour unions, while Edmonton remained dominated by more conservative craft unions in the Edmonton Trades & Labour Council. Not that the influence of the International Unions was completely absent in Calgary. Alex Ross head of the Building Trades Council had been elected to the Alberta Legislature as a labour candidate in 1917. He was Gompers spokesman in Southern Alberta and a member of the Alberta Federation of Labour Executive. Unlike Alfred Farmilo, Gompers representative in Edmonton, Ross had far less influence over the newly elected executive of the Calgary Trades & Labor Council, which was dominated by OBU supporters.

The three major Western Canadian unions representing Miners, Lumber men and Railway workers dominated both the BC Federation and the Calgary Labour Council. They were the main force promoting secession from the American Federation of Labour and the creation of an indigenous Canadian Industrial Union.

At the Convention delegates planned to hold a Western Regional Congress, of the Dominion Trades & Labour Congress, to promote the idea of Industrial Unionism before the national convention of the TLC. The Congress was planned for May 1919 and was denounced as secessionist by Ross and Farmilo.

The delegates also passed resolutions promoting the concept of the One Big Union, sending messages of support to the Bolsheviks in Russia, denouncing war profiteering and price fixing, calling for a six hour day and a six day work week, an end to the sedition act (which had been used to ban the IWW and the SPC), equal pay for women as well as the right to vote, free public education, health and safety legislation for industry, the nationalization of major industries especially railroads and utilities. The delegates made plans to prepare for a Canada wide General Strike in June to win these demands.

Winnipeg's General Strike would catch both the OBU supporters and the International Unions off guard. It forced them to put aside their differences, albeit temporarily, to respond with sympathy strikes in support of the Winnipeg Strikers.

Southern Alberta was already facing two possible strikes when Calgary Unions were asked to vote on a sympathy strike to support Winnipeg workers. The Railway unions were voting to join in a strike that had begun in Eastern Canada a week earlier. That strike had already lead to reduced service by the dining car and porters' unions. As well the United Mine Workers of America District 18 were preparing for a strike vote that would effectively shut down coal production in Alberta.

The UMWA members were preparing to shut down the mines in Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and the Crow's Nest Pass. A delegate from the UMWA had already pledged the miners support at a meeting of the Edmonton Trades & Labour Council on May 21 when they passed a motion to vote on sympathy strike in the Capital City. The Miners were prepared "to support any sympathy strikes in the province." The Calgary Metal Trades Union was preparing their own strike vote, as they already had in Winnipeg and Toronto.

On May 22 the press reported that the Calgary Trades & Labour Council had called a special meeting for the next day. The C.T & L.C. was calling for a sympathy strike vote that would take effect Monday, May 26. Fearing that such action would further enhance the reputation of the OBU Alex Ross urged C.T.& L.C. delegates to 'be cautious' and not to jump the gun. He wasn't the only one to urge moderation and restraint. Senator Robertson; the federal Minister of Labour, in Calgary for meetings with the Railway Unions, tells the press that; "Sympathy Strikes are ineffectual in meeting the demands of labour". He urges trades' councils in the West not to be duped by the reds and Bolshevik elements that are leading the OBU and to stay the course with the more conservative International Unions. His comments are repeated in the daily press editorial pages, with a hearty endorsement from the writers.

On Friday May 23, "City Council in special meeting this evening adopted following resolution: The council of the City of Calgary, having had presented to it for endorsement by the Calgary strike committee the under mentioned three clauses as a proposed basis of settlement of the Winnipeg strike is of the opinion that the principles embodied therein are the same as those heretofore recognized by the council in its dealings the local city employees and reaffirms its position that said principles are just and right. On this understanding strongly recommends to the Mayor of Winnipeg and the Dominion Government officials to used determined efforts to settle the strike at Winnipeg on the basis of full recognition of the said principles:

First: Recognition by the employers of the organized labour through representatives of the union concerned.

Second: Recognition of the building trades council and metal trades council.

Third: All employees on strike to be reinstated."

Calgary was shut down at 11 AM Monday, May 26 in a City wide General Strike. The weekend vote by union members had seen a massive turn out with 4 to 1 in favor of striking. By Monday 18 unions had voted in favor of striking, seven were against and 19 still had to vote. In favor were; Pattern makers, boiler makers, blacksmiths, machinists' helpers, C.P.R. electrical workers, carmen, C.P.R. sheet metal workers, pipe fitters, storemen, flour and cereal workers, hotel and restaurant workers, machinists, moulders, iron workers, dominion express employees, mine workers, postal workers and members of the federal labour union.

Opposed were; Railway clerks, street railway union, barbers, city hall staff, bakers, teamsters and outside civic employees. Regardless of how they voted the Calgary Herald reported that "all unions were at the disposal of the strike committee."

There was no milk, mail or express delivery the first day, and street cars, restaurants, taxis and other services were severely reduced. Fire and Police services were also reduced, though they remained on the job as essential services as determined by the strike committee. "The strike committee is cooperating with the city authorities to preserve conditions as nearly normal as possible as regards essential activities." Beyond these the strike committee "appealed to all workers in Calgary to join the strike."

Unfortunately for the strike committee solidarity with city workers was far from unanimous. Both electrical workers and street car workers refused to join the strike in force. Unlike Edmonton or Winnipeg where power and street cars were shut down, Calgary still had light and transit operating during the strike. Where the dispute really centered was with Calgary postal workers.

Calgary Postal workers voted to go on strike despite a warning from the postmaster that they would be fired. In cooperation with the strike committee the unions attempted to negotiate a reduced service so that returning veterans could receive their pension cheques. This was rejected by the postmaster, who relied on the local citizen's committee to provided strikebreakers to replace the postal workers.

The strike committee faced a far more active and organized citizen's committee intent on scabbing than strikers in Edmonton did. The dispute that clearly radicalized the Calgary strike was the situation of the postal workers. They stayed out for the length of the strike and were permanently replaced by scabs. What had begun as a sympathy strike for workers in Winnipeg now became a local support strike for the fired posties.

The Calgary Herald reported that the government was determined to crush the Calgary postal workers union because;

"The challenge of the sympathy strike to the constituted government of Canada...the action of the postal workers employees of the government of Canada and thus employees of the people of Canada in striking without any grievance and in violation of the pledged oath to the government is regarded by department officials and government ministers as a direct effect to substitute for democratic elected government the rule or dictation to the government of an industrial class. In brief, the issue is democracy versus Soviet rule, better known as Bolshevism."

In the United States the American Federation of Labour was in a battle of its own between more militant unions and the conservative leadership of Sam Gompers. Senator Robertson in a telegram warned the AFL that the Winnipeg strike, and the sympathy strikes in the rest of Western Canada, was an attempt to destroy the International Unions and replace them with a "socialist One Big Union".

The Edmonton Journal of June 1 reported Robertson as telling the AFL Convention that: "statements are now being made by the strike leaders that this is not a mere strike but a revolution."

Robertson just back from Winnipeg was in contact with Calgary's mayor. He described the post office situation in both cities as "events have proved conclusively that the motive behind the strike was for the purposes of assuming control and direction of industrial affairs, also municipal, provincial and federal activities so far as they were carried on in their city and with the avowed intention of extending it to a wider field."

The Albertan editorialized against the governments' actions against the striking postal workers. The paper said that the government was "shaking its fists in the faces of the workers. It has dismissed its employees with all the pomp and peevishness of one of those fat stomached corporation employers we see in pictures."

In spite of the atmosphere of tension and possible martial law the Methodist National Conference was held in Calgary during the second week of the sympathy strike. The Conference passed resolutions endorsing the strike committees demands that collective bargaining rights be recognized and that all workers be reinstated after the strike.

Prime Minister Borden was not moved by messages sent from either the Methodist Conference or the various strike committees. He claimed that these were provincial matters to which the Calgary Trades and Labour Council replied; "Our position in Calgary is: we are fighting for the principle of collective bargaining, and as this effects the entire Dominion it is necessary to be dealt with by the federal government." Borden in reply to the Calgary strike committee refused to back off on the question of replacements for the postal workers. Whether in Calgary or Winnipeg the government viewed the strike by postal workers as in violation of their oaths as civil servants and abandonment of their posts.

June 6, in the midst of the strike, the OBU formally meets in Calgary to elect an executive and to plan strategy around the sympathy strikes that has spread across the West. The papers across Canada scream about the OBU being nothing but a Bolshevik plot, lead by reds and aliens to overthrow the government of Canada. Stories circulate that the OBU is funneling money from Russia to support the sympathy strikes. The OBU meeting in Calgary is denounced as a; "Red Convention" with the press urging the government to use the sedition act and deport the OBU leaders and delegates.

City employees still would not support the sympathy strike and by June 17 the press was reporting that; "Save for the post office confusion, one would scarcely know a strike existed here. "With stories like these circulating in the papers, Secretary Kavanagh of the strike committee denounced the press claiming that the strikes were far more successful than they were being made out by either Calgary or Edmonton papers, and that he regretted having allowed for the papers to publish during the strike. "We could have and should have shut them down and only published our own strike bulletin" Kavanagh told the Vancouver Trades & Labor Council.

While in Calgary for a meeting with OBU executive members, R.A. Pritchard, the OBU leader from Winnipeg, is arrested on June 20 by the RCMP and held on charges of seditious conspiracy.

At the end of the strike veterans organizations, unions and churches called on the government for full reinstatement of all strikers. In Calgary this is focused on the postal workers. Despite the public support only some of the postal workers ever got their jobs back.

Taken from Eugene Plawiuk's General Strike website
Originally published June 1994, in Labor News
We also recommend that you visit Eugene's blog La Revue Gauche