The Edmonton General Strike of 1919 - Eugene Plawiuk

Eugene Plawiuk's account of the Edmonton general strike of 1919 which was sparked off in solidarity with the general strike in Winnipeg,

Submitted by Ed on September 21, 2007

In May of 1919 a heat wave crossed the province. Edmonton had reached temperatures of 85 degrees. Like the heat wave a mood of union militancy was in the air across Alberta, indeed across Western Canada. A strike wave would soon erupt sweeping the West like a prairie fire.

The press of the day was full of stories about the Armistice with Germany. In editorials and front page stories the press railed against the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, denouncing radical unions and alien workers, infected with Bolshevik ideas. The government and the editorialists agreed that the solution to stopping radical ideas was to deport foreigners; especially Hutterites, Mennonites, Dukhbours and those damn radicals in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The Mathers Royal Commission on Industrial Relations was going across Canada trying to fathom the unprecedented series of strikes, that had been happening, since January, from Nova Scotia to Victoria. Many of these strikes were short lived, but as soon as one was resolved another would spring up. They affected all industries and all levels of society. Miners struck in Nova Scotia and in the Rockies. Street Car workers in Toronto and Windsor went on strike. Even housemaids held a week long strike. The issues were the same; workers wanted an eight hour day, one day off in seven, and recognition of their unions.

When the Commission stopped in Edmonton worker's grievances were raised not only by Alfred Farmilo of the E.T.& L.C. and the Rev. F.W. Mercer (a labour writer for the Edmonton Journal and self professed 'guild socialist') but also by Mayor Joe Clarke. Clarke issued a set of 29 complaints to the commission including demands against profiteering, decrying unemployment, and defending workers' rights to collective bargaining the eight hour day, price controls and workers' rights to run and hold public office.

In Alberta the battle was on between the craft unions representing the American Federation of Labor and represented by the Edmonton Trades and Labour Council (the E.D.L.C.'s predecessor) against the fledgling industrial union; the OBU (One Big Union). The B.C. Federation of Labour had embraced the cause of industrial unionism espoused by the OBU. Endorsements of the OBU had come from the Winnipeg T & L. C., the Calgary Trades & Labour Council, and the United Mine Workers Union District 18, representing the Crowsnest Pass. The B.C. Federation had called for a Western Canada Labour Conference to be held in Calgary at the beginning of May. This was to formalize the OBU and split from the AFL and it's International Unions.

At the weekly General Meeting, April 28, of the Edmonton Trades & Labor Council the debate on support for the OBU was raised. In a procedural manipulation of the meeting, Alfred Farmilo, Secretary of the E.T.& L.C. and representative of Gompers AFL, moved to expel all those who came as delegates representing the OBU. The delegates were accused of dual membership and promoting secession from the International Unions.

The motion was not voted on by the delegates present but was supported as a ruling by the chair. E.T. & L.C. President McGreath ruled in favor of the motion and duly expelled the delegates. A stormy debate resulted, that almost ended in blows. Delegates from locals who supported the OBU and Calgary conference were stripped of their voting rights. Over half the members of E.T.& L.C. walked out. These included members of the Carpenters Local, the Railway Maintenance of Way Workers Union, the Machinists, as well as members of the Civil Service Union and the Federal Employees Union. Undaunted by these machiavellian tactics the OBU supporters adjourned and met upstairs from the E.T.& L.C. meeting room in the Labour Temple.

The attempt to purge the OBU delegates made front page news in the Edmonton Journal, the Bulletin and the weekly Edmonton Free Press (which was the newly published voice of the Edmonton Trades & Labour Council). The Bulletin in a short editorial a day later asserted that; "The OBU is simply IWWism by any other name." The IWW had been banned as a seditious organization by the Canadian Government in 1917. The Free Press supporting the International craft unions and British style guild-socialism was fiercely anti-OBU. It too denounced the dissident unions and the Calgary convention as "Bolsheviki".

This whole political battle over who ran the Trades & Labour Council would become a tempest in the tea-pot. The OBU was gaining strength and support across Western Canada, in spite of the craft union's domination in Edmonton. OBU supporters who had been expelled attended the May 5, E.T. & L.C. meeting in an attempt to overturn the previous weeks' decision, but it was to no avail. The Chair still ruled that he had the right to expel them and they would not have been able to vote on the issue anyway. A week later and the issue would be moot.

May 13 and 14 and the papers were full of news of the pending General Strike in Winnipeg. Unlike anywhere else in Canada the OBU was strongest in Winnipeg. So strong in fact, that the unions in Manitoba had refused to even talk with the Mathers Royal Commission when it toured the province days before the strike call.

Even the OBU was not prepared to call a General Strike this early. Members were planning for their May Congress in Calgary where they hoped to organize a General Strike for June. Negotiations between the metal trade unions and their employers in Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal had come to stand still. The Metal Trades walked out and the Winnipeg Trades & Labour Council called for a vote on a sympathy strike.

On May 15 Winnipeg workers had shut the city down in a General Strike. The issues were still the same; the eight hour day and a six day work week and recognition of OBU as bargaining agent. The strike curtailed all major shipping and communications between Eastern and Western Canada, virtually isolating the West.

The Bulletin editorialized that: "In Winnipeg the "red element" or I.W.W. element is in control. They are putting their theories into practice. Their leaders have tasted power and will not lightly give it up. All the elements that produce a clash of armed forces are present. The clash will begin as soon as hunger begins to pinch."

In spite of the previous dispute over delegates' status, all of Edmonton's unions quickly responded to the Winnipeg General Strike. The W.T.& L.C. had issued calls for sympathy strikes, and the Edmonton Trades & Labour Council called an emergency meeting of all of Edmonton's unions for May 21.

At the meeting two resolutions were unanimously passed. The first was to hold a vote of all unions in Edmonton to go on strike at 11 AM on Monday, May 26. This resolution was forwarded to the Prime Minister, the Premier and the Mayors of Calgary, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. The second resolution was to immediately compose a strike committee made up of two delegates from each union. The strike vote was to be held at 3 PM on Sunday, May 25.

"Union Officials Are of Opinion Strike Coming" was the headline in the Bulletin. The Mayor and City Council responded to the strike vote by calling a special meeting for 7:30 PM on Friday, May 23. The resolution called for delegations from employers, unions that were taking the votes and ad hoc representatives of non organized employees as well as concerned citizens to attend the special council meeting to avert the strike if possible.

"City Aldermen Believe Strike Here Unlikely" said the Edmonton Journal. Edmonton was different from other cities, or so the Aldermen had thought. "We own all our own utilities, phones and street car operations unlike Winnipeg" said one alderman.

Edmonton workers had good relations with their employers. They were well represented by the International Unions. They would not walk out on their contract obligations, asserted Alderman Grant at the special meeting. Furthermore the Aldermen felt that they could rely on the union leadership after the recent turmoil in the Edmonton Trades & Labor Council. The dominance of the International Unions in maintaining control of the E.T. & L.C. was seen as a victory of the moderates over the radicals.

Mayor Clarke, pointed out the councilors were not facing reality. Sympathy strikes were happening in cities across the West and the workers were determined to support the right for union recognition and collective bargaining. He blamed war profiteers who refused to recognize unions and locked out their men. He told aldermen that he would avoid using the militia to break the strike and that the city would not endorse the use of strikebreakers as recommended by Alderman Grant.

Undaunted, the majority of City Council remained optimistic that a sympathy strike could be avoided. "Council Sure Labor Is to Be Trusted. City Fathers in Special Meeting Refuse to Believe In Strike." Saturday's headline read in the Bulletin.

The council ignored the opinion of the Mayor and the Strike Committee and assured themselves that honest upright employees in Edmonton wouldn't go on strike. They passed the following resolution;" That this council has continued confidence in the men at the head of affairs of the Trades and Labor Council and believes that they will do their utmost to avert any strike in this city." Their confidence in the conservative nature of the union leadership would soon be proven an underestimation of the real militancy of the rank and file.

By Sunday the turn out for the strike vote was overwhelming, with 39 of 45 unions voting. In some cases the votes were very close (see side bar of how unions voted) in others it was an overwhelming majority. The newly formed Edmonton Police Association voted 74 to 4 in favor of strike action!

When the final count was tallied, the majority had voted in favor of a city wide General Strike. Thirty-five locals were in favor only 4 were totally opposed. The vote was counted on an individual basis, the final count being 1600 in favor of striking with 500 opposed.

"General Strike Declared For Today At 11 AM" was the headline in the Bulletin of May 26. "Edmonton In Throes Of General Strike; Trade Unionists Made Their Decision Sunday" was the headline in the Journal.

Edmontonians woke up Monday morning to find that there were no street cars or taxis operating, city hall closed, and reduced numbers of police and fire patrols. There was no telegraph in service and the trains had stopped running. Restaurant staff walked out and strikers closed shops that were still open. Milk was being delivered to homes but no cheese or butter was available. City utilities were shut down except to vital areas like hospitals. Street lamps went off early and the Edmonton newspapers had to bring in gas powered generators to be able to run their presses. Packing houses and cold storage went without electricity or workers. The Telephone system was shut down.

The Strike Committee, set up by the unions, was now running the City, much to the chagrin of editorial writers, businessmen and some Aldermen. The Mayor; Joe Clarke, was negotiating for the continuation of essential services with strikers.

The Strike Committee had organized itself into several action committees to take care of essential services, propaganda and press releases, pickets and health and safety. Over three hundered trade unionists were active on various committees being coordinated by the 75 member steering commmittee. An advertisement in the Journal listed a local hauling business that was operating at reduced hours; " by permission of the strike committee".

The strikers announced that they intended on staying out until the end of Winnipeg Strike. "That should not be too long" asserted editorial writers in the local papers. Since the previous week the press had been predicting a quick end to the Winnipeg strike, now they predicted the same for the Edmonton strike.

"Strike won't last more than 3 days" said the Journal. By the third day of the strike both papers were announcing workers had returned to work at GWG, under orders from their International Union and that post office workers were still delivering mail. The papers expected the strike to be over by the weekend. Even the Edmonton Free Press declared the strike over prematurely, asking workers to go back to work in its front page editorial on Saturday, May 31. This was not to be the case.

As the strike wore on, both the Journal and the Bulletin denounced the workers as dupes of the OBU. Unlike the International Unions in Gompers AFL, which were willing to work with employers, the OBU was more radical. The editorialists argued that the OBU was attempting to overthrow the duly elected government and set up Soviet power in both Winnipeg and Edmonton. The accusation was that the unions were being lead by radical 'aliens' who should be arrested and deported. The papers were particularly hard on the Mayor of Winnipeg as a dupe of the Bolsheviks in the OBU and accused Mayor Clarke in Edmonton of the same duplicity.

Alderman Grant, a past president of the Edmonton Board of Trade (aka the Chamber of Commerce), and his allies on the Board of Trade and on City Council organized a Citizens Committee. The Citizens Committee provided automobile transportation for students and teachers still attending school and for the postal workers. Alderman Grant continually demanded the City use strikebreakers to keep the Utilities and Street Cars running.

Mayor Clarke refused to endorse the use of strikebreakers. Stating that as long as he was still Mayor he would not tolerate strike breaking by the Board of Trade or their Citizens Committee. The Strike Committee had allowed reduced hours for the street cars and was diverting power from the utilities for hospitals, schools, the fire halls and police station. Alderman Grant accused the Mayor of being a dupe of the Edmonton Strike Committee. The Mayor replied that he was not going to use force or strikebreakers against workers in Edmonton nor would he be forced to by "the Bolsheviks (sic) on the Board of Trade."

Regular communications were maintained between Winnipeg and the city through representatives of the Strike Committee as well as members of the Board of Trade. They had gone to see the situation first hand, since direct news was slow in reaching Edmonton. As one writer in the Journal put it there were so many Edmontonians in Winnipeg "that when you were on main street in Winnipeg it felt like Jasper Avenue."

The returned veterans from the war, who were facing unemployment and no government compensation, were appealed to by both the strikers and the citizen's committee. The later asked them to form militia units to protect strikebreakers and force strikers back to work. The unions raised demands that veterans should get full compensation and more jobs should be created for the returning soldiers. The Great War Veterans Association (GWVA) passed a resolution stating that they would not interfere in the strike in anyway, though many of their members had joined the strikers cause.

"Chinese laundry men walk out. Now the well dressed plutocrat will not be able to get his shirts and collars cleaned." was an article in the Bulletin the second week of the strike. Unorganized workers had walked out as well especially those working in the Chinese restaurants and laundries. The Strike Committee made a special effort to contact and organize these workers, and had been successful. Facing the double burden of being unorganized and considered 'aliens' fit for deportation, Chinese workers in Edmonton bravely walked out anyway.

More strikes were being called. Coal miners and Railway workers were out on independent strikes over hours of work and wages. Metal Workers were on strike across Canada over the same issue. This meant that less coal was being delivered to the city, further reinforcing the power of the Strike Committee. Coal lay un-mined and that which was mined was undeliverable, lying on unmoving rail cars on sidetracks just outside the City.

In spite of attempts by local businessmen, with the endorsement of the Press, to organize strikebreakers, the city continued to run. This was because of Mayor Clarke's regular negotiations with the Strike Committee. Some unions returned to work under orders from their International representatives. Still on June 11, the Journal reported that 36 of 45 unions were still out in sympathy with strikers in Winnipeg.

The strike would flare up, repeatedly, as postal workers were locked out by the Federal government and when force was used to put down the strike in Winnipeg. Edmonton workers held mass rallies in the Market Square denouncing the actions of the Government and calling for fair play for Winnipeg workers.

"Month And A Day Old Strike In City Called Off" read the headline in the Bulletin the morning of June 27,1919. The city had almost returned to normal over the previous week. There were still restricted deliveries, reduced lighting, street car services and far fewer stores open. For a strike that was to have lasted only till May 31,1919, Edmonton workers showed that they would defy the predictions of politicians, editorialists and businessmen alike.

True to their word Edmonton Trade Unions supported those in Winnipeg to the end. They proved that they could effectively govern as a strike committee regardless of the opposition to them. Unfortunately this also meant the press would paint the unions and their allies as radicals, subversives and Bolsheviks. It meant that the unions would have to fight harder for editorial support from the Press in the future.

Another casualty of the strike was Joe Clarke. He would lose re-election as Mayor due to his support of the workers. Workers had shown their ability to organize, and the E.T. & L.C. would go on to elect trade unionists to city council for the next 75 years. Several of those active in the Strike Committee would go on to become Aldermen and Mayors of Edmonton, such as Dan Knott.

The results of 1919 are still with us today. Gains were made in collective bargaining and union recognition. The eight hour day and six day week became the norm. Unions had shown the way, and the CCF as well as the Communist Party was a direct result of the political activism inspired during 1919. The idea of a uniquely Canadian Unionism was nurtured and brought forth. Modern Canadian industrial and social unionism was born out of the struggles of 1919.

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