Lessons of the Winnipeg General Strike 1919

Protest Against Jailing of Strikers
Protest Against Jailing of Strikers

By Aiden Sisler, Pete Marlowe and Bill Hopwood (Socialist Alternative, Canada)

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was a crucial event in Canadian history. It is probably the closest the working class in Canada has come, so far, to taking power, albeit in one city. Although it is one hundred years ago, the lessons are rich for workers today and will be vital for future class struggles that will unfold in the Canadian state.

Background to the General Strike

The General Strike came out of the horrors of World War I. Four years of slaughter in Europe, with 61,000 Canadian deaths and a further 170,000 injured, and suffering at home had enraged millions of workers. While prices soared, wages were held back and the workers faced intense and brutal working  conditions. At the same time business made massive profits guaranteed by the government in the war economy.

In 1917 the Conservative Prime Minister Borden abandoned his promise of a volunteer army and imposed conscription to replace the dead and injured soldiers with new troops for slaughter. Conscription was overwhelmingly opposed in Québec. Many, especially union members, in the rest of Canada were equally opposed. The BC Federation of Labour 1917 conference voted 56-8 against it. The Alberta Federation of Labour adopted a resolution protesting the conscription of labour until the wealth of the nation had first been conscripted. Similar demands were raised across Ontario.

As the war dragged on workers organized, joined unions, went on strike and looked for militant ways to struggle. While the war was still raging, in Vancouver in August 1918, after the murder of union activist Ginger Goodwin, there was a one-day general strike.

The unions in western Canada were generally more militant than in central and eastern Canada as work in the west was dominated by resource extraction industries and the brutal metal shops of Winnipeg. In March 1919, the majority of the western unions came to together in Calgary to launch the One Big Union. The OBU was based on the view of organizing all workers by industry rather than only organizing skilled workers by the trade. It is a powerful idea that later produced the mass industrial unions of North America in the movement to build the Congress of Industrial Organization, building mass militant unions in steel, auto and others. The OBU never was really more than an idea, reflecting the militancy of the time.

Slowly, in spite of newspapers’ lies and silence, news of the Russian Revolution filtered into Canada. To many workers suffering in Canada it offered hope of a different world. The working class could take power and run society.

In early November 1918, the German navy and then army mutinied. The king (Kaiser) was overthrown, a republic declared, and the war was over. The flame of revolution was spreading to Germany and other countries.

The ruling class around the world were horrified and terrified. In response to the mounting discontent and fear of the spread of revolution, the Conservative government of Borden enacted increasingly repressive laws, in the midst of a war “to defend democracy.” In September 1918, Order-in-Council PC2384 banned 14 left-wing organizations, prohibited meetings in many languages, and banned many books and left-wing newspapers. Militants were fined and jailed.  In October 1918 strikes were banned in many industries, although with little impact. Union membership in 1919 reached 380,000, double the pre-war high of 175,000. 1919 was a record year for the number of strikes and the number of workers involved.

The Canadian ruling class was determined to fight revolution at home and in Russia. Just as the world war ended, a force of 4,200 Canadian soldiers were sent to Vladivostok to join the many capitalist armies united in the aim of crushing the Revolution. Borden over-ruled some of his own cabinet members to send the troops. There were large meetings to protest this decision organized by unions and left parties. Before they sailed some troops mutinied. In Siberia the troops became demoralized. Although vastly better armed and trained, the 350,000 troops of the reactionary White Army in Siberia failed to defeat the revolutionary army who fought with ideas as much as weapons. By June 1919, most of the troops had returned to Canada

Most of those in Canada attracted by the Revolution had only the vaguest idea of how the  Bolsheviks and working class took power. They had no clear idea of the strategy, tactics, patience and bold clear program of the Bolsheviks. Mostly they saw the banner of Revolution and hoped that the same banner would win in Canada. The first moves to establish a Communist Party in Canada started in 1919. These were confused and naive, but nonetheless greatly worried the Canadian government.

Run-up to the Strike in Winnipeg

The opening of  the railways and the prairie farmland turned Winnipeg into a boomtown. Its population more than quadrupled between 1901 and 1920 to 179,000. At the end of the war, Winnipeg was the third largest city in Canada and a rail centre with many engineering workshops. The city was sharply divided between the affluent south end with large mansions and the working-class north end with machine shops, squalid housing and seething anger. The staunchly anti-union business class dominated the city’s politics.

The harsh nature of working-class life in Winnipeg made it a centre of radical politics with militant union leaders and a strong socialist wing. One example is that on December 22, 1918 at a meeting called jointly by the Trades and Labour Council and the Socialist Party of Canada, a packed house of 1,700 people (1% of the population of the city) passed three resolutions: the first  denounced the federal government’s repeated recourse to orders-in-council to attack workers’ and democratic rights; the second called for the release of all political prisoners incarcerated during the war; and the third, for the withdrawal of all allied forces from Russia and congratulations to the revolutionaries who had overthrown the Russian Czar.

Winnipeg had seen many bitter class struggles. A crucial core of the workers’ movement were the skilled machinists who maintained the railways and were needed to make the war’s armaments. Strikes were defeated by the employer getting an injunction to prohibit picketing from a “friendly judge,” which they all were. Winnipeg was known as “injunction city.”

In April 1918, city employees went on strike. They gained support from other workers in a partial general strike and won significant improvements. A strike of the Metal Trades Council in the smaller contract shops in July was unsuccessful. The contrast between these outcomes convinced workers that if each group fought alone, they would be defeated but if they acted together in solidarity they could win.

Outline of the General Strike

The first wave of the General Strike was the walk out of the Metal and Building Trades workers on May 1, 1919. Their demands for recognition of their unions and the two Trades Councils along with a pay increase to compensate for inflation had been rejected by the employers. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (WTLC) proposed a General Strike. Its members, in 94 unions, voted 11,000 in favor with less than 600 opposed.

The General Strike started at 7am on May 15 with 500 female telephone operators walking out. By 11am, between 30,000 and 35,000 defiant workers brought Winnipeg to a halt with a General Strike. Many of the strikers were not organized into unions. Including the families of strikers, the majority of Winnipeg’s population was involved in the General Strike.

Women and men, union and non-union, diverse occupations, races, and ethnicities struck in unison. All production ceased and factories closed. There was no mail, streetcars, newspapers, telegrams, telephones; even the firefighters joined in. The Strike unified all sections of the working class. At the request of the Strike Committee, a skeleton staff of water workers maintained a low-pressure supply, enough for the low-rise houses of workers and fire hoses, but not enough for water to reach the tops of the mansions of the rich.

As the rich in Winnipeg were deeply hostile to the recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, many of whom did not speak English, discrimination was rife in the city. In spite of efforts by the bosses to divide the strikers between English speakers and more recent, non-English speaking immigrants, the strike was solid. As well as the workers on strike, the majority of the veterans returning from the slaughter in Europe supported the strike and held regular marches in solidarity with the strikers. The city was peaceful and orderly.

For six weeks the General Strike was solid, until the capitalist class enforced deadly repression on “Bloody Saturday.” This key event starkly demonstrated state brutality to protect capitalist interests.

What was the Strike About?

The immediate demands of the Metal and the Building Trades Councils were for recognition and a pay increase. Simple labour union demands. However, after years of setbacks for labour, this became a winner takes all struggle.

Many of the workers’ leaders were socialists and were influenced by the Russian Revolution. They talked about workers’ power and challenging capitalism but did not see the strike as part of a revolutionary struggle to transform society. They lacked a transitional method to link the struggles for wages and conditions to the struggle for socialism.

The capitalists of Winnipeg and behind them of Canada decided that the strike had to be crushed; to them it was not a simple question of basic labour rights, it was about who ran society.

The Actions of the Ruling Class and State  

The city’s richest bankers, manufacturers, lawyers, and politicians, formed the Citizens’ Committee of 1000 two days before the strike began and acted to defend the ruling class. The Committee was based on similar strike-breaking Citizens’ Alliances in the US. Under the guise of neutrality, not “on behalf of the workers, nor on behalf of the employers,” merely in favor of keeping water, gas, and fire fighting services running (even though the strike committee ensured essential services were maintained), the Citizens’ Committee was, in fact, a cabal of 34 individuals, comprised of Winnipeg’s most prominent capitalists and their lawyers, who would usurp control of a city and dominate the decisions of the Canadian government.

Within five days they were publishing a daily newspaper, the only rival to the strikers’ own journal during the early days of the strike. Their aim was to crush the strike, stamp out the revolt and maintain their dominance. They attacked the strikers as “Bolsheviks” and “alien scum,” and claimed the strike was a bloody foreign revolutionary conspiracy and criminal action. Claiming to defend law and order, they broke the law and openly promoted disorder. Claiming to defend the British constitution, they employed strongarm tactics imported from the United States. Claiming to defend democracy, they wrested power into the hands of less than three dozen men.

The Citizens’ Committee was dominated by A.J. Andrews, lawyer and former mayor. He led a Citizens’ delegation to intercept acting Minister of Justice Arthur Meighen on his way to Winnipeg to investigate the crisis. Meighen, a Manitoba MP with close ties to Winnipeg’s business class, got the Citizens’ Committee version of events from Andrews: a Bolshevik revolution was in progress in Winnipeg, and there must be no negotiations. The strike had to be utterly defeated.

Meighen appointed Andrews as his representative during the strike, and through more than daily telegraphs, the Citizens’ Committee voice was the only one Ottawa heard, while Andrews orchestrated a legally dubious battle for Winnipeg’s hearts and minds.

A letter to the Globe and Mail 100 years after the General Strike from Robert Richards, whose great-uncle was A.J. Andrews, shows that class hatred lives on. Richards wrote, “the Strike was a reign of terror … the strikers’ aim was revolution … the city was lawless.” He claims that Andrews “is a Canadian hero.”

The federal government, increasingly alarmed, met only the Citizens’ Committee and acted ruthlessly to stop the working-class upheaval. Federal employees, such as postal workers, were forced back to work or faced being fired.  The Canadian army, under Brigadier-General Ketchen, and the RNWMP (as the RCMP was called then), under Commissioner Perry, prepared to use force to defeat the workers. They assembled 800 troops including cavalry and several armed cars equipped with machine guns. Extra machine guns were sent by train from Ottawa to Ketchen’s forces.

“Special Police” with Clubs on July 21
“Special Police” with Clubs on July 21

One obstacle to suppression was the existing police force, who had voted to strike, but were still working at the request of the Strike Committee. The police were given an ultimatum to dissociate themselves from the Labour Council. When they refused, the Citizens’ Committee demanded and got the 240 regular police fired. In their place, the Council deputized 1,800 “special police” – untrained, anti-union thugs paid a higher wage than the regular police. From June 10, these ruffians, armed with baseball bats freely supplied by the Eaton family, wealthy owners of the department stores, attempted to patrol the streets of Winnipeg.

Throughout the strike, the Citizens’ Committee consistently rejected any peace-making attempts by employers, governments, or the strikers themselves. They preferred the threat of violence on Winnipeg’s otherwise peaceful streets, by their private Special Police, and the fatal events of Bloody Saturday to the horror of granting collective bargaining rights.

In early June, there were rumors that the railway crews still running the transcontinental trains might join the strike. That would have paralyzed Canada.

The state stepped up its actions. The Immigration Act was amended to allow the deportation of any immigrant. Meighen, as acting Minister of Justice, rushed into law in record time Section 98 of the Criminal Code which banned “unlawful associations.” The definition was very broad including strike organizing and was not repealed until 1936. On June 17, on Andrews’ authority rather than any government’s, ten strike leaders, including Helen Armstrong of the Women’s Labour League, were arrested and all charged with sedition. This despite Meighen’s stated “grave doubts as to the legality” of such action. This attempt at intimidation failed; the strike continued.

On Saturday, June 21, the veterans’ march was joined by thousands of strikers and supporters in downtown Winnipeg to protest the arrests. Mayor Gray read the Riot Act and unleashed the RCMP to attack the gathering by shooting indiscriminately, killing two and injuring dozens. The special police beat and terrorized the protestors. The military patrolled with machine guns mounted on their vehicles. Strike leaders ended the strike on June 26, fearful of further violence.

Machine Guns on Winnipeg Streets
Machine Guns on Winnipeg Streets

An All-out General Strike Poses the Question of Power

The strike was completely successful in shutting down the city. However, an all-out general strike poses very different issues from a one-day protest strike or a strike by a section of workers.  The workers who provided bread, delivered milk and ice (vital in the years before the common use of electric refrigerators) and many other vital services were on strike.

The WTLC formed the Central Strike Committee of 300 members representing every union involved, to organize essential services and distribute food. This body issued permits for deliveries and other core services, stating, “Permitted by Authority of the Strike Committee.” While essential for life, these permits showed who really had power in the city. The working class ran the city better than the bosses.

This alarmed the majority of the City Council and the business class, claiming that the General Strike was leading to Soviet power. As everyday life continued without the ruling class in control, it showed that they are merely a burden on society. This situation happens in every general strike. There are two contending forces – the old order used to running the show, and the revealed power of the working class that can run society without need of the elite. The Winnipeg Tribune stated that “Winnipeg now has two state capitals.” The two powers in conflict produced a situation of dual power. Dual power cannot last for a prolonged time. Either the old order is restored, crushing the workers, or the working class completes the transfer of power and takes over the running of society.

Unfortunately, only one side, the ruling class, understood this. The strike leaders wanted peace and order, asking the police to stay on duty, didn’t organize mass picketing. The union leaders saw general strikes as simply an extension of limited strikes. The ruling class was clear: the General Strike had to end by teaching the workers a lesson not to challenge authority.

The union leaders used a weapon so powerful, an all-out general strike, that it changes the entire dynamics of struggle. A general strike is not just a means to win a pay raise or a union contract. It inevitably poses the question of who runs society. If the strike leaders are not resolute in answering that the working class can and will run society, they face defeat. A general strike requires careful and deliberate organizing and campaigning to unite the working class. This existed in Winnipeg; however, the issue was, what next? Could the workers in Winnipeg turn dual power into working class power? That required a decisive working-class leadership and organization that saw a way to take power in Winnipeg.

While the Strike had solid support, to win it needed regular active mass meetings of strikers and supporters to outline and plan the way forward. From these mass meetings, action committees would be elected, and the ideas would be spread into neighborhoods. The leadership needed not only to organize the General Strike itself, but begin to organize a new society.

Could the Workers have Won?

To the workers, union recognition and a pay increase would have been a victory. The business class of Winnipeg could have afforded such an agreement. However, once the full General Strike had got going the Citizens’ Committee, with the backing of the Canadian government, had decided that was not an acceptable option, as it would have signaled to workers everywhere that militant action wins results.

The escalation of the struggle from one over union rights and wages to who rules the city, changed what was needed for a workers’ victory. The union leaders never realized this change and had no strategy for power. However, to win in Winnipeg would have required a clear strategy. It is true the state had marshaled armed forces. On the other hand, the strikers had the support of most veterans and the police, and these were the basis for a powerful defense force.

Inevitably, if Winnipeg was isolated, the full force of the Canadian state would have been overwhelming. To counter this, the struggle had to spread beyond Winnipeg. Unfortunately, the possibility of a railway strike was never developed. News of the Strike in Winnipeg spread, with solidarity strikes in over 20 cities across the country. Most were in the West, a sign of the more militant mood there. Vancouver saw a month-long general strike. Toronto had a partial general strike, but it only lasted four days. There were strikes in Sydney and Amherst in Nova Scotia.. However, like in Winnipeg, none of these strikes addressed the question: “Who shall rule?”

The strikers in the cities across Canada faced a determined capitalist class and state. In addition, the leadership of most unions, the craft unions in Eastern Canada, were opposed to the idea of general strikes. Canada still had a majority rural population. All these factors made victory difficult. However, the Russian Revolution, in different circumstances, triumphed in an overwhelmingly rural country.

In Russia there was a strong independent working-class political party, the Bolsheviks, to provide the leadership, unify the working class and win support of large parts of the rural population. Such a party did not exist in Canada, and this meant that it was unlikely the strikers and their supporters could have seen through a series of successive political and economic blows to the Canadian capitalist class. Trotsky warned against the overreliance and misuse of the call for a general strike without a high level of readiness for all-out struggle by the working class and a clear assessment of class forces at play. The military and effective martial law imposed on Winnipeg from Ottawa was simply too great a force, even with the support of local police, for the General Strike to win without the foresight of both an offensive and a defensive strategy.

The Strike Committee had to do more that organize the General Strike itself. It needed to  but begin to organize society with democratic workers’ control of workplaces, services, food distribution and a defense force. The leaders needed bold clear strategies to win over, or at least neutralize, the middle layers of society. Instead, these people were won over by the propaganda and determined actions of the Citizens’ Committee.

Unfortunately, even the most radical of working-class leaders and strikers were focussed on union demands and reforms. They did not see the General Strike as linked to the need and means to overthrow and replace the capitalist system.

Aftermath: Repression

After the end of the strike, Andrews turned his attention back to golf, and then to the problem of prosecutions. Criminal prosecutions should have been under the province’s jurisdiction; however the province was reluctant to prosecute.  The Federal government had qualms about asking Parliament for the funds to proceed under the War Measures Act.

It wasn’t the federal government who would lay the charges. It was a private prosecution by the Citizens’ Committee, with A.J. Andrews as legal counsel. Minister of Justice Charles Doherty, lately returned from the Treaty of Versailles negotiations, had written the War Measures Act and came to Andrew’s aid. Doherty arranged for the cost of the prosecutions, $227,000 (over $3 million today), to be paid out of monies previously set aside for returning soldiers’ demobilization and reintegration into society, on the dubious grounds that members of the military were loath to be greeted home by a nation roiled by labour unrest. This, even though veterans returning to Winnipeg overwhelmingly supported the strike.

The Winnipeg Defence Committee raised $60,000 (~$1 million today) to pay legal expenses and support the defendants’ families.

The court cases concentrated on the socialist ideas of the strikers rather than any of their actions. Several defendants made powerful political speeches in support of their actions and the class outlook. Seven (Armstrong, Bray, Ivens, Johns, Pritchard, Russell and Queen) were found guilty by rural juries, and received one-year sentences, except for Russell who was given two years and Bray who received six months. Dixon was found not guilty after a strong defense of the right to free speech. The case against Woodsworth was dropped. Blumenberg and Schoppelrei and eight others were deported.

Aftermath: Longer-term

The General Strike marked the high point of the post-war surge of class struggle. After the defeat, strikes did continue, but Winnipeg marked the beginning of the end.

Winnipeg continued to be a strong union and left-wing city. Defeated in industrial struggle, workers turned to the political front. In the city elections, labour’s representation increased from five to seven aldermen, including Jessie Kirk, the first woman on Winnipeg’s council. However, the supporters of the Citizen’s Committee, through the so-called Citizen’s League, rigged the structure of the Council to prevent labour winning a majority.

In the Provincial elections of 1920 four of the strike leaders were elected, including Ivens, Armstrong and Queen, who were still in prison. Queen was also elected Winnipeg’s mayor seven times. In 1921, Woodsworth was elected MP in Winnipeg. Heaps, another leader, was elected MP in 1925. Many of the strike’s leaders helped form the CCF (forerunner of the NDP) and Winnipeg became a stronghold of the Communist Party.

The Manitoba government established a Royal Commission to investigate the strike. Its 1920 report found that the strike was not a criminal conspiracy by foreigners, instead stating that “if Capital does not provide enough to assure Labour a contented existence … then the Government might find it necessary to step in and let the state do these things at the expense of Capital.” This did not mean the convictions for sedition of the strike leaders were quashed nor was there any government action to improve workers’ pay and conditions. Working conditions and living standards only started to change with the building of strong unions in the 1930s and 1940s.

In the longer-term, the bitterness and revolutionary potential of Winnipeg was one factor that convinced a section of the Canadian capitalist class to try a different tactic to deal with labour. Instead of repression, grant some concessions and seek to cut a deal with the union leaders. This policy was developed later by Mackenzie King. But like most reforms, they are a product of the threat or reality of revolutionary struggle and can be undermined if labour is not strong.

Lessons for TodayWinnipeg’s General Strike demonstrated working-class power and remains an inspiration. Never had the Canadian working class held so much power, based on their united shared interests across diverse backgrounds and the determination of their actions. The General Strike demonstrated that workers are capable of governing themselves and society. It offered a glimpse of another way to organize life. The working class has the power to stop industry and commerce and the ability to run society better than the capitalists.

Just as socialism cannot succeed in one country, so too will one city inevitably fall to the brutality of the capitalist class without widespread support from coast to coast and from  all corners of the globe. That is why we fight for international socialism today with the huge motivation and inspiration of what ordinary workers achieved and dared to carry through some 100 years ago in Winnipeg, a humble prairie city.

Socialist Alternative works to win workers’ rights and a dignified quality of life for all. Taking organized united action is the core of working-class power to defeat capital and the ruling class. When that power is linked to a fighting socialist party, capable of inspiring people, the future looks bright. We have a world to win.