An eerie calm descended on the streets of Winnipeg on the morning of May 15, 1919. The street cars and delivery wagons lay idle. Some 50,000 tradesmen, labourers, city and provincial employees had walked off the job, leaving the city paralyzed. It was North America's first "general strike.
With the horrors of World War I at an end, workers throughout the Western democracies began agitating for change. While they had delayed their demands during the war out of patriotic duty, they believed that the business classes had grown fat on their labour and on profiteering.
Now labour leaders were preaching the use of the "general strike and "one big union to fight for recognition and better wages. When owners in Winnipeg refused to deal with the striking metal and building trades, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (TLC) voted overwhelmingly to call out all their members in support. To the business classes this smacked of revolution. To the police it was seditious conspiracy. For the press it was proof of "Bolshevism and the poisonous influences of "foreign elements in the city's north end.
On May 21 the TLC formed a General Strike Committee. When the Committee took upon itself the power to provide basic services, the press all over North America declared that this was proof that the strikers were trying to establish a "soviet style government.
To crush the strike a group of business and professional men banded together to form the Citizens' Committee of One Thousand. The two committees exposed the deep fissure in Winnipeg society. The Strike Committee gathered in the grubby quarters of the Labour Temple, the Citizens' Committee in the sumptuous rooms of the private Manitoba Club.
While the strikers held steadfast to their policy of non-violence, the Citizens' Committee showed an uncompromising belligerence, supported by all three levels of government. On May 23 Gideon Robertson, the federal minister of labour, issued an ultimatum to the postal workers. Return to work or lose your jobs. On the 24th Premier T.C. Norris gave the same ultimatum to public employees. Five days later the city followed suit.
Though there had been no sign of violence, on June 5 the police commissioner ordered the enrollment of 2000 special police. T. Eaton Company supplied the men with horses and baseball bats.
On June 10 some 1800 "specials fanned out across the city and descended on a crowd gathered at Portage and Main. They rode into the crowds swinging their clubs. The violent confrontation allowed the press to vent its spleen on the "aliens, "bohunks and "foreigners who had caused this "riot.
|RCMP on horseback charge into the crowd of strikers on North Main Street, 21 June 1919, resulting in 30 casualties and one death (courtesy NAC/WS-83/David Millar Coll).|
A few days later, in the early hours of June 17, Robertson ordered the arrest of the principal leaders of the strike. Federal justice minister Arthur Meighen suggested simply deporting them without hearings. Six were soon released on bail. Those with non-Anglo-Saxon names were detained and charged with sedition. (Six in all were later convicted and put in jail.)
The strike culminated in violence on the street on Saturday June 21. A crowd of strikers managed to overturn and set fire to a streetcar run by "volunteers. The mayor read the riot act and the Mounties charged into the crowd on Main Street beating the strikers with their batons. Just after 2:35 the Mounties were ordered to fire into the crowd. One man was killed and 30 injured. In his defence one of the constables claimed that he was in imminent danger from "foreigners, aliens and Jews. The crowd fled through the alleyways. By the time that the government suppressed the Citizen and arrested its editor J.S. Woodsworth, the strike was defeated. The TLC called it off on the 25th.
By any accounting, the Winnipeg General Strike was a pivotal event in Canadian history. Its causes and results have been debated by historians ever since. Was the strike illegal? (It likely was.) Was the strike an apprehended revolution? (Likely not.) While the combined forces of the Citizens' Committee, government, police and military succeeded in crushing the strike, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Not only did labour become more politicized in Winnipeg (three of the six strike leaders sent to jail were later elected) but the city's economy went into a serious decline.