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The Winnipeg General Strike

The Winnipeg General Strike was one of the most influential labour actions in Canadian history. The strike lasted six weeks, from May 15 to June 26, 1919.

Crowd gathered outside the Union Bank of Canada building on Main Street during the Winnipeg General Strike, 21 June 1919, The Montreal Star fonds. Library and Archives Canada, PA-163001 (via Flickr).

The Lead-up to the Strike

The Winnipeg General Strike occurred in the wake of WWI when the price of goods was increasing while wages remained stagnant. Soldiers home from the war also expected to return to their old jobs, but instead faced unemployment after finding their positions filled. Winnipeg was particularly hard hit, and workers in Winnipeg expressed their discontent.

In March 1919, western labour leaders met in Calgary to discuss the possibility of a radical, large, multi-sector labour union (which would come to be called One Big Union). Although One Big Union would not be created until June 1919 (at the end of the strike), the meeting and the resolutions adopted made clear that there was momentum to mobilize for change, including significant change to the way workers were treated in Canada. Tensions were mounting.

In May of 1919, after failed negotiations with employers, two trade councils in Winnipeg went on strike–first metalworkers, and then the building unions.

The Strike

The unions on strike brought their case to the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council–the city’s central trades council. Effectively, the unions on strike asked members from the other unions to take place in a general strike to support their comrades. This request was met, and although accounts of how many workers walked off the job vary widely (between 22,000 and 35,000 workers), on May 15, tens of thousands of both union and non-union workers went on strike. The striking workers “shut down the city’s privately owned factories, shops, and trains,” as well as many public sector services, with “police, firemen, postal workers, telephone and telegraph operators, and utilities workers” joining the strike. Support grew and grew, and quickly, workers from across Canada quickly joined out of sympathy for the Winnipeg strikers, with strikes occurring from Amherst, Nova Scotia to Victoria, British Columbia.

Government Reaction

Through the winter of 1918-1919, the Canadian Government was growing increasingly concerned that radical labour action could promote “Bolshevism.” The Russian Revolution in 1917, led to a “Red Scare” in which governments in North America were fearful of any potential revolutionary actions. Then-Prime Minister Robert Borden appointed his political ally, Charles Cahan, to Director of Public Safety to keep an eye on the “revolutionary propaganda” being carried out in Canada. Labour organizing was seen as an important potential threat, especially in Winnipeg where there was a significant population of Eastern European immigrants.

Although Cahan was appointed as Director of Public Safety to keep an eye on “revolutionary propaganda” he had no authority and lacked an intelligence gathering system. Therefore, it was left to several policing authorities, the immigration service, the Dominion Police, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, and the army to create a network of secret agents in order to infiltrate labour unions and political groups to provide the government of Canada with detailed reports of their activities.These reports further concerned government, giving them the impression “Bolshevik” agitators had already taken control of labour unions and other political groups in western Canada. They also disclosed that groups were preparing to launch a general strike around June 1, 1919.

When the Winnipeg General Strike broke out in May of 1919, the federal government viewed it as not just as strike, but as a potential insurrection. Soon after strike began, then-Minister of Labour Gideon Robertson and Minister of the Interior Arthur Meighen traveled to Winnipeg to assess the situation. The two Ministers gave federal employees an ultimatum: either resume their positions within three, or be fired immediately. The following day, government leaders accepted the strike was not simply a labour feud, but an emerging revolution.

The situation escalated throughout May and June, and on the morning of June 17, 1919 government agents raided the homes of ten strike leaders, bringing them to Stoney Mountain Penitentiary. The following day, four more men were arrested and similarly charged. On June 21, 1919–now known as “Bloody Saturday“–strikers saw new levels of violence. As they engaged in a silent protest supporting those who had been arrested in the previous few days, they were attacked by police, resulting in the death of two people and leaving many more injured.

A few days after Bloody Saturday, with the fear that government action would become even more dangerous and hostile, the strike was soon deemed a loss, and people returned to work. While strike participants did not reap the immediate benefits from their actions, they laid the foundation for labour reform that would occur later on.

After the Strike

The Winnipeg General Strike, and the demands made by workers, paved the way for future labour reform. Not only did the strike bring attention to labour issue, but also to the radical potential of labour organizing. For people across the country who joined in solidarity with strikers in Winnipeg, the strike provided a framework and a model for others who wanted to organize around the problems they were facing in their own cities, within and beyond their own industries.

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Collaborators: Rylie Kleikamp, Andrew Richardson, Tasha Morrison, and Owen Roy