The beginning of organized labour in Canada
The Winnipeg General Strike, 15 May-25 June 1919, is Canada’s best-known general strike. Massive unemployment and inflation, the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and rising Revolutionary Industrial Unionism all contributed to the postwar labour unrest that fuelled the landmark strike.
Thirty Thousand Strikers
In March 1919 western labour leaders met in Calgary to discuss the creation of One Big Union. In Winnipeg on 15 May, when negotiations broke down between management and labour in the building and metal trades, the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council (WTLC) called a general strike. At stake were the principle of collective bargaining, and better wages and working conditions. Within hours almost 30,000 workers left their jobs. The almost unanimous response by working men and women closed the city’s factories, crippled Winnipeg’s retail trade and stopped trains. Public-sector employees, including policemen, firemen, postal workers, telephone operators and employees of waterworks and other utilities, joined the workers of private industry in an impressive display of solidarity.
The strike was coordinated by the Central Strike Committee, composed of delegates elected from each of the unions affiliated with the WTLC. The committee bargained with employers on behalf of the workers and coordinated the provision of essential services.
Meanwhile, opposition to the strike was organized by the Citizens’ Committee of 1,000, created shortly after the strike began. The committee was made up of Winnipeg’s most influential manufacturers, bankers and politicians. Rather than giving the strikers’ demands any serious consideration, the Citizens’ Committee, with the support of Winnipeg’s leading newspapers, declared the strike a revolutionary conspiracy led by a small group of “alien scum.” Though evidence failed to support its charges that the strike was initiated by European workers and Bolsheviks, the Citizens’ Committee used these unsubstantiated charges to block any conciliation efforts.
Afraid the strike would spark confrontations in other cities, the federal government decided to intervene. Soon after the strike began, Senator Gideon Robertson, minister of labour, and Arthur Meighen, minister of the interior and acting minister of justice, went to Winnipeg to meet with the Citizens’ Committee. They refused requests from the Central Strike Committee for a similar hearing. On Citizens’ Committee’s advice, the federal government swiftly supported the employers. Federal workers were ordered to return to work immediately or face dismissal. The Immigration Act was amended so British-born immigrants could be deported. The Criminal Code’s definition of sedition was also broadened.
On 17 June the government arrested 10 leaders of the Central Strike Committee and two propagandists from the newly formed One Big Union. Four days later, a charge by Royal North-West Mounted Police into a crowd of strikers resulted in 30 casualties, including one death. Known as “Bloody Saturday”, it ended with federal troops occupying the city’s streets. Six of the labour leaders were released, but Fred Dixon and J.S. Woodsworth arrested. Faced with the combined forces of the government and the employers, the strikers decided to return to work on 25 June.
The General Strike left a legacy of bitterness and controversy among organized labour groups across Canada. It sparked a wave of increased unionism and militancy, and sympathetic strikes erupted in centres from Amherst, Nova Scotia to Victoria, British Columbia.
Seven Winnipeg strike leaders were eventually convicted of a conspiracy to overthrow the government and sentenced to jail terms ranging from six months to two years. The charges against Woodsworth were dropped. It would take another three decades before Canadian workers secured union recognition and collective bargaining rights.
[Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia.]