1919 was a year full of hope and progressive thinking for Canadians. The Great War had ended just months earlier and people's spirits were up. However, Winnipeg was the scene for the largest labour dispute of the century. The rights of working Canadian s were abused by those who controlled them. An intense struggle which had been brewing for years exploded into the Winnipeg General Strike. For six weeks, workers fought to be seen and heard, but were ignored by leaders who believed they had other motives .
The Winnipeg labour movement began in the 1890s when the first railway shop union was established, as well as the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council. The Trades and Labour Congress of Canada was also developed by the turn of the century. Labour took on the political front with the formation of the Winnipeg Labour Party in 1896. The development of these groups would aid in the working class fight against owners and managers whose neglect was not opposed by legislation. 'The provincial government had pas sed laws which still allowed exploitation of workers.
In 1912, the momentum began to shift toward the labour class. Workers at the Great West Saddlery Company were involved in a lockout, refusing to sign an agreement stating they would not join a union. The Trades and Labour Congress of Canada attacked th e company for forcing the workers to work under inappropriate conditions. Unfortunately, the company was within its legal rights to do what it pleased and subsequently ignored all the commotion. However, there were sympathisers in the public who now under stood the plight of both union and non-union workers.
Trade unions continued to gain more members as Winnipeg's industries grew. In 1913, there were 82 unions in Winnipeg and 62 were associated with the Trades Council. It was at this time, however, that Canada went into a depression. It was caused by wars in the Balkans, as Britons used money to build weapons rather than to invest in Canadian goods. As a result, memberships declined and unions also faced problems from employers trying to make ends meet. The workers would see their salaries cut below union wage scales.
1915 saw the economy pick up as the Great War required a seemingly endless supply of materials from Winnipeg. Inflation was inevitable and the cost of living rose. Although some workers were able to improve their living standards during the war, most c ould scarcely survive.
Conscription was introduced by the Robert Borden federal government in May of 1917. There was belief among workers that the fighting continued only so the munitions suppliers would profit. They were also concerned about industrial conscription which wo uld deny them the ability to strike. This problem seemed to fade away by March 1918, but the unions would not forget Borden's opposition.
In April 1918, Winnipeg became involved in a dispute with its civic employees. Teamsters, electrical workers, water works employees, and office workers wanted wage increases, but were offered only a flat rate war bonus. The employees rejected the bonus and the electrical workers went on strike May 1. Other civic employees soon followed suit The city dismissed the strikers on May 4 and grabbed the attention of workers throughout the city. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council called a general strike on May 7, not turning back until the civic employees were reinstated.
Instead of calming the situation, city council approved the "Fowler Amendment", put forward by Alderman Frank O. Fowler. This was a stipulation that all civic employees must pledge not to strike, but to have grievances settled by arbitration. Controlle r Charles Gray, who was to become mayor in 1919, voted for the amendment because he did not support the idea of policemen and firemen having the ability to strike. Within ten days of its approval, ten more unions joined the strike.
Businessmen were opposed to the strike and formed the Committee of One Hundred. It was organised on May 17 and attempted to find an end to the dispute. Senator Gideon Robertson was sent from Ottawa to find a means of conciliation. An agreement was signed on May 24 involving new schedules with higher wages. The Fowler Amendment was withdrawn and all employees returned to their jobs. Fire brigade officers were still not given the right to strike, but all other civic employees were required to notify employe rs 60 days before they could strike.
The Voice, a labour newspaper which had been operated by Arthur Puttee, was replaced by the Western Labour News. The Western Labour News took an aggressive stance and was associated with the Trades and Labour Council. William Ivens edited the paper and his radical ideas supported the ever-growing aggressiveness of the unions. F.G. Tipping, president of the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, was ousted in September 1918 for a tendency to be moderate in his actions.
A meeting of 1 700 people was held in the Walker Theatre on December 22, 1918. It was co-sponsored by the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council and the Socialist Party of Canada It was billed as a meeting against orders-in-council and repression in genera l. There were secret agents in the audience whose observation of the proceedings would eventually allow the government to pursue a legal case of seditious conspiracy.
There were three resolutions moved during the meeting. The first was raised by W.H. Hoop who denounced the government's orders-in-council and called for a repeal of these orders and a return to democracy.
The second was moved by William Ivens and concerned the Liberation of political prisoners. He argued that the Armistice had been signed and that imprisonment of crimeless prisoners was not necessary.
The third resolution was moved by B~R. Russell, protesting the continued sending of troops to Russia and requesting the recall of those already there. The Socialist Party of Canada found success at the meeting and called for another at the Majestic The atre on January 10, 1919.
The Majestic Theatre meeting was, like its predecessor, a very political event. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council refused to sponsor it for this reason. The audience was told about how the exploitation of the working class must end. Critic ism of the capitalistic system made agents in the audience wary. Greater power of the working class was an attractive idea and its advantages were further stressed by the speakers. At the conclusion, another meeting was called for the following Sunday at Market Square.
An unexpected circumstance surrounding the upcoming rally was the return of demobilised soldiers to Winnipeg. These veterans alleged that the "enemy aliens" had taken their jobs during the war. Patriotism was of prime concern for the soldiers, having e ndured the strains of fighting in the War. They called for the deportations of the "alien scum" and believed that socialist unions took away all their opportunities.
The meeting at Market Square did not even start when the veterans broke up the gathering. The soldiers proceeded to advance through the streets toward the Socialist Party's main hall. They invaded the hall, pushed a piano out the window, and destroyed the Party's Library. It was clear that the soldiers could be volatile, but there was also belief that they could be easily persuaded.
A conference was held in Calgary in March and was attended by labour leaders from across western Canada. Hope of industrial unionism was the main result of the convention.
This meant the creation of one union of workers rather than many different unions based on trades. This concept originated in Europe where belief was that them could be only two classes, the workers and the capitalists.
A policy resolution was carried in which they called for "the abolition of the present system of production for profit and the substitute therefore of production for use, and that a system of propaganda to this end be carried out" Producerism, exemplif ied in this case, involves those who produce the goods deserving the profits.
The One Big Union was not organised at the conference, but its coming seemed to be inevitable.
Until this point, T.C. Norris' provincial government had accepted the labour movement and was willing to listen to their cause. In March, however, he introduced the Industrial Disputes Commission. It made no provisions against injunctions or legalisati on of picketing; which the Trades Council had been hoping for. The Norris government was now one of labour's enemies.
The metal trades industry was facing stress as their weapons' contracts were no longer needed after the War. The Metal Trades Council and the ironmasters were unable to make any agreements. The employers objected to collective bargaining, especially wi th the railway unions which were a part of the M.T.C. They voted to go on strike May 2 if the ironmasters could not recognise the Council's position.
The building industry would have to adjust to the building boom about to occur with the end of the War. The Building Trades Council tried to negotiate with the Builders' Exchange on wage increases, but ended up without a compromise. The members went on strike May 1, followed by the M.T.C. the next day.
A meeting was held on May 6 by the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council. A decision was made to distribute ballots to union members and for them to be returned on May 13. There were two questions on the ballot, which may have been a mistake in the long r un. The question of whether or not to have a general strike was coupled with a question on whether or not to form the One Big Union.
The results of the vote were 11,000 in favour and 500 against 94 of 96 unions were involved in the walkout. Only the typographical union refused to participate in the vote, and although the police were in favour, they were forced to remain on duty. Otherwise, the city would be placed under martial law. The Winnipeg General Strike began on May 15, 1919 at 11:00 am The telephone operators were the first off the job and 22 000 others joined within 24 hours.
That evening, the Great War Veterans' Association held a meeting for 3 000 soldiers. A resolution was passed calling for sympathy with the strike and deportation of the enemy afterwards. The strikers clearly had the edge in the dispute.
The Free Press employees went on strike and the local newspaper was replaced by the Strike Bulletin of the Western Labour News. An article detailed why some industries were still running. Indeed, placards were being used by movie theatres and restauran ts under special authority of the Strike Committee. Mayor Charles Gray had a difficult time trying to prove to the citizens that the municipal government was not being controlled by the strikers.
The Citizen's Committee of One Thousand was formed and retaliated with the Winnipeg Citizen. In addition to its newspaper, they assisted in volunteering the lost necessities such as fire fighting and electric power. They were referred to as scabs by th ose in sympathy with the strike.
A group of lawyers met Dominion Minister of Justice Arthur Meighen and Labour Minister Gideon Robertson in a railway car outside Thunder Bay on May 21. They spoke of the strike being a revolution and called for immediate action. Neither Robertson nor M eighen had the opportunity to speak with the Strike Committee on the matter.
A Round Table Conference was called by Mayor Gray for May 23. It was clear that the lawyers would not negotiate until the employees were back at work Strikers argued that the recognition of collective bargaining must be recognised, but lawyer Arthur J. Andrews held his ground. There were no signs of yielding from either side.
Postal workers were told on May 23 to return to work by May 26 or be fired. May 25, Senator Robertson was to address the workers, but most obeyed the Strike Committee and met at the Labour Temple to discuss the government's ultimatum. 16 postal workers showed at work on the 26th, but were assisted by numerous volunteers from the Citizen's Committee of One Thousand.
Mayor Gray felt that the strikers were wrong and he could no longer be a mediator. His government tried to make agreements with the police force. On May 29, the police were informed that they must sign a contract stating they would not join sympathy s trikes and not be affiliated with any unions. General H.D.B. Ketchen had been informed that he may have to assemble military authorities in the case of a strike, which was apparently necessary. Instead, the civic government decided to recruit special poli ce.
The returned soldiers would have an impact on whoever was to protect the city streets. The veterans assembled O" May 29 to confront Premier Norris. They insisted that the government·make collective bargaining compulsory, thereby ending the strike. They confronted him the next day to present their demands. They would return the day after that to hear his answer. The strike WOUld also take a violent turn after Ma30.
They met Norris the next day, when he said he claimed to be in favour of collective bargaining, yet opposed to Sympathetic strikes. He did not promise any action on the matter, and suggested the soldiers meet with Mayor Gray. Gray told the soldiers tha t there must be no more strikes on public utilities. They marched to St. Boniface and met with its mayor before ending up at Victoria Park On the way, they over-turned a Coca-Cola wagon at Eaton's warehouse. There were also anti-strike veterans who met w ith Mayor Gray and Premier Norris, but with greater acceptance. These veterans formed the Returned Soldiers Loyalist Association.
The Strike Committee ordered the restaurants and theatres to close as well as the delivery of bread and milk to end on June 4. Pressure was increased on both sides and parades continued to occur despite a ban on such events. Arrests were made when marc hers were caught carrying guns.
"The Act to Amend the Immigration Ad" was passed in Ottawa on June 5. People who advocated the overthrow Of the government by violence were to be excluded from Canada Also, immigrants of the lower classes could be deported even after being in the coun try for more than five years. However, to the anti-strike supporters' disappointment, the act did not have any restrictions on the British radicals. This was quickly fixed by Arthur Meighen so it would be "sufficiently wide to cover all except those born or naturalised in Canada" The amendment was passed the next day in what was called the "40-minute legislation." Its significance was that the British leaders of the labour movement were no longer Canadians, but aliens subject to deportation.
The city dismissed its regular police in favour of special police on June 9. They were headed by Major Hilliard Lyle who called his police force thugs. Their duty began the next day and they were confronted with a violent crowd which threw sticks, ston es,and bottles at them No One was killed but a policeman was injured in the commotion. Major Lyle, whose moderate handling of the Situation was criticised, was dismissed soon after.
On June 16, concessions were made by the ironmasters involving their agreement concerning collective bargaining. However, they would not bargain with the Metal Trades Council. The proposal was rejected by the General Strike Committee for this very reas on. The cause of the strike was still not being acknowledged by the employers.
Arrests of strike leaders occurred on June 17. Ten leaders and two propagandists were sent to Stony Mountain Penitentiary and their homes were searched for seditious literature. Many of them were not revolutionary Socialists, but had reputations aS SUC h. On June 20, the government allowed the leaders to be released on bail with the provision that they take no further part in the strike. That same day, the Strike Committee stated that they were ready to call off the sympathetic strike as the Metal Trade s Employers' offer looked much better to them.
On June 21, a contingent of soldiers marched to the Royal Alexandra Hotel to speak to Senator Robertson. Between 5 000 and 6 000 soldiers were assembled, and the crowd continued to grow. Mayor Gray called for assistance ~m the Royal North-West Mounted Police in addition to the specials. Main Street soon became the scene for "Bloody Saturday.
The mounted police swung baseball bats at the crowd before pulling their guns. Mayor Gray read the riot act which gave the protesters 30 minutes to get off the streets or be arrested. The police fired three volleys which hit sever al spectators. There had been no shots fired at the police, but Inspector Mead had ordered his men to fire the volleys because of the pressure they were facing. One person died immediately and another would die later of gangrene. 94 arrests were made and many more injuries were incurred on Bloody Saturday.
The Winnipeg General Strike was called off June 26 at 11:00 am. The metal workers received little satisfaction, only a reduction in the work week from 55 to 50 hours without a pay raise. Building trades workers had new rates set higher by 15 cents per hour. Many others lost seniority and had to sign oaths declaring they would not join unions.
As one labour organiser has said, "there never was in history a strike in which the workers answered the call so spontaneously. and there never was a strike in which the workers were so badly trimmed."
The One Big Union was not organised until after the strike, but officials responded vehemently to it during the strike. It seemed syndicalistic and revolutionary to the government and businesses. Its success was limited in light of the strike and event ually disappeared in 1927.
The Winnipeg General Strike was considered a failure by those who had hoped for its success. The government's fear of Bolshevism contributed to the demise of the strike. Although the strike of 1918 had been successful, the circumstances were much diffe rent in 1919. Government irresponsibility and ignorance were detrimental to the labour movement Despite the unfortunate result, the strikers' determination can never be denied.