The Winnipeg General Strike


Natalia Beszterda
Winner of the Norm Quan Bursary

The Winnipeg General Strike has been one of the most intensively studied episodes in Canadian history. It was also an important development in the building of the democratic socialist movement in Canada. Officially, the strike began at 11:00 a.m. on May 15, 1919, which was the time appointed by the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council (Bumsted, 1994). But in the larger sense the General Strike had been building for many years before that. A wide set of circumstances contributed to the strike, ranging from international to local.

One of the events which led up to the strike was the European situation, where the Great War had only recently ended and a revolution was still going on in Russia. Another was the Canadian situation, where the labor movement had been altered in a variety of ways by the First World War experience. Weakened worker purchasing power due to inflation and profiteering, attempts by employers to degrade craft skills, and discontent with government policies towards labor, all led to a surge in labor militancy. The labor movement more than doubled in size between 1916 to 1919 (Bumsted, 1994).

Most workers were unhappy with the relative conservatism of the Trades and Labor Congress which at that time consisted primarily of craft unions. Motivated by the Russian Revolution of 1917, dissidents in Western Canada formed the One Big Union in March 1919 and with solid socialist leadership the One Big Union was quickly able to claim most of western Canadian and northern Ontario labor movement within its ranks.

Throughout 1917 and 1918 anti-alien sentiment continued to grow. The Conspiration Crisis, the Wartime Elections Act and the Dominion Election of 1917 significantly contrasted the Anglo-Canadian and foreign elements in Canadian society. In Winnipeg, both the Telegram and Free Press supported the disfavor of enemy alien voters to ensure that the forces of "justice and democracy would emerge triumphant from the Dominion election (Bercuson, 1974). Growing industrial unrest throughout the country, particularly western Canada, provided an additional reason for Anglo-Canadians to demand greater control of the enemy alien community. Businessmen in labor intensive industries charged that agents of the Industrial Workers of the World and socialist organizations were undermining the war economy. With the Bolshevik triumph in Russia these complaints became more frequent. Dominion security officials were also concerned about the possibility of industrial unrest and civil disorder in communities with large foreign-born populations: high on the list of such communities was the city of Winnipeg (Bercuson, 1974).

In July, 1917, violence had erupted between the strikers and the local police with the result that about twenty-three foreign strikers were arrested (Bumsted, 1994). Those immigrant workers from enemy countries were sent immediately to an internment camp at Cochrane, Ontario. The rest were charged in the Winnipeg courts. But despite these repressive measures the workers had won a limited victory. The construction workers' union was eventually recognized and working conditions in the industry gradually improved.

By the fall of 1918 the industrial situation in Winnipeg had deteriorated again. There had been a brief General Strike during the month of May. Enemy aliens were once again singled out by spokesmen of the business community as the instigators of the continuing unrest. In September, 1918, a series of coercive measures were implemented. By two Orders-in-Council the foreign language press was suppressed, and a number of socialist and anarchist organizations were outlawed. Most of these organizations were composed of immigrants (Bercuson, 1974).

The extent of misunderstanding about the immigrant community was intensified during the spring of 1919. The Winnipeg General Strike of May 15 to June 28, 1919 brought these elements of class and ethnic conflict together in a massive confrontation. Negotiations broke down between management and labor in the building and metal trades and Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council called a general strike. Virtually all workers in the city of Winnipeg, both union and nonunion walked out in support of metal and trade workers. At stake were the principle of collective bargaining, better wages and the improvement of often dreadful working conditions. Within hours almost 30000 workers had left their jobs (Bumsted, 1994).. The almost unanimous response by working men and women closed the city’s factories, crippled its retail trade and stopped the trains. Public sector employees such as policemen, firemen, postal workers, telephone operators and employees of waterworks and other utilities joined the strike in an impressive display of solidarity.

Opposition to the strike was organized by the Citizens' Committee of One Thousand, created by Winnipeg’s most influential Anglo-Canadian manufacturers, bankers and politicians who viewed themselves as defenders of the Canadian way of life on the prairies (Bercuson, 1974). 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 by a small group of foreigners. John Dafoe, the influential editor of the Free Press, informed his readers that five members of the Central Strike Committee - Russel, Ivens, Veitch, Robinson and Winning - had been rejected by the intelligent and skilled Anglo-Saxon workers. Dafoe also advised that the best way of undermining the movement was to "clean the aliens out of this community and ship them back to their happy homes in Europe which vomited them forth a decade ago."( Bumsted, 1994). The Citizens' Committee demanded that all three levels of government act decisively against the strikers, in particular against those public employees who had gone out in sympathy with the metal and trade workers.

The first priority of the Citizen’s Committee was the replacement of those members of the Winnipeg police force who were refusing to pledge themselves not to strike. When the majority of the city's 200 police were dismissed on June 9, the Committee financed the enlistment of 1800 special constables. Most of these men were drawn from the Anglo-Saxon middle-class regions of the city (Bumsted, 1994).

The federal government decided to intervene soon after the strike began. Senator Gideon Robertson, the Dominion Minister of Labor, 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 for a similar hearing. On their advice, the federal government swiftly supported the employers and federal employees were ordered to return to work immediately or face dismissal. The Immigration Act was amended so that immigrants could be deported, and the Criminal Code’s definition of revolution was broadened.

On June 16 RNWMP Commanding Officers across the country were provided with special authority to effect the necessary deportations. Next morning the officers of the force descended on the residences of ten Winnipeg men: six Anglo-Saxon labor leaders and four 'foreigners'. The Anglo-Saxons arrested were R.B. Russel, William Ivens, R.E. Bray, A.A. Heaps, John Queen and George Armstrong. The four ‘foreigners’ were Michael Charitinoff, Samuel Blumenberg, Moses Almozoff and Oscar Schoppelrie, all of whom had been considered dangerous and had been placed under police surveillance weeks before the strike.

However, none of these men were deported right away. In the case of the Anglo- Saxon strike leaders an immediate protest was registered by numerous labor organizations across the country, including the conservative Executive of the Trades and Labor Congress. Alarmed by this uproar, the Borden government announced that it did not intend to deport British-born agitators either in Winnipeg or any other center. Of equal significance was the decision on June 21 to release on ball Anglo-Saxon Winnipeg strike leaders, a gesture which was not extended to the four 'foreign' radicals who remained lodged in the Stoney Mountain penitentiary (Bumsted, 1994).

The same day, there was a violent confrontation between the strikers and the Royal North-West Mounted Police. Two 'foreigners' were killed by gunfire. During this clash members of the special police and the RNWMP arrested some 31 rioters (Bumsted, 1994). Other police actions soon followed. On July 1st, a series of raids were carried out across the country on the homes of known agitators and the offices of radical organizations. These RNWMP forays resulted in the seizure of a great mass of incriminating material. In Winnipeg, the Ukrainian Labor Temple and the homes of 30 socialists were ramsacked.

The Dominion government decided to initiate legal action against those accused of radical activity. The authorities chose two separate courses of action in dealing with the detained radicals: Anglo-Saxons would be given jury trials; aliens would be subject to deportation hearings before a Board of Inquiry. Samuel Blumenberg, Michael Charitinoff, Solomon Almazoff and Oscar Schoppelrie appeared before an Immigration Board on Inquiry. Of the four only Schoppelrie was deported (Bumsted, 1994). The aliens arrested in Winnipeg on June 21 were not as fortunate. Most of them were denied the formal deportation proceedings. Instead they appeared before Winnipeg Magistrate Hugh John Macdonald who ordered them sent to the internment camp at Kapuskasking for safekeeping’. Despite the angry protests of the defense council appointed by the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council, these men were subsequently deported in secrecy.

The historical evidence now available indicates that neither Anglo-Saxon nor foreign workers regarded the Winnipeg General Strike as the first stage in a national revolution (Bumsted, 1994). For most of Winnipeg’s workers the General Strike was an attempt to improve local social and economic conditions through collective bargaining and nothing more. Why, then, then did the Citizens' Committee of One Thousand and the Dominion Security officials maintain that Winnipeg was facing an incipient revolution with the radical foreigners in the forefront? And why was 'anti-foreign' sentiment so much more pronounced in Winnipeg than in any other Canadian cities which experienced industrial disorder during 1919? Part of the answer to these questions lies in the intensification of nativism in Winnipeg during the war. The bilingual school controversy, the tension created in Winnipeg over the Wartime Elections Act and the riots of January 1919 had all illustrated Anglo-Canadian hostility towards the 'foreigner'.

disloyalAnother factor which must be taken into account is the extent to which Anglo- Canadian businessmen had become concerned in the post-war period abut the growing co-operation between English-speaking and 'foreign' socialists. The impact of this co- operation was revealed during the General Strike. Thus, Ukrainian and other Slavic workers followed the guidelines of the Central Strike Committee even though the membership of this Committee was exclusively Anglo-Saxon. Moreover, the strong sense of community among Ukrainian workers helped to transform the strike into something more than a mere economic conflict. It became a life and death struggle in which any deviance from the ethnic norm was branded as .

The formation of the One Big Union and the Winnipeg General Strike are significant in at least two respects. First, they would appear to represent one of the few times in Canadian history in which "class" lines have become clearly drawn, and workers have become conscious of themselves as a class. Second, they would appear to represent the beginning of the end of narrow craft unionism, because they involved large numbers of unskilled workers, giving incentive to the renewal of noncraft or industrial unionism.

Yet, the One Big Union collapsed over the next few years, in part undermined by the refusal of employers to have anything to do with its affiliates, and in part undermined by craft union attempts to retain their dominance. The overall level of unionization also dropped by more than twenty five percent, from a high of 378 000 in 1919 to a low of 261 000 by 1924. It was not to return to its 1919 peak until 1937 (Jordan, 1975).

Bibliography

Bercuson, David Jay. Confrontation at Winnipeg. McGill - Queen’s University Press, Montreal: 1974.

Bumsted. J.M. The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Watson Dwyer Publishing Limited. 1994.

Jordan, Mary.V. Survival. McDonald House: Toronto, 1975.


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