Today marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Winnipeg General Strike, the most dramatic moment in our nation’s labour history and one highly romanticized ever since 1919. All of this romance seems to have caused people to forget what was really at stake at the time. Whenever the strike is discussed, particularly how the government responded to it, there is talk of “hysteria” and a “red scare,” whipped up by the government and capitalists to falsely malign harmless cheese-eating workers only out to secure a crust of bread for their life of toil. It might be useful, therefore, to put the strike into context, so that we might better understand the behaviour of our ancestors on all sides of the issue.
The political environment in 1919, the year after the end of the First World War, was chaotic. The end of the war, and its massive production requirements, had been a major economic shock. So had been the demobilization of millions of men in uniform. Communist movements were gaining ground in Europe and indeed across the world. Class tensions and potential violence were not absent from 1919 Winnipeg. The economic situation that year was not a happy one for many people in the city. Prices had risen sharply during the war years of 1914-18, much more sharply than wages. Unemployment was rising as troops returned home and found no jobs.
This was the situation in May when the general strike was launched — a world in turmoil, Marxist revolutionaries in bloody rebellion, labour leaders across the world praising Bolshevism and using the language of class warfare, and a struggling working class, now full of thousands of men accustomed to violence. It was a dangerous mix.
Before the strike began, three significant events took place, that together made clear the intention of Strike Committee.
A well-attended meeting at Winnipeg’s Walker Theatre in December 1918, co-sponsored by the Trades and Labour Council and the Socialist Party of Canada, heard speakers denounce capitalism and demand that Canadian troops be withdrawn from the expedition to fight the Reds in Russia. The chairman, alderman John Queen, then called for three cheers for the Russian Revolution. The meeting ended with deafening cries of “Long live the Russian Soviet Republic! Long live Karl Liebknecht (German Communist leader)! Long live the working class!” A telegram of congratulations to the Bolsheviks was sent (mere months after the shocking murder of the Russian Royal family).
Another meeting at Winnipeg’s Majestic Theatre held by the Socialist Party of Canada also whipped up discontent. R.B. Russell paid homage to the murdered Liebknecht and his comrade Rosa Luxemburg, and Sam Blumenberg called on workers to overthrow the capitalist system. The Western Labor News thundered: “When the workers take control they will form a Dictatorship which will give the same order to the owners of the world that Lenin gave to the capitalists of Russia: obey or starve!”
In March of 1919, the Western Labour Conference opened in Calgary with a large delegation from Manitoba. The conference called for the formation of One Big Union, the ultimate weapon in the labour arsenal. The delegates also unanimously demanded the replacement of capitalism with industry controlled by workers’ soviets (councils). Among the motions passed without a single dissenting voice was one placing those present “on record as being in full accord and sympathy with the aims and purposes of the Russian Bolshevik and German Spartacan Revolutions.” Moreover, fraternal greetings were to be sent to “the Russian Soviet Government, the Spartacans in Germany, and all definite working-class movements in Europe and the world, recognizing they have won first place in the history of the class struggle.” R.B. Russell was dispatched back to Winnipeg to carry out “propaganda” on behalf of these resolutions.
The strike began on May 15. The majority of Winnipeg’s working population joined in. The Strike Committee immediately sought to usurp the authority of the government by requiring anyone wishing to carry on business to seek and secure the permission of the committee (milk and bread deliveries, for instance, were allowed to continue). The Winnipeg police, sympathetic to the strikers, remained on the job only by request of the Strike Committee. The strikers had effectively secured all forms of communication: the newspapers (except for the Western Labor News) were shut down, along with the telephones and mail. Strikers marched in the streets.
Winnipeggers opposed to the strike, including many of the local commercial and industrial leaders, formed the Citizens Committee of One Thousand. Joined with the government of prime minister Robert Borden, what they were opposing was not fair wages or a 40-hour work week — it was communism they stood against, the usurping of constituted authority, the muzzling of free press, and the destruction of the British Constitution with its liberties and democracy. A visit by two cabinet ministers led the government to conclude that the strike was not an economic demonstration, but a political one — and that the goal was overturning the government’s lawful authority. Local officials were authorized to use units of the armed forces and the North-West Mounted Police as needed to maintain order. When the majority of police officers refused to sign a pledge to refrain from joining a union, the city fired the police force en masse, and replaced it with special constables willing to take on the strikers.
Events came to a head on June 21. After some strike leaders were arrested, a large protest was planned. Mounties attempted to disperse the crowd without success. A second attempt was made, and this time, police on horseback fired into the crowd. Two strikers were killed, dozens injured. Scores more were arrested. Rattled, the Strike Committee declared an end to the strike, which took effect on the morning of June 26, 1919 — one hundred years ago today.
These events were, understandably, controversial at the time — particularly the decision by police to open fire on the crowd. With the benefit of 100 years of hindsight we know that the kind of dictatorship being demanded by the strikers in Winnipeg, when attempted elsewhere in the world, resulted in horrors like the Holodomor and the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Indeed, many of our ancestors (mine included) came to Canada to escape exactly that kind of danger and oppression.
So yes, let’s celebrate workers’ rights and solidarity (as we do each Labour Day). But let’s not go so far as to romanticize communism. Instead, let’s celebrate living in a free and democratic society where peace, order and good government prevail.
Jenny Motkaluk, of Ukrainian background, is the Manitoba Director of Private Partnerships and Engagement at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg.