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 		 [The General Strike in Winnipeg, Canada was “one of the greatest
ruptures between the workers and the upper classes in the history of
commercial society (second only to the Paris Commune of 1871),”
according to Brandon University professors Reinhold ]
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 PORTSIDE LABOR 

 THE 1919 GENERAL STRIKE WAS A BATTLE FOR WINNIPEG’S SOUL  
[https://portside.org/node/20040] 

 

 Allan Levine 
 May 10, 2019
The Globe and Mail 

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 _ The General Strike in Winnipeg, Canada was “one of the greatest
ruptures between the workers and the upper classes in the history of
commercial society (second only to the Paris Commune of 1871),”
according to Brandon University professors Reinhold _ 

 , 

 

_Allan Levine is a historian and the author of 14 books
including _Seeking the Fabled City: The Canadian Jewish Experience_,
which was published last year._

There is a telling scene in the second half of Warren Beatty’s 1981
saga _Reds _in which Mr. Beatty, playing American journalist and
socialist John Reed – an eyewitness to the Russian Revolution –
declares to a high-ranking Soviet official his intention to return to
the United States in order to write an extensive report on the labour
struggle in America.

“And so I will deal with the rising militancy of American labour,”
he says. “I’ll talk about the general strikes in Seattle and
Winnipeg, the Boston police strike…”

It was only a brief mention of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919,
but watching the film in a packed movie theatre in that very city in
1981, I recall a collective stir that reverberated through the
audience at the mere mention of the city’s most well-known
historical event in a major Hollywood movie.

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The Great War Veterans Association parade on June 4, 1919. Veterans
arrived back in Canada disillusioned and angry about immigrants who
had allegedly stolen their jobs. 

ARCHIVES OF MANITOBA

Mr. Beatty, a co-writer of the screenplay, had done his homework. One
hundred years ago, for six turbulent weeks, the focus of the Western
world was indeed on Winnipeg. On May 15, 1919, an estimated 30,000
workers, approximately 20 per cent of the city’s total population at
the time, walked off their jobs in sympathy with metal and building
trades workers who were already on strike. The workers were fighting
for union recognition, collective bargaining and “a more equitable
share of the wealth of the world,” in the words of James Winning,
the head of the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council (TLC) and a member
of the 15-man Central Strike Committee.

The General Strike was “one of the greatest ruptures between the
workers and the upper classes in the history of commercial society
(second only to the Paris Commune of 1871),” write Brandon
University professors Reinhold Kramer and Tom Mitchell in their 2010
study of the strike, _When the State Trembled_. Winnipeg was
literally shut down. Streetcars stopped running. There was, at least
temporarily, no milk and bread delivery. And the “hello girls” who
worked as operators for the Manitoba Government Telephones stopped
routing calls.

The strike that was to erupt in protests, violence and the arrests of
its key leaders on charges of seditious conspiracy before it ended on
June 25 – and without organized labour achieving its key objectives
– was a by-product of a tumultuous era. The end of the First World
War brought inflation, but wages did not keep pace. Workers in
Winnipeg and elsewhere found that they barely could make ends meet
each month. The economic inequality in Winnipeg was evident to all.

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On June 21, 1919, pro-strike veterans scheduled a parade to protest
the arrest of the key strike leaders. A streetcar driven by a Citizens
Committee of 1,000 volunteers passed by city hall, was pulled off its
tracks and set on fire.

LEWIS BENJAMIN FOOTE/ARCHIVES OF MANITOBA

Veterans – or “returned men,” as they were called – arrived
back in Canada disillusioned and angry about immigrants who had
allegedly stolen their jobs. In Winnipeg, many of the returned men
were working-class and supported the strike. Yet, many also opposed it
and subscribed to the propaganda that “aliens,” “foreign
agitators” and Bolsheviks were responsible for the labour unrest.
Some of the most violent clashes during the strike were conflicts
between the pro- and antistrike returned men – especially after the
city recruited antistrike veterans as “special constables.” They
were given wagon yokes and instructed to “exercise good judgment and
restraint” in keeping the peace. They rarely did.

The simple truth was that by 1919, workers had had enough of an unjust
hierarchical class structure that relegated them to the bottom of a
harsh and unregulated capitalist system. Many believed this system
required a massive overhaul or replacement with the perceived equality
offered by socialism. Business owners throughout Canada and the United
States did everything in their power to thwart this demand for change.
Typical was Leonard R. Barrett, the vice-president and general manager
of Winnipeg’s Vulcan Iron Works, who was hostile to the idea of
collective bargaining and loath to accept orders from any union.
“God gave me this plant, and by God I’ll run it the way I want
to!” he once declared.

Labour challenged such intransigence with confrontations and strikes.
During 1919, there were 3,600 strikes in the United States involving
four million workers and 428 in Canada with nearly 150,000 workers on
the picket lines. The general strike was the most radical action that
labour could take. It was an idea given credence by the militant
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and sparked the movement to
establish One Big Union (OBU) that was debated at an organizational
convention in Calgary in March, 1919, an event that several Winnipeg
labour leaders attended. According to the OBU Bulletin, its goal was
“to use our organization to secure the conquest of political power
in order that the control of industry shall be brought into our own
hands.”

A month earlier, a brief general strike had taken place in Seattle
when more than 60,000 workers walked off their jobs, nearly paralyzing
the city. Seattle’s mayor, Ole Hanson, who detested the IWW, later
maintained that the strike was an act of class war by radicals who
“want to take possession of our American government and try to
duplicate the anarchy of Russia.” Assisted by federal troops, Hanson
crushed the strike within five days.

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Police patrol Main Street after the demonstration of June 21, 1919.
Later in the afternoon, a melee developed between strikers and police
which resulted in two deaths and many wounded. 

LEWIS BENJAMIN FOOTE/ARCHIVES OF MANITOBA

In May of 1919, the members of Winnipeg’s tightly knit business
establishment had a similar reaction and used all the power they could
muster to end the strike, declaring it the start of a Bolshevik-style
revolution.

That was the view also of John W. Dafoe, the influential editor of The
Manitoba Free Press (as the newspaper was known then). Labelling the
strike “the Great Dream of the Winnipeg Soviet,” he declared that
it was the work of “either madmen bent upon destruction or desperate
schemers who plan to make a general strike the starting point for
adventurous experiment in government.”

The editors of The New York Times agreed. “There is a beautiful
demonstration going on in Winnipeg of essential Bolshevism,” an
editorial noted on May 22. “If a Winnipegian [sic] is allowed to
eat, if he takes a drink of milk or water, if he doesn’t go to bed
in the dark, he enjoys the favour by the clemency and august
permission of the Strike Committee.”

That was one of the strike committee’s missteps. In the months
preceding the strike, some members of the committee, such as R.B.
Russell – a Scottish-born union head and outspoken member of the
Socialist Party of Canada – had indeed used inflammatory rhetoric to
whip up support. At a huge rally held in late December 1918, Russell
had predicted the eventual demise of capitalism. “We must establish
some form of government as they have it in Russia so that we may have
a Russian democracy here.” Once the strike started, however, the
provocative statements by him and others ceased. (Russell also liked
to tell the story, no doubt apocryphal, of how during the strike, he
encountered two North End women on a Winnipeg Street “pulling each
other’s hair, screaming and kicking. In anticipation of the great
victory of the working class, they had gone down to affluent
Wellington Crescent to select houses for themselves, in the
redistribution they were sure would follow, and both fancied the same
mansion.”)

Having called for a general strike, the leaders of the committee were
compelled to sanction milk and bread delivery and allow the Winnipeg
General Hospital to remain functioning. Yet once the milk and bread
wagons appeared on the streets with signs that read “Permitted by
Authority of Strike Committee,” political and business leaders
declared, with some hysteria, that this was further evidence that
labour was truly usurping authority and establishing a Soviet-like
government.

That was hardly the case, as Judge Hugh Robson later concluded in his
Royal Commission report on the strike, prepared for the Manitoba
government later in 1919. But it made little difference to the
commercial elite’s secretive Citizens’ Committee of 1,000 that had
been organized as the strike got under way (or likely earlier).
Although the group left no official records or lists, Mr. Kramer and
Mr. Mitchell convincingly argue that there was likely a core group of
about 34 men, most notably, Alfred J. Andrews, a 54-year old
well-connected lawyer and former mayor of the city from 1898 to 1899,
who became the Citizens’ chief spokesman and strategist.

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A crowd gathers in Winnipeg early in June, 1919, during the height of
the city's 40-day general strike. Two persons were killed and 40
injured in the disorders that broke out. 

LEWIS BENJAMIN FOOTE/ARCHIVES OF MANITOBA

For decades, the chief villain of the story – at least from the
perspective of labour and in the view of most historians – has been
Arthur Meighen, who in 1919 was the acting justice minister in Robert
Borden’s Union Government. And it was true that Meighen (together
with Senator Gideon Robertson, the federal labour minister) threatened
to fire postal workers if they did not return to work during the
strike (most did not); saw to it that an amendment to the Immigration
Act passed in June, 1919, allowed the government to deport "aliens or
naturalized citizens” – this was specifically aimed at the
British-born labour leaders in Winnipeg – if they were believed to
be a danger to the country; and approved the arrest of the strike
leaders on June 17.

Some years ago, however, Mr. Mitchell, an archivist, was given access
to the previously classified Department of Justice files containing
the correspondence between Meighen and Andrews. Until the mid-1980s,
according to Mr. Mitchell, other historians who inquired about the
letters, telegraph cables and financial documents, were told by
justice officials that the papers did not exist. The correspondence
shows that it was, in fact, Andrews manipulating Meighen to do the
Citizens’ bidding. It was Andrews who ensured that Meighen revised
the Immigration Act to his satisfaction; and it was Andrews who
selected and decided which the strike leaders were arrested and when.
The correspondence, they write, “illuminates Meighen’s reluctance
to take action against the Strike, his candid thoughts about what
actions might be legally defensible, and Andrews’s skillful roping
in of the state’s resources and machinery.” During the strike,
Andrews had Meighen appoint him as a special representative of the
federal justice department, a position which enabled him to oversee
the strike leaders’ incarceration and prosecution for seditious
conspiracy.

The arrest of the strike leaders led to its climactic and most violent
episode. On Saturday June 21, “Bloody Saturday” in the annals of
the city’s history, thousands of prostrike veterans decided to hold
a “silent march” for the arrested leaders (though most were
already out on bail) despite Mayor Charles Gray’s parade ban. The
mayor read the riot act and called on the Royal North-West Mounted
Police and the military to maintain order. One group of protestors
tipped a streetcar on its side and set it on fire. Lewis Foote’s
photograph of this incident is one of the most iconic images of the
strike. Then, Mounties on horseback charged into the crowd, swinging
clubs and firing their guns. Several people were killed. The strike
officially ended four days later and several strike leaders were found
guilty of seditious conspiracy and received jail sentences of anywhere
from six months to two years. As devious as the victory may have been,
Andrews and the Citizens’ Committee had won the fight for the
city’s soul.

A century later, labour and business representatives in Winnipeg, the
heirs of the Central Strike Committee and the Citizens’ Committee of
1,000, are no longer enemies – and have not been for some time. But
the legacy of the General Strike is still interpreted differently.

To Loren Remillard, the president and chief executive of the Winnipeg
Chamber of Commerce, the strike “was a dark chapter in our city’s
history that should never be forgotten.” But, he adds, “it’s
also an important time to reflect on the tremendous progress we’ve
made since 1919.”

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Winnipeg Riot on June 10, 1919, showing line of men on horseback
stretching across Portage and Main Street. 

CITY OF WINNIPEG ARCHIVES

This may be so, yet the city’s labour leaders offer a more
cautionary message. “The strike showed the power that everyday
working people have when they stick together to achieve common
goals,” says Kevin Rebeck, the president of the Manitoba Federation
of Labour. “Union and non-union workers alike stood together to
improve their lives and make real change happen on the shop floor and
in the halls of government. The strike and its aftermath saw changes
in governments, forced the federal government to review living and
working conditions, led to the first minimum wage in Canada and set
the stage for things like employment standards, health and safety laws
and many of the other fundamental rules that protect Canadians on the
job today.”

Sudhir Sandhu, the CEO of Manitoba Building Trades, similarly sees the
gains engendered by the strike, but is more circumspect. “One
hundred years later,“ he says, “we are in the midst of a period of
smaller but enduring military conflicts and once again experiencing a
great economic and social disruption brought about by technological
change in the post-industrial era. The prevailing conditions are
eroding trust and confidence in our democratic systems and
institutions. That is more divisive and insidious than the 1919
Strike.”

R.B. Russell would not have been surprised by these various
perspectives. After the strike, Russell, who was convicted of
seditious conspiracy, served about half of his two-year prison
sentence. But four decades later, on Labour Day in 1964, a few weeks
before he died at the age of 76, the Manitoba government, which had
once vilified him, presented him with an “Address of Appreciation”
in recognition of his “long and devoted service to the cause of the
Labour movement … and his many and notable contributions to the
general welfare of the city.” Three years after that, the R.B.
Russell Vocational High School was established in his honour. The
dangerous agitator had become a revered citizen. Such is the ebb and
flow of history.

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