The 1919 General Strike Was a Battle for Winnipeg’s Soul
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.”
Winnipeg Riot on June 10, 1919, showing line of men on horseback stretching across Portage and Main Street.
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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.