This Week in History: 1919: Workers in Winnipeg launch a general strike

It was a dispute over wages and the 40-hour-week, but some saw it as a revolution

Strikers try to overturn a streetcar on Main Street in Winnipeg on June 21, 1919, one of the key events in the Winnipeg General Strike. SunMedia

On May 15, 1919, 25,000 workers in Winnipeg walked off the job, launching the greatest labour dispute in Canadian history.

“STRIKE COMMITTEE GOVERNS CITY,” said the giant banner headline in the May 15 Winnipeg Tribune. “Sixty-seven Labour Unions Join in General Walk-Out; Industry Paralyzed.”

Another 10,000 workers would join the Winnipeg General Strike in the next couple of days, including newspaper workers — the Tribune didn’t publish again until May 24.

At its peak, 35,000 people were on strike in a city of 190,000. The regular operations of the Manitoba capital ground to a halt until the strike was called off June 25, six weeks after it began.

Depending on your point of view, the strike was either over working conditions, or a revolutionary attempt to smash capitalism.

The idea of it being a revolutionary act may sound a bit over the top today, but you have to place it in the context of the time. The Winnipeg General Strike took place only 18 months after the Russian Revolution, and the First World War had ended only six months earlier.

In March, western Canadian labour delegates in Calgary had also voted to form “The One Big Union” to battle for the working class. The chief weapon of the OBU was the general strike, where all workers would walk in support of individual union demands.

“The One Big Union seeks to organize the wage workers according to class and class needs, to the end that the utmost solidarity and power may be secured in every industrialized locality,” says the preamble on an OBU membership card. “Workers of the World Unite!”

The back of a One Big Union card from 1945, detailing the philosophy of the radical labour organization: it ends with the revolutionary slogan “Workers of the World Unite!”. Formed in 1919, the OBU was one of the key players in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. PNG

On May 1, 1,200 members of Winnipeg’s building trade unions went on strike. The same day, streetcar workers voted 912 to 79 to strike, although they didn’t go out immediately.

On May 2, 1,100 metal trades workers walked out when the owners of three big foundries refused to recognize the Building Trades Council, which was demanding a 40-hour week and wage increases.

The umbrella organization for unions in the city was the Trades and Labour council, which polled its members over staging a sympathy strike in support of the building trade and metal workers. According to the May 14 Tribune, the vote was 26,000 to 500 for a general strike, so it was called for 11 a.m. on May 15.

On May 16, the Vancouver World’s main headline was “Soviet Government is in Control in Winnipeg.”

“The seat of government has really been transferred to the labour temple, with the city tied up tight and every form of industry practically paralyzed,” said the World.

Front page of the Winnipeg Tribune on May 15, 1919, the day the Winnipeg General Strike began. PNG

The strike committee issued permission cards to workers in essential services, and let small businesses open, but the main industries were shut down.

On May 26, workers ignored a demand from the federal government that postal workers report to work. They didn’t, and posties in western Canada went on sympathy strikes.

In fact, the hostilities unleashed by the Winnipeg General Strike rippled across Canada. When the Vancouver Sun tried to publish an editorial called “No Revolution in Vancouver” on June 14, the Sun’s printers walked out and shut down the paper for four days.

On May 31, 10,000 strikers marched to the provincial legislature to demand compulsive collective bargaining across Manitoba, but Premier Tobias Norris declined.

The dispute started to come to a head on June 5, when Winnipeg Mayor Charles Gray banned parades. On June 9, Gray dismissed the entire city police force after officers refused to sign a loyalty pledge and denounce the strike.

The police were replaced with 1,800 “special constables” who had been recruited by the main anti-strike body, the Citizens Committee of 1,000. And they were armed with clubs.

On June 10, special constables on horseback charged into a crowd of strikers, sparking a hand-to-hand battle. On June 16, 10 strike leaders were arrested and imprisoned, including J.S. Woodsworth, the future founder of the CCF, precursor to the NDP.

On June 21, a protest march over the arrests turned violent when strikers tried to overturn a streetcar and set it on fire. Northwest Mounted Police and special constables on horseback again charged into the crowd.

After strikers threw stones, the police shot into the crowd, killing two people. Ninety-four people were arrested, and the police set up machine guns on Main Street. The melee became known as “Bloody Saturday”.

The strike was called off five days later.

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“The Strike in a Nutshell” from the Winnipeg Tribune on May 15, 1919. PNG

List of union members who went on strike on May 15, 1919 in the Winnipeg General Strike, from the Winnipeg Tribune.

Front page of the Winnipeg Tribune on June 21, 1919, the day of the “Bloody Saturday” melee during the Winnipeg General Strike. PNG

Front page of the Winnipeg Tribune on June 23, 1919, after the “Bloody Saturday” melee during the Winnipeg General Strike. PNG

Photo of striker or strike supporter Mike Sokolowiski in the Winnipeg Tribune on June 23, 1919. Sokolowiski was shot and killed by the police during the Winnipeg General Strike on June 21, 1919. This story is probably wrong: Sokolowiski may have been an innocent bystander. Another man later died of wounds from the police shooting into the crowd.

Vancouver Sun story on how members of the ITU (International Typographical Union) refused to print an anti-strike editorial on June 14, 1919, and the paper didn’t publish for four days. PNG

Special constables advance on horseback through strikers during the Winnipeg General Strike. SunMedia

The front of a One Big Union card from 1945. PNG

The middle of a One Big Union membership card from 1945, showing whether a member had paid their dues. The One Big Union was a radical labour organization formed in 1919 that was one of the key players in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. The OBU was big across western Canada, but this card is from Winnipeg. PNG




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