|The Winnipeg General Strike
|Workers rally on Winnipeg's Main Street outside City Hall|
|The Winnipeg General Strike, May 15 to June 25, 1919, is Canada's best-known general strike. Massive unemployment and
inflation, the success of the Russian Revolution (1917), a wave of strikes across Canada and rising revolutionary industrial unionism
all contributed to postwar labour unrest. In March of 1919, Western Labour leaders met in Calgary to discuss the creation of ONE
In Winnipeg on May 15, when negotiations broke down between management and labour in the building and metal trades, the
Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (WTLC) called a general strike.
At stake was the principle of collective bargaining, better wages and the improvement of often dreadful working conditions. Within
hours almost 30,000 workers had left their jobs. 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 workers of private industry in an impressive
display of working-class solidarity. The strike was co-ordinated by the Central Strike Committee, composed of delegates elected
from each of the unions affiliated with the WTLC. The committee bargained with employers on behalf of the workers and
co-ordinated the provision of essential services.
Opposition to the strike was organized by the Citizens' Committee of 1000, created shortly after the strike began by Winnipeg's
most influential manufacturers, bankers and politicians. 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 led by a
small group of "alien scum." The available evidence failed to support its charges that the strike was initiated by European workers
and Bolsheviks, but the Citizens' Committee used these unsubstantiated charges to block any conciliation efforts by the workers.
Afraid that the strike would spark confrontations in other cities, the federal government decided to intervene; soon after the strike
began, Senator Gideon Robertson, minister of labour, 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 Committee 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 British-born immigrants could be deported, and
the Criminal Code's definition of sedition was
On June 17 the government arrested 10 leaders of the Central Strike Committee and two propagandists from the newly formed
One Big Union. Four days later, a charge by Royal North-West Mounted Police into a crowd of strikers resulted in 30 casualties,
including one death.
"Bloody Saturday" ended with federal troops occupying the city's streets. Six of the labour leaders were released, but Fred Dixon
and J.S. Woodsworth were arrested. Faced with the combined forces of the government and the employers, the strikers decided to
return to work on June 25.
The General Strike left a legacy of bitterness and controversy. In a wave of increased unionism and militancy across Canada,
sympathetic strikes erupted in centres from Amherst, NS, to Victoria, BC. Seven of the arrested leaders were unfairly convicted of a
conspiracy to overthrow the government and sentenced to jail terms from 6 months to 2 years; the charges against J.S.
Woodsworth were dropped.
Almost 3 decades passed before Canadian workers secured union recognition and collective bargaining.
Source: Edited article Canadian Labour History and Civilization
Above: Strikers march down Winnipeg's Main Street.
Left: The Royal North-West Mounted Police on horseback charge past
striking workers and protesters at Winnipeg's famous corner of Portage &
Main on June 21, 1919. The building on the right corner is CNR Messenger.