September 1, 2005
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 BIG
UNION. 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
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