Winnipeg General Strike Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Winnipeg General Strike tested the Canadian labor movement’s ability to mobilize and unify workers. The strike’s failure showed that effective government could defeat such tactics.

Summary of Event

The city of Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, lies in Canada’s geographic center, and for many years it was on the Canadian frontier, just to the west of the old-line province of Ontario and just to the east of the Great Plains settled by immigrants in the first decades of the twentieth century. From its earliest days, Winnipeg was a railroad town dependent on the Canadian Pacific Railway to bring products of the Great Plains to the older, eastern provinces and eventually to Europe. Winnipeg General Strike (1919) Labor strikes;Winnipeg General Strike [kw]Winnipeg General Strike (May 15-June 26, 1919) [kw]General Strike, Winnipeg (May 15-June 26, 1919) [kw]Strike, Winnipeg General (May 15-June 26, 1919) Winnipeg General Strike (1919) Labor strikes;Winnipeg General Strike [g]Canada;May 15-June 26, 1919: Winnipeg General Strike[04750] [c]Business and labor;May 15-June 26, 1919: Winnipeg General Strike[04750] [c]Social issues and reform;May 15-June 26, 1919: Winnipeg General Strike[04750] Gray, Charles F. Meighen, Arthur Robertson, Gideon Norris, T. C.

The railroad’s workers organized early: The first union, Local 122 of the International Association of Machinists, was established in 1893. Later groups either rallied around specific railroad-related industries or industries related to the businesses serving the railroad, which were collectively called the contract shops. By the early twentieth century, the unionizing spirit had spread to those who worked in public-service jobs, such as postal workers, police officers, and clerical workers.

The relationship between the workers and management was distinctly adversarial. Management saw the workers as a commodity needed to create the product they sold. In contrast, the workers saw management as an enemy who was determined to keep wages as low as possible and to deny the workers the opportunity to act collectively to improve their lot. This situation was, of course, not unique to Winnipeg: All over the world, workers were trying to increase their power. The late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century saw the flowering of radical programs to transfer control over industry and the economy from the capitalist owners to the workers. The Bolsheviks’ 1917 victory in Russia excited union leaders in Winnipeg and in other communities around the world.

Several developments during World War I set the stage for the general strike in Winnipeg. Allied armies needed munitions, many of which were commissioned by the Dominion and produced in Canada. Orders for arms led to prosperity, an influx of jobs (especially in the contract shops), and an increase in prices. However, wages were not rising as quickly as prices, and this gap only added to the financial hardships created by the war. To strengthen their power, the unions considered uniting (an act that would give them more leverage in negotiations with employers) and replacing the craft unions with industrial unions or with a single union called One Big Union.

The general strike was precipitated by the failed efforts of the building trades unions (carpenters, masons, and plumbers) to negotiate substantially higher wages with the Builders Exchange, an association of construction firms. The firms refused to grant any concessions to the workers, and on May 1—the traditional “labor day” of workers worldwide) the construction workers went on strike. At the same time, workers in the metals trades gave up their own failed salary negotiations with the owners of the contract shops, and the metals trades workers went on strike on May 2. Both the building trades and metals trades groups appealed to the Trades and Labor Council, the collective body representing the union leadership, for help. The council decided to distribute a ballot to all the workers in the unions it represented, asking them whether they would support a general strike. On May 6, eleven thousand workers voted for the measure; only five hundred voted against it. The council called for a general strike of all workers in Winnipeg to begin on May 15.

The Trades and Labor Council turned leadership of the strike over to the Central Strike Committee, which in turn appointed a small group of leaders called the General Strike Committee. These leaders were charged with mobilizing support for the strike, and their efforts were largely successful: By May 16, twenty-two thousand workers were striking, and Winnipeg was effectively paralyzed. Ninety-four out of ninety-six unions in Winnipeg had voted to join the strike: Only the police and typographers were not yet participants. In order to avoid turning public opinion against them, the workers had agreed to continue supplying bread and milk to homes. Deliverymen presented home owners with tickets informing them that their deliveries were a special courtesy of the striking workers.

The presence of recently demobilized veterans in Winnipeg’s streets kept the tension high. Most of the veterans supported the strikers, and their parades (which occurred almost daily) reminded many people of the soldier-led revolts against authorities in Russia and Europe. The specter of Bolshevism raised fears, and in response to it, employers and other members of the middle class organized an opposition group, the Citizens Committee, which published its own newspaper. This group was particularly important in persuading the federal government that the threat of Bolshevism was real and that it should intervene in the strike.

Meanwhile, Charles F. Gray, the mayor of Winnipeg, had been attempting to negotiate with the strikers while simultaneously imposing order on the city (an order that the veterans defied). After initially agreeing to an arrangement with the strikers that would have conceded their main objective—the right to unionization and collective bargaining—the growing disorder pushed the mayor in the opposite direction, and he forbade demonstrations. The veterans and various strike supporters continued to parade and demonstrate, however, and the police, sympathetic to the strikers, refused to enforce the ban on demonstrations.

The federal government intervened largely as a response to two events: A series of convincing arguments from the Citizens Committee and a major show of support for the strikers from the postal workers. Arthur Meighen, the minister of the interior, and Gideon Robertson, minister of labor (who had been sympathetic to the labor movement’s aims up to this point), arrived in Winnipeg on May 21. Both were convinced that the strike could be the first stages of a violent, left-wing revolution.

On May 26, Meighen and Robertson threatened the striking postal workers with the loss of their jobs if they did not return to work immediately. Few did, however, and replacement workers were immediately hired. On June 10, the city used the same tactic with the police, who were also replaced with new recruits. At the same time, Meighen and Robertson secured the support of additional forces from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and from the militia. On June 21, these new forces confronted a demonstration of strikers and veterans, the mayor read the riot act, and some shots were fired. One person was killed, and several were wounded.

The federal government had previously arranged for the arrest of some of the most radical leaders of the strike committee, and this loss of leadership impaired the strike. The crowds dispersed, and the federal forces were effectively in control of the city. The strike committee offered to negotiate the end of the strike with the premier of the province, T. C. Norris, and Norris agreed to appoint a royal commission to investigate the strike’s causes. With this promise, the strike committee called for an end to the strike on June 26, and most workers immediately returned to work.

Significance

The failure of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 showed that even the support of the entire working class was not a guarantee that a strike would achieve the labor movement’s wider aims. The movement’s overall aim—to create widespread unionization and secure the right to collective bargaining—was instead achieved through much more gradual means over the next two decades. The strike did prove, however, that a well-organized and functioning government response could prevent strikes from achieving their goals. Winnipeg General Strike (1919) Labor strikes;Winnipeg General Strike

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bercuson, David Jay. Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1974. A comprehensive and detailed account of the general strike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Masters, D. C. The Winnipeg General Strike. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950. Includes extensive discussion of Canada’s labor movement leading up to the strike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitchell, Tom, and James Naylor. “The Prairies: In the Eye of the Storm.” In The Workers’ Revolt in Canada, 1917-1925, edited by Craig Heron. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Places the general strike in the broader context of the labor movement in Canada after World War I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rea, J. E. The Winnipeg General Strike. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972. A compilation of newspaper articles that appeared during the strike.

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