WHEN THE WORKERS ROSE. THE WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE, PART ONE

(May 15 is the 100th anniversary of the start of the Winnipeg General Strike. It remains one of Canada’s signature events, yet few Canadians know much about it. Mickleblog marks the occasion with a three-part account of the strike, the little-known but remarkable sympathy strikes, including a big one in Vancouver, that it inspired, and its aftermath, particularly the political impact. Much of this was presented at the recent annual conference of the Pacific Northwest Labour History Association. Here is Part One.)

The Winnipeg General Strike was by far the longest and largest worker uprising in the history of Canada, or, for that matter, all of North America. For 40 days, from May 15 to June 24, 1919, more than 30,000 workers, in a city with a population of 180,000, took part in a walkout that remained solid until the end. In the face of relentless opposition from all three levels of government, police higher-ups, the military, renegade forces of citizens and the press, convinced they were about to be overthrown by the forces of Bolshevism, the discipline and morale of the strikers, a majority of whom were non-union, was remarkable.

The photo of a mob of workers and pro-strike ex-soldiers overturning a stranded streetcar, shown above, has come to characterize the strike. But this was an isolated event, a reaction to the escalating crackdown by authorities against the strike and its leaders. For the most part, the streets of Winnipeg were quiet. Workers heeded the dictates of their savvy leaders to stay home and avoid any pretext for martial law, or any action by forces itching to intervene. “Do Nothing!” proclaimed the strike newspaper. “Just eat, sleep, play, love, laugh, and look at the sun.” So much for Bolsheviks out to storm the Winnipeg equivalent of the Winter Palace.

Yet the issues and anger that led to the Winnipeg General Strike were very real. And they were hardly confined to Winnipeg.

One hundred years ago, much of Canada’s working class was in revolt, fueled by the pointless, terrible carnage of World War One. Workers had died in the millions, at the same time as profiteers far from the killing fields made fortunes and politicians and generals insisted the bloodshed go on until the other side collapsed. Workers were further sandbagged by a postwar economy that saw soaring inflation, while wages remained stagnant. More and more were receptive to the fiery socialist message that reforming capitalism was no longer enough. The system, itself, had to be changed. To one where production would be based on use and need, not profit.

From Victoria all the way to Amherst, Nova Scotia, there seemed to be strikes everywhere. There were even rumblings in the British colony of Newfoundland. And when the Winnipeg General Strike broke out, sympathy strikes swept the country in support of the Winnipeg workers.

Revolutionaries elsewhere took notice of what was happening, among them no less than Antonio Gramsci. In Canada, wrote the famed Italian socialist, “industrial strikes have taken on the overt character of a bid to install a soviet regime”. That was not quite right, but, seen from afar, Gramsci could be forgiven. In a country of just over 8.3 million people, much of it rural, a total of 3.4 million working days were lost because of strikes in 1919, the greatest year of industrial relations conflict in Canadian history. And rhetoric extolling the 1917 workers’ revolution in Russia was not hard to find. (Historian Allan Levine’s fine Globe and Mail piece on the Winnipeg General Strike reminded me that, at one point in Warren Beatty’s film Reds, John Reed — played by Beatty — says he wants to leave Russia and return to North America to assess labour militancy there : “I’ll talk about the general strikes in Seattle and Winnipeg,…”)

This mood of resistance and rebellion first showed itself in Vancouver in 1918. When trade unionist, organizer, pacifist and socialist Ginger Goodwin was shot dead in the hills overlooking the coal-mining community of Cumberland by a trigger-happy special constable trying to arrest him for evading the draft, the trade union movement erupted. On Aug. 2, 1918, the day of Goodwin’s mile-long funeral procession in Cumberland, union members in Vancouver walked off the job for 24 hours to commemorate their fallen comrade. It was the first general strike in Canadian history. Despite a ransacking of the Labour Temple and Labour Council secretary Victor Midgely only narrowly escaping being thrown out its second floor window by a mob of World War One veterans, egged on and, some say, liquored up by local business leaders, the strike was a resounding success.

Not long afterwards, western industrial unions, fed up with the Gompers-like approach of the Canadian Trades and Labour Congress, split from the national body to set up their own. In March of 1919, union representatives from Victoria to Northern Ontario gathered in Calgary to establish one revolutionary industrial union for all workers, called, with charming exactitude., the One Big Union. The OBU. Backed by ringing rhetoric calling for an end to capitalism, they demanded a radically shorter work week, higher wages and the untrammeled right to union recognition and collective bargaining. The weapon of choice to achieve these goals would be the general strike.

Winnipeg was an OBU bastion. Support was so strong they didn’t even wait for its founding convention. On May 2, 2,000 building tradesmen went on strike to force employers to negotiate with their bargaining council. The next day, they were joined by 3,000 metal craft workers whose employers also refused to deal with their bargaining council. Both groups appealed to other unions for support. There was a vote. The result was overwhelmingly in favour.

On the momentous morning of May 15,, telephone, telegraph, postal and civic services, streetcars, restaurants – so even strike leaders missed lunch at their favorite eateries –, newspapers, theatres, barbershops, along with factories, breweries and hotels – were all shut down. Bread, milk and ice deliveries came to a halt, although they resumed the next day by authority of the strike committee. Firefighters walked out. Police, who had voted 149-11 to strike, were asked to stay on by the strike committee. The Winnipeg General Strike was on.

Predictably, there was an immediate, over-the-top reaction by the “pillars” of the business community, governments, local media and self-styled citizens. Within hours, a Citizens Committee of 1,000 had been formed to combat the strike. They kept up a relentless din of anti-Bolshevik hysteria, while doing everything in their power to maintain strike-bound services and pressure authorities to crush what they charged was an “incipient revolution” by – are you ready – “undesirables, socialists, radicals, enemy aliens, Bolshevists, Reds, Marxists, foreign agitators, revolutionaries, reactionaries, extremists, and (of course) anarchists”.

Newspaper editor J.W. Dafoe, hailed as one of Canada’s legendary journalists, cried out with his pen that the strike was masterminded by revolutionary promoters of the OBU “seeking personal gain through a Soviet- style dictatorship supported by Winnipeg’s numerous enemy aliens”. No matter that all strike leaders but one were born in Britain, and the Union Jack flew over strike headquarters.

By contrast, the message in the strikers’ newspaper was restrained and to the point: “Our cause is just. What We Want: [1] The right of collective bargaining [2] the right to a living wage. What We Do Not Want: [1] Revolution [2] Dictatorship [3] Disorder.

Despite unstinting pressure and provocation, the workers’ resolve remained firm through May and into June. There was virtually no scabbing. Whenever workers were asked to expand the strike or resume some services, they did. Socialist and more conservative union leaders put aside their political differences and worked together in common cause. The cause was not revolution or installing a Soviet, but basic union rights.

Rather than firing up the workers with speeches, parades, rallies, banners and so on, the strike committee adopted, as mentioned, the unusual strategy of “Do Nothing”. Until the final few weeks, in this oddest of class conflicts, the only ones marching in the streets were members of the Citizens’ Committee, strutting around, vowing to maintain law and order in a peaceful city.

As the weather warmed in early June, however, frustrated by the strikes’ success, governments turned up the heat and began taking measures to end it. Striking postal workers, telephone operators and firefighters were fired. Police were ordered to sign a no-strike pledge. When they refused, they, too, were fired, replaced by citizen deputies and vigilantes.

And, in the early hours of June 17, on orders from Ottawa, police rousted the six principal leaders of the strike from their beds and bundled them off to Stony Mountain Penitentiary, charged with seditious conspiracy. Strike headquarters at the Labour Temple were ransacked, and the strikers’ paper, the Western Labour News, was banned, its editor and advertising manager among those arrested.

Meanwhile, officers of the North-West Mounted Police and the army had been hard at work preparing to suppress a new force in the streets. Thousands of edgy, demobilized former soldiers, also victimized by the worsening economy and in not much of a mood to “Do Nothing”, had begun a series of marches in support of the General Strike. The mayor quickly proclaimed them illegal, and authorities had their excuse to move.

Matters came to a head on June 23, commonly known as “Bloody Saturday”. Huge crowds gathered downtown as part of the ex-soldiers’ call for “a silent protest” against the arrests. They ignored the mayor’s order to disperse, and a wayward streetcar, running despite the strike, was trashed. Members of the Mounted Police rode into the crowd swinging their clubs. Pelted with bottles, stones and other objects, the Mounties regrouped for a second foray, this time firing their revolvers.

Mike Sokolowski was killed on the spot, with a bullet to the heart. Another striker who was hit subsequently died in hospital. Scores were injured. With the Mounties keeping up their horseback charges, the streets were gradually cleared by civilian anti-strikers and special police. Then the military took over. Soldiers in trucks brandished machine guns, while others with fixed bayonets sped around in cars. The melee was over and so, for all intents and purposes, was the strike.

With their arrested leaders pledged to stay away as a condition of bail, their newspaper shut down, editors of a quickie replacement charged with seditious libel, two workers dead and armed military patrols and citizen constables controlling the streets, there was no way forward. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council announced their historic general strike would end on June 25. And it did.

Without any sense of surrender, the workers of Winnipeg returned to their jobs, having demonstrated once again that there was no hope of obtaining justice for the working class in Canada., even with a struggle as glorious as theirs. Among those watching “Bloody Saturday” unfold had been 14-year old Tommy Douglas, peering down from an adjacent rooftop. Much later in life, he reflected: “Whenever the powers-that-be cannot get what they want, they’re always prepared to resort to violence or any kind of hooliganism to break the back of organized opposition.”