THE WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE: ITS LEGACY IS WITH US STILL

On June 25, 100 years ago, the remarkable Winnipeg General Strike came to an end. For 41 days, more than 30,000 workers had stayed off the job, unwavering in their support for free collective bargaining and better wages to combat sky high inflation. They had stood defiant against unrelenting pressure from all three levels of government, the media and an hysterical so-called citizens’ committee convinced they were combatting a Bolshevik-style revolution.

But after the arrest of their leaders, the banning of their strike newspaper, the authorities’ violent crackdown on “bloody Saturday” that left two strikers dead and the military and armed citizen vigilantes in control of the streets, there was no way forward.

Remaining members of the strike committee issued a call for a return to work, its demands unmet. Like all previous instructions, it was obeyed to the letter, and on Thursday, June 26, the workers of Winnipeg, except those who had not been fired (police, firefighters and postal employees), went back to their regular jobs.

The aftermath of the momentous struggle, however, was anything but immaterial. Indeed, a century later, its legacy continues.

One thing right off the bat. A Royal Commission into the causes of the strike concluded that it was motivated by onerous post-war conditions, including the high cost of living, inadequate wages and profiteering, with workers having no right to improve their lot through collective bargaining. The Commission, headed by Judge H.A. Robson, was clear: there was no evidence of the consistent claim by authorities and anti-strike businessmen throughout the strike that it was led by foreigners and/or Bolsheviks out to install a Soviet-type government. Fancy that…

Nonetheless, six strike leaders were convicted of “seditious conspiracy” to overthrow the government. Five were sentenced to a year in jail. One of them was Vancouver’s William Pritchard (incidentally, the grandfather of former BC NDP cabinet minster Bob Williams), who was nabbed by police in Calgary on his way home after spending just two weeks in Winnipeg. Fervent One Big Union proponent and prominent strike leader Bob Russell was tried separately and decked with a two year sentence.

(Strike leaders posing outside the city jail, after their arrest.
l-r back row: R. E. Bray, George Armstrong, John Queen, Bob Russell, R. J. Johns, William Pritchard. l-r front row: W. A. Ivens, Abraham Heaps.)

While many analysts consider the Winnipeg General Strike a failure since none of its goals were achieved, few unions in the West thought so at the time. In Winnipeg, workers returned to their jobs with heads high, knowing they had not been done in by any lack of resolve or solidarity, but by the forces of repression arrayed against them. And the quasi-revolutionary One Big Union was now in full swing. Far from disheartened, industrial workers throughout the West flocked to join the OBU. By the end of the year, the organization had anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 members. Surely, the next general strike was just around the corner.

It was not to be. Little more than a year later, the OBU had flamed out, decimated by internal divisions and harsh attacks by employers and governments petrified by its overt advocacy of socialism. The Winnipeg General Strike and the OBU’s brief run turned out to be the last gasp of truly radical trade unionism in Canada.

It took another 25 years – nine years after the landmark Wagner Act in the United States — before Canadian governments finally passed laws recognizing collective bargaining and forcing employers to bargain with unions chosen by their workers.

Still, the Winnipeg General Strike remains a watershed event. The strike and the OBU which inspired it paved the way for the great industrial organizing drives of the 1940s. But its more lasting impact took place and remains today in the country’s political landscape.

For all the fiery talk about socialism, revolution and changing the system through industrial action, the Winnipeg General Strike demonstrated that none of this was possible against a foe that had all the power and was not shy about using it.

The lesson was quickly learned. On the very day strikers went back to work, Frederick Dixon, a pro-union member of the provincial legislature, proclaimed the new message in a quickie strike newspaper cobbled together to replace the banned Western Labour News. “Labour was not prepared for the long and bitter struggle which was forced upon her by the bosses six weeks ago,” Dixon wrote. “Now get ready for the next fight…the next fight will be in the political field….Never say die. Carry on.” Dixon was subsequently charged with seditious libel for his writings during those final days of the strike, then acquitted after a brilliant courtroom defense. But his message of moving the fight to the political arena was taken to heart.

In the Winnipeg civic election that November, pro-labour candidates won half the seats on city council. In the 1920 provincial election, the new Manitoba Independent Labour Party, formed in response to the Winnipeg General Strike, took 11 of the 17 seats it contested. Three of those elected were strike leaders still incarcerated in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. One of them, John Queen, went on to serve seven terms as a progressive mayor of Winnipeg. Solid sections of the city, particularly its legendary North End, retained a working class consciousness arising from the Winnipeg General Strike for years and years.

However, the most lasting political fallout from the strike took place in federal politics. J.S. Woodsworth, who was also arrested for seditious libel – the charge was dropped after Dixon’s acquittal – ran as a labour candidate in Winnipeg Centre in the 1921 federal election. A Methodist minister consumed by social activism on behalf of workers and the poor, Woodsworth cruised to victory by more than 3,700 votes. He held the seat until his death 21 years later.

(J.S. Woodsworth)

In 1925, Woodsworth was joined in the House of Commons by another high-profile participant in the Winnipeg General Strike, Abraham Heaps, elected in Winnipeg North. Together, the two pro-labour socialists took advantage of a minority government to ensure enactment of Canada’s first Old Age Pension Act.

Even more importantly, in 1932, during the teeth of the Depression, Woodsworth co-founded Canada’s first broad-based socialist party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, serving as its leader for the next 10 years.

Many participants in the Winnipeg General Strike and former leaders of the OBU were also prominent in the early CCF, which has had a significant impact on Canadian politics ever since.

The party, and its successor the NDP, have formed governments in all four western provinces, plus Nova Scotia. As such, it has had a profound influence on social programs in Canada, ushering in socialized medicine in Saskatchewan, public auto insurance in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia, and in BC, the preservation of all provincial farmland under an Agricultural Land Reserve, plus a raft of other progressive measures, including many that leveled the playing field for workers and unions.

Would any of this have happened without the Winnipeg General Strike? Of course, we will never know for certain, but it is certainly arguable that the founding of the CCF was a direct result of the strike and labour’s growing awareness of the need for political involvement. It was hardly a coincidence that a number of the strike leaders, particularly Woodsworth, were among the pioneers of the CCF. And for that, even if only for medicare, I think all Canadians should be grateful.

A final postscript. Bob Russell was the most ardent of all the OBU firebrands. For that, he was punished with double the time behind bars that other strike leaders received. In 1967, Manitoba named the R.B. Russell Vocational High School after him. History is a funny business.

WILLIAM PRITCHARD AND PAYING A PRICE FOR THE WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE

(Defendants accused of seditious conspiracy for their roles in the Winnipeg General Strike pose outside the jailhouse after their arrests. William Pritchard is in the dark clothes, on the far right.)

On a wintry March morning in 1920, William Pritchard stood in a packed Winnipeg courtroom, far from his home in spring-like Vancouver, to defend himself against six charges of seditious conspiracy. “I owe a duty to my wife and children in this matter,” he began. “I also owe a duty to my fellow workers, and I do not propose to shirk those duties in any particular.”

And indeed, he did not. For two full days and into the evenings, the socialist union leader gave a riveting discourse on why workers are driven to resist those who oppress them, why the charges against him represented a fundamental breach of the right to freedom of speech, and why the working class yearns for a better world, where production is for use, not for profit.

At the end, close to collapse from the strain of his long oration, he told the spellbound courtroom: “Standing on the threshold of the parting of the ways, one path leading to concrete and iron-bound walls of the penitentiary, and the other to freedom, I say I have done nothing for which I feel I need apologize. What I have done, I have done in good faith with sincerity and the purest of motives.” As the 32-year old Pritchard concluded his remarks, the courts normally restive onlookers were moved to silence.

The next day the Winnipeg Evening Tribune praised the West Coast labour leader on its front page. “Speaking with gripping intensity, Pritchard seemed to hold the entire court through the sheer force of his personality and the power of his logic,” the paper’s reporter wrote. “His closing words showed him a man apparently earnest in his convictions, unafraid to stake his future on the sincerity of the motives behind the actions which had brought him before the bar of Justice, charged with seditious conspiracy.”

Well might Pritchard defend his alleged criminal actions, since they had nothing to do with those of his six fellow defendants, all local trade unionists charged for their roles in actually leading the previous year’s six-week Winnipeg General Strike. The mass walkout by more than 30,000 workers had terrified government and business leaders, who believed a Bolshevik-like uprising was at hand. But Pritchard had spent only a week or two in Winnipeg near the end to make some speeches and offer support. He had had nothing to do with the strike.

He was nevertheless nabbed in Calgary on his way back to Vancouver, charged with the same seditious conspiracy as those directly involved. His arrest showcased authorities’ determination to pin blame for the working class revolt on the industrial unionism of the radical One Big Union, of which Pritchard and most Winnipeg strike leaders were major proponents. No matter that the OBU was only in the planning stage when the strike began. Winnipeg workers could not have had legitimate wage demands or been so willing to fight for union recognition on their own, reasoned the powers-that-be. They must have been provoked by revolutionaries intent on overthrowing capitalism, and this incipient revolution had to be nipped in the bud.

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As a result, leaders of the general strike and any other prominent advocates authorities felt were spreading the socialist gospel of the OBU were rounded up, including Pritchard and the future founder of the CCF, J.S. Woodsworth. Like Pritchard, he had only stopped off in the city to lend support to the strike, through speeches and, at the very end, co-editing a stopgap strike newspaper after the Western Labour News was banned. “One cannot escape the conviction that the real prisoner in the dock was the OBU,” said Woodsworth. However, charges of seditious libel against the ordained minister, who had also worked on the Vancouver docks for a time, were dropped after, among other things, prosecutors realized that some of his “seditious” material came from the biblical prophet Isaiah.

But the Crown went after Pritchard with a vengeance. Son of a British miner, he had come to Vancouver in 1911. An early member of the Socialist Party, he edited the party’s Western Clarion, from 1914 to 1917, then found work in a sawmill and on the waterfront. He was in Cumberland the day after labour martyr Ginger Goodwin was shot dead. At the funeral parlour, after examining the angle of the bullet holes in Goodwin’s body, he pronounced his certainty that Goodwin had been murdered by the special constable who fired the fatal shots. Years later, Pritchard reiterated his conclusion: “He was taken unaware by a minion of the government, given no chance to surrender, as he evidently was unaware of what was taking place, shot from an elevated position at close range.” Pritchard paid the final tribute to his fellow Socialist over Goodwin’s grave in the Cumberland cemetery.

A true class warrior, Pritchard played a leading role in the Socialist Party, the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council, the B.C. Federation of Labour and the OBU. He had a purity of belief that, later, caused him to spurn both the Communist Party and the CCF. Eventually, he settled in Burnaby, where he was elected Reeve during the 1930’s. As a fascinating aside, he was the grandfather of former NDP cabinet minister and left-wing guru to some, Bob Williams.

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Yet in 1920, Bill Pritchard was in that Winnipeg courtroom, asserting his innocence and laying his socialist beliefs on the line. “Did you ever consider, gentlemen of the jury, that you cannot kill ideas with a club?” he postulated. “You cannot drive theories into oblivion by machine guns. If an idea be healthy, sunshine will help it grow. If it is not healthy, sunshine will help to kill it.”

He denounced the newly-introduced income tax as yet another burden imposed on the people, designed to “fatten a whole host of parasites on the public wealth”. As for the stream of anti-union vitriol in the newspapers, “some of these scarred, black-faced toilers from the depths of the mines could write better editorials with their picks, than the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press with his pen,” Pritchard told the court. Towards the end, he proclaimed his Utopian vision for the future. In the face of “the sins of their blind or corrupt masters”, said Pritchard, “the proletarians shall remain erect; they will unite to form one universal proletariat and we shall see fulfilled the great Socialist prophecy. The union of the workers will be the peace of the world.”

His ringing words had no effect. A day later, the jury found William Pritchard and four other defendants guilty of seditious conspiracy. All five were sentenced to a year in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. One got six months on a common nuisance charge, while strike leader A.A. Heaps was acquitted. Before they were taken away, the men were given a few minutes in the cleared courtroom to bid an emotional goodbye to their wives and other distraught family members. A reporter for the Winnipeg Evening Tribune called it “the most moving spectacle ever enacted in a Winnipeg courtroom….Women crying. Men doing their best to comfort them.”

As Pritchard’s wife, her eyes wet, sat talking to her husband, he tried to calm her spirits. From one of his pockets he produced a blue streetcar ticket. According to the reporter, he smiled and handed it to his wife, explaining: “You’ll have more use of it than I will, for some time to come.” At this point, wrote the reporter, “Mrs. Pritchard almost broke down. She stood for several minutes crying, as she gazed at the car ticket in her hand.”

On Pritchard’s release from prison, his health weakened by the ordeal, an estimated 10,000 people turned out to greet his returning train to Vancouver, more, it was said, than showed up for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1919.

HEROES. TWO BRAVE CANADIANS TELL THEIR D-DAY STORIES.

In 2004, I was fortunate enough to be asked to do a book consisting of 20 first-hand accounts of their wartime experiences by Canadian veterans of World War Two, in their own words. They are as varied and fascinating and heartfelt as one could possibly imagine. What they went through to take on the might and evils of German fascism and Japanese imperialism….and basically, they were just kids. The book’s title Rare Courage could not be more appropriate. Most have since passed on since I interviewed them, but their compelling stories remain.

On this, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, here are two vivid, eye-witness accounts from my book of the historic landings that day on the fortified beaches of Normandy. Gorden Hendery was in charge of one of the landing craft for Canadian troops. Hugh Neilly had volunteered for the British Army. On D-Day, with the East Yorkshire Regiment, he was one of the first soldiers ashore. History doesn’t get much more gripping than this.

GORDON HENDERY

“I didn’t get any sleep that night. I was excited. As I walked up and down [the deck], officers were in our cabins, writing letters to their loved ones. We had breakfast at four o’clock.

“Finally the boys were up on deck, opposite their landing craft. We issued them all vomit bags. We boarded the craft, loaded them in the water, and, was it ever rough. It was awful. We were about four mile from the beach. All of a sudden, every battleship, destroyer, every ship that had a gun started to bombard the beaches. The smoke and the flames and the roar were overwhelming. And the boys on the craft said this was going to be a picnic, if they were going to bombard the beach like that. But we knew damn well from experience that whenever we got on a beach, there was enemy fire to greet us.

“The boys were loaded on the deep side of the landing craft under the deck, so they wouldn’t get wet. But it was very, very choppy. Fear and seasickness from the rich dinner the night before and everything else all accumulated to make them as sick as could be. They were so happy to have the vomit bags. There were 30 soldiers to a craft. Some had machine guns. They all had rifles and 60-pound packs. They must have been terrified, but you know, they trained for this. They were soldiers.

“On the way in, a wonderful thing happened. A young sergeant got up on the deck beside me and started to sing a song, “Roll Out the Barrel.” Everyone joined in. It was one of the most moving experiences I had during my almost five years in the service. There was fear on everyone’s faces, and he tried to brighten up their spirits. I was in the same fix. I was human, too. And it worked. The fear left our faces.

(PIcture taken by Gordon Hendery, shortly before their craft hit the beach.)

*Then we saw these nasty spikes that came up out of the water. They had mines on the end of them. We knew if we touched one we’d be blown to smithereens. We wanted to get the boys landed on dry sand, but the craft got stuck on an obstacle under the water. Just think how the boys felt: seasick, packs on their backs, being splashed from machine-gun bullets beside the craft. I hesitated to order “down doors,” but it had to be done.

“They jumped into the water. Some were up to the waist. Two of the shorter lads jumped in and didn’t come up. Terrible. They only had 20 feet of water to go through, but it was deep. And there was not a damn thing we could do, because our orders were to get out of the way and back on the ship as quickly as possible.

“The guys got out in one heck of a hurry. They dashed across the beach. Some fell from machine-gun fire. Some were hit before they even made the beach. We could see all this. Imagine training in England for three years and not even being able to get to the beach before being killed. I don’t think people realize what our boys did.

“When we got back to the ship, Scott Young was on board. He was a reporter, I think, from the Globe and Mail. He asked me what happened. I told him everything and he passed this on to Matthew Halton, who was a Canadian radio reporter [CBC]. And when they announced the Normandy landing, they referred to our ship and my name was mentioned. So my family knew I was safe.”

HUGH NEILY

Our troop ship was the Glenearn. We stayed there overnight before the landing, and someone said, “Winnie’s here! Winnie’s here!” I went up on deck and sure enough, there was Churchill standing in a launch, with cigar and bowler hat. He waved his cigar at us, and that was the biggest excitement of that day.

“Leaving the harbour that night is the one thing in my life that I will never forget. As far as you could see in every direction, nothing but boats. Nobody went to sleep. We were all leaning on the rail, watching. But we couldn’t see lights over there. Just a dark, low coastline. We had a huge breakfast at three in the morning. Bacon and eggs, which was a real rarity. We had to put blacking on our faces. Our helmets were covered in netting that we called scrim. We were ready.

“When the ship stopped, we knew we were off the coast of France. Watches were synchronized, checked and re-checked, along with the rifles, the Bren guns, the Sten guns, the ammunition pouches. Day was breaking fast and the waves were very high. We were the first ones to go down. Colonel Hutchinson came on the loud hailer and wished us all luck. “I want you to repeat after me: ‘It all depends on me.’” So we all repeated that. It was very tricky getting into the LCA because the waves were high. But we made it all right and we pulled away. We lined up four abreast. On the far side there was B Company. We were followed in three minutes by C and D Companies. And behind them, other companies were coming in. You had to get in there, get landed, and get through their defences in three minutes so the next wave can come in after you. That’s how tight it was.

“There was a terrible noise all the way in. Navy boats were firing shell after shell. And planes were going over. If there was sky, we couldn’t see it. The German shells started coming, too. When we landed, there were these beach defences ahead of us. I got my men out, and I dashed forward. Then flat on the sand. We were first. There were no other footprints. My men followed me and immediately spread to the right. Within 30 seconds of landing, one of my men went down. I heard someone say, “Oh God, Billy’s been shot.” He was dead before he hit the ground.

(An excerpt from Hugh Neily’s log book listing the platoon members he led onto Sword Beach. He drew lines through the names of those who were wounded and killed during the landing.)

“I looked to the left. Nothing moving there. I looked to the right, and I said to my sergeant, “I’m going to go in. Follow my tracks.” So I ran straight forward to where this machine-gun post was. My runner was right behind me, carrying the wire cutters. We cut the wire in just seconds. We’d practised this. And I crawled up the dunes. I can still feel those little reedy grasses on my face. Because of our model, I knew exactly where the machine gun was. The post was circular, about eight feet in diameter. I crawled up on my belly as close as I could, reached back a got a grenade. I tossed it and it hit the concrete parapet. My first reaction was, For God’s sake, don’t go down there and kill them. My next reaction was, You damn fool. That’s why you’re here.

The grenade exploded right on the parapet, and immediately a white flag came up. But nothing happened. So I fired one round and four fellows came out. They were the sorriest excuse for soldiers I’d ever seen. I thought, My God, is this what we’re fighting? They stood there with their hands behind the back of their heads. Then they sat down and we left them behind.” (Hugh Neily was wounded a few days later, as his Regiment advanced against fierce German opposition.)

Heroes all. We owe them so much.

Workers of Canada Unite! Striking in Support of the Winnipeg General Strike

(This is Part Two of my three part blog on the momentous Winnipeg General Strike that unfolded 100 years ago, striking terror into the hearts of the ruling class. It covers the astounding wave of spontaneous strikes by Canadian workers near and far for the 30,000 striking workers in Winnipeg.)

In addition to everything else that is remarkable about the Winnipeg General Strike, one aspect inexplicably ignored by most chroniclers is the extraordinary support the strike received from other workers across the country. Sympathy strikes of various lengths and success took place in Victoria, Vancouver, New Westminster, Prince Rupert the Kootenays, Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Moose Jaw, Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Brandon, Fort Willliam, Port Arthur, Toronto, Montreal and of all places, in the small, far-off industrial city of Amherst, Nova Scotia, where Leon Trotsky was temporarily imprisoned on his way back to Russia to lead the revolution.

The biggest of all the sympathy strikes took place right here in Vancouver. More than 10,000 workers walked out on June 3, to protest the firing of Winnipeg’s postal workers. Confined mostly to the private sector, most of the 37 participating unions stayed out for a full month. They did not return to work until a week after the Winnipeg strike ended. While much is written and celebrated about the one-day Ginger Goodwin general strike the previous year, there’s been barely a peep about the city’s worker revolt nine months later.

The striking unions had their own set of demands: reinstatement of the postal workers; immediate settlement of the grievances in Winnipeg; the right to collective bargaining; pensions for WW I veterans and their dependents; $2,000 for all who served overseas; nationalization of cold storage plants, abattoirs and, naturally, elevators; and the six-hour day.

The strike was strongest on the docks, where stevedores, sailors and other marine workers united to force all maritime shipping that came into port to tie up. A seaman named Jimmy O’Donnell has left us with a rare eye-witness account of the strike and his own experience during its last few days.

“It was the time of the Winnipeg Strike and everyone went out in sympathy. The sailors and the mess boys and firemen,” O’Donnell told an interviewer sometime in the 1970’s. “So when we come into Vancouver, the skipper said, ‘Don’t go ashore.’ And I said I gotta go ashore. I gotta go to the union hall and report in. I got my union button on and I went up to the union hall and say that I just come in. What do I do?

“And the guy says to get my stuff off, there’s a strike on. So I walk out and this little Cockney guy comes running up to me and says, ‘Waddya doing with that button on?’ I say that I belong to the sailors’ union. He says, ‘Don’t you know there’s a strike on?’ I said, ‘Yeah.” And he says, ‘Where you going? You gonna cross the picket line?’ And I said ‘Yeah. I’m going to the [ship]. We just been in last night and I’m gonna take my stuff off. I’m gonna go on strike with you.’ Two days later, the strike was over and I lost my job.”

After intense pressure from other unions, streetcar operators, who initially voted against the strike, went out on June 5. This sparked a fierce confrontation with city hall and the business community, who immediately sanctioned fleets of small buses known as jitneys to pick up fare-paying passengers. Labelling them “legalized scabs”, the strike committee warned the city that they would call telephone operators out on strike if the jitneys kept running. The warning was ignored.

 

So, on June 14, after locking the doors and dropping keys through the windows of BC Telephone headquarters on Seymour Street, 300 unionized “hello girls” and some of their supervisors joined the general strike. The phone company recruited strikebreakers, many of them high-society matrons, to keep the phones operating. But there was no wavering in the operators’ resolve, despite the financial pinch. “My landlady didn’t come looking for rent money. She kept me going,” operator Leone Copeland told the BC Federationist. “I was pretty close to brass tacks. Most of us who stayed out couldn’t afford to stay out, but we did.”

IMG_2155(I love this cartoon, deriding the women who took the jobs of the striking telephone operators. Note the cat calling the woman’s high-society cat a “Scab”. )

Not only did they stay out, the telephone operators did so for another 13 days after the official Vancouver strike ended. They held out in a noble but ultimately failed attempt to prevent supervisors who joined them on strike from being disciplined. They were the last sympathy strikers in the country to go back to work. “The action of the telephone girls in responding to the call for a general strike has placed them in a class by themselves amongst all women workers in this province,” lauded the BC Federationist.. They have won the admiration of all those who admire grit and working class solidarity.”

Another unusual feature of Vancouver’s general strike involved the International Typographical Union. Rather than strike, union printers set up a censorship board, warning city papers that if they deliberately misrepresented facts or failed to fairly represent the strikers’ views, they would face job action. Sure enough, the Vancouver Sun was shut down for five days over its anti-union diatribes. The last straw was an editorial referring to the martyred Ginger Goodwin as “a dead poltroon” (an utter coward). “Had the wretched creatures responsible for that outbreak (the one-day Goodwin walkout) been imprisoned, as they deserved,” the editorial continued, “the city would probably have been spared the effort being made today by the revolutionary element to impose its will upon the community.” “The Vancouver Province lost one edition because of an anti-strike ad that ITU members refused to print.

All in all, it was an exceptional display of support by the Vancouver working class for the Winnipeg strike, considering that the initial vote in favour was a far from overwhelming 3,305 to 2,499. Labour historian Elaine Bernard suggest it was even more radical than the Winnipeg General Strike, itself. “While the Winnipeg strikers were supporting workers engaged in a struggle with the local captains of industry, the Vancouver strike was remarkable in that it was motivated by solidarity for workers more than a thousand miles away,” she wrote.

They were far from alone.

In the British Empire outpost of Victoria, a split between radical and moderate union leaders prompted weeks of dithering. After the arrest of Winnipeg strike leaders and the violent “Bloody Saturday” crackdown by police and military, however, there was no holding back. On the morning of June 23, 70 per cent of the city’s 7,000 workforce – longshoremen, machinists, boilermakers, caulkers, factory workers and tradesmen – walked out. Virtually all industrial activity came to a halt — shipyards, the waterfront, marine traffic and machine shops. On June 26, the day Winnipeg workers returned to work, a mass public meeting of strikers at Royal Athletic Park voted overwhelmingly to go back the next day, bringing staid Victoria’s one and only general strike to an end.

IMG_2159Far up the coast in Prince Rupert, the spirit of solidarity with Winnipeg was also strong. But, like Victoria, it was not without division. Votes went back and forth. Job action was initially confined to the Grand Trunk Railway and the docks. Those off the job became increasingly angry at the reluctance of other unions to support an all-out strike. Finally, the Labour Council’s George Casey called a meeting June 8 to hold a final, once-and-for all vote. To make sure of their commitment, he ordained that the vote had to pass by a two-thirds majority.

At the highly-charged mass meeting at the Carpenters Hall, Casey, a fiery, charismatic speaker from the Fish Packers’ Union who subsequently spent 23 years on city council, declared in ringing tones that the workers of Prince Rupert “had a duty to organized labour and workers in general throughout the whole dominion.” When the ballots were counted, the vote in favour was 345 to 170, just making the mandated two-thirds majority. When American leaders of some unions ordered their members to stay on the job, the Labour Council’s Ralph Rose tore a strip off recalcitrant unions who “[expressed] themselves in favour of the strike, but when it was put to them, refused to come out”.

Prince Rupert’s general strike began at dawn, June 10. Nine industrial unions went out– dock workers, loggers, boilermakers, machinists, pipe-fitters, railway checkers (not a game, apparently), freight handlers and fish packers. Despite the usual pressure from the business community, foaming at the mouth about violence and Reds under the bed, they stuck it out to the end of the Winnipeg General Strike. And then beyond.

The strike committee refused to recommend a return to work, until 10 workers fired by the Grand Trunk Railway were reinstated. The pledge was strongly supported at another overflow gathering. “We will stick it out until we are starved out and become busted and have to leave town,” roared George Casey. This time, the emotional principle of protecting fellow workers’ jobs spurred all unions to rally to the cause. An expanded walkout was set to begin July 4 at 6 p.m. The pressure worked. Just 30 minutes before the deadline, the strike committee announced “as good [a deal] as we can expect under the circumstances”. Even so, the Labour Council voted only 15-12 to accept. (This account relies largely on original research by Donna Sacuta of the BC Labour Heritage Centre.)

In Edmonton (Edmonton!), thousands of union members were off the job for a month. City hall closed, trains and streetcars stopped running. Most utilities, including the telephone system, shut down, along with factories, packing houses, cold storage plants, shops and restaurants. Workers at Chinese restaurants and laundries courageously risked deportation to walk out. Police voted 74-4 to strike, although, as in Winnipeg, they stayed on the job.

City Mayor Joe Clarke was sympathetic. He refused requests from the Board of Trade and the inevitable “citizen’s committee” to call in the militia. He further vowed the city would not allow strikebreakers. When he was accused of being a dupe of the “Bolshevik” strike committee, the mayor retorted that he would not be forced to break the strike “by the Bolsheviks on the Board of Trade”. Although the strike wavered as June progressed, some unions stuck it out until the Winnipeg General Strike was called off.

In Brandon, Manitoba hundreds of workers stayed on strike for six weeks. Their ranks included civic employees who had just won their own strike, yet came out again to protest anti-strike crackdowns in Winnipeg.

And yes, in Amherst, Nova Scotia. (who knew?)  Workers there were as radical a bunch as any in North America. The Amherst Federation of Labour voted 1,185 to 1 (who was that guy?) to join the western-based One Big Union, even before the radical organization had been formally established. They campaigned successfully against the introduction of daylight saving time as a capitalist plot to lengthen the working day. In May, stirred by the Winnipeg General Strike, several thousand Amherst workers at the city’s eight largest industries walked off the job for three weeks. Their demands were the same as workers in Winnipeg: shorter hours, better pay and the right to collective bargaining.

Other strikes were briefer but no less heartfelt, as workers took up the cry to fight back. The defiant words of Jean MacWilliams, a laundry worker and organizer in Calgary, could have echoed anywhere: “Are we in favour of a bloody revolution? Why any kind of revolution would be better than conditions as they are now.”

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It was a time of unsurpassed working class consciousness and resistance, the likes of which Canada had never seen, before or since. Few demands were achieved, but the Winnipeg General Strike had a profound impact on events to come. That will be covered in Part Three, The Aftermath.