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.

AN ODDBALL LOOK BACK AT BILL BENNETT

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For some reason, Bill Bennett seemed to like me. In the few times we encountered each other, we got along. Goodness knows why, since, as a labour reporter, I had little time for the wealth of anti-labour legislation that came down the legislative pipe during Bennett’s 11 years as premier, topped by his outlandish, 26-bill “restraint” package in 1983. It went far beyond “austerity”. One of the bills gave his government the right to fire public sector workers without cause and lay them off without regard to seniority. Among the first to be shown the door was BCGEU vice-president Diane Woods. Nor was that all.

On that single unforgettable day, the government also wiped out the Human Rights Commission (employees fired on the spot), gave landlords the right to evict tenants without cause, abolished rent controls, severely curtailed employment standards, tightened government control over school boards, community colleges and course content, weakened public scrutiny of Crown corporations, slashed social spending, and announced the layoffs of hundreds of government employees. It was a neo-con revolution of the right, hailed by the Fraser Institute and the Milton Friedman folks in Chicago. “Black Thursday” led to the most concerted protest fightback in the history of B.C., bringing the province to the verge of an all-out general strike. Er…where was I…? Oh yes, Bill Bennett and me.

As I said, all my dealings with Bennett the Younger were cordial, even friendly. I particularly remember one strange Friday night in the good old days when there were labour reporters. I was working the night labour beat at the Vancouver Sun, looking forward to a drink later on at the Press Club across the street. Out of nowhere, the “labour desk” got a call from one of Bennett’s aides, saying the Premier would like to have dinner with me. But of course. Why wouldn’t he? So out I headed on that dark and stormy night to a Japanese restaurant in deepest Richmond.

And there he was, leader of all the people, dining out with a few of his cronies. It was such a simpler time. Turned out the Premier wanted to talk to me about what he intended to do to ensure there would be no repeat of a bitter ferries strike that had just convulsed the province. His plan involved curbing the powers of the quite wonderful Labour Relations Board established under the NDP, and broadening the definition of essential services.

We had a pleasant conversation. I drank green tea and took notes. Bennett didn’t seem to mind my defense of the LRB and its brilliant chairman, Paul Weiler. Nor did he seem perturbed when I pointed to a strike-ending document authored by Mr. Weiler that, among other things, ruled out another aspect of Bennett’s agenda: potential prosecution of ferry workers for defying a back-to-work order.

It was actually kind of odd, as I realized little old labour reporter me knew more about the ins and outs of the ferry dispute than the premier of the province. But never mind. When I got back to the office, I had a big scoop that was splashed all over the front page of the Saturday Sun.

Nor was that the end of this gripping, personal saga. A few days later, Bill Bennett had to stand up in the legislature and acknowledge that he may have misled the House, after an article by that same little old labour reporter me contradicted something he had said. It’s all a bit complicated and picayune, but here is my shiny Bill Bennett moment.

First, Hansard from Oct 19, 1977:

MRS. E.E. DAILLY (Burnaby North): To the Premier. Was the Premier aware of the Weiler document the evening before he went on public television?

HON. MR. BENNETT: No.

COCKE: Rod Mickleburgh says he showed it to you the night before and you talked to him about it the night before.

 DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order, please.

And then, on Oct. 20:

HON. W.R. BENNETT (Premier): Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of clarification…to clarify an answer made in question period yesterday.

DEPUTY SPEAKER: Please proceed.

HON. MR. BENNETT: Mr. Speaker, I must say that in answer to a question from the member for Burnaby North (Mrs. Dailly) yesterday, in the shortness of my answer I may have inadvertently misled the House. The question was: was I aware of the LRB document? The answer would have to be yes, but I had not read the contents. That was the way I had understood the question. But I would point out that I did attend in dinner with Mr. Mickleburgh, who was there to receive a statement in advance of my press conference the following morning, and he has suggested that he mentioned the document during the dinner. While I cannot recall the contents of what he said, it must be said that I was aware that the Labour Relations Board did have a document. For that the answer would be “yes.” Had I read it and did I know the contents? The answer would be “no” at that time.

For the only time in my mediocre career, the score stood: Mickleburgh 1 Premier of British Columbia 0.

We encountered each other a few times after that, all private, all rather enjoyable. He never mentioned my calling him to account. Unlike many other politicians, Bill Bennett, frequently a target of intense media criticism, never held a grudge against reporters. Former Province legislative columnist Allen Garr, who wrote a hard-hitting book on Bennett called Tough Guy and was never easy on him in his columns, said he ran into the former premier a few years ago and was greeted with a genial ‘hello”, warm handshake and heartfelt pleasantries. Mind you, Bill Bennett shook hands with anybody….Image 11

As some have mentioned, Bennett was also known for his wit, though it was almost always at the expense of others and often somewhat mean. He once referred to NDP transportation critic James Lorimer, who favoured light rail over Skytrain, as “a streetcar named retire”. During a controversy that had erupted over vacant space in government office buildings under the Barrett government, he ended a corridor confrontation with Public Works Minister Bill Hartley, by saying the minister should have a sign on his forehead proclaiming “This Space for Rent”. I have other examples in the same vein, including a particularly good zinger on Bill Vander Zalm, whom he loathed, but you get the picture. Given that the NDP used to taunt him as “Daddy’s Boy”, perhaps he can be forgiven if they seem a bit harsh. (Bob Williams was the most persistent of the “Daddy’s Boy” taunters, until Bennett shot back, unfortunately: “At least I have a father…”)

Bennett really was a “tough guy” of the back alley variety. He gave no quarter. He played to win. Not an instinctive politician, he had an unerring sense for weakness. When union leader Jack Munro came to his house in Kelowna that infamous Sunday night in November, 1983, with an escalation of labour’s general strike on the table, Bennett quickly realized the unions wanted out of it more than he did. He could get a deal by offering almost nothing. Essentially, Bennett called their bluff, and the unions folded like a sack of potatoes. (Often forgotten is that Bennett did budge on the trade union issues that launched the whole Solidarity movement, but that happened before the ill-fated, so-called “Kelowna Accord”. One of the anti-union bills was dropped and the other never seriously applied. The layoffs proceeded, but they did so according to seniority, under employees’ union contracts. Diane Woods got her job back.)

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Even his family’s paid obituary in the newspaper referred to Bill Bennett’s competitive fire, which hardly diminished as he grew older. At 68, nearly 14 years after he resigned and slipped back to a secluded, private life in Kelowna, Bennett was summoned to testify at the inquiry into the legendary Bingogate scandal. The inquiry was called to look into the illegal redirection of charity bingo funds by NDP stalwart and former cabinet minister, Dave Stupich.

Asked about a mysterious memo that suggested Bennett somehow called off an investigation into Stupich’s charity bingos, the former premier denied even knowing about the matter. “Quite frankly, rest assured I never went out of my way to save Dave Stupich from himself,” he asserted, much to the merriment of those attending.

Later in his testimony, the great “Scotch and cornflakes” saga came up. Stupich had intimated in a letter to his constituents that Bennett was a heavy drinker, known to pour a bit of Scotch on his morning cornflakes. When Stupich refused to retract, Bennett sued. Stupich, along with his cohort, former Attorney-General Alex Macdonald, thought there was great political sport to be made, and fought the matter in court. Bennett, of course, didn’t fool around. He hired the best libel lawyer in the province, and was awarded $10,000, a hefty sum in those days. “Mr. Stupich didn’t plead truth. He tried to play political. I can only suggest he either got poor legal advice, or no legal advice,” the 68-year old Bennett told the inquiry.

He paused, then added, evoking more loud laughter: “For the record, his lawyer was Alex Macdonald.”

Old habits died hard.

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(The Godfather passes the torch in the vineyards of Kelowna.)