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.

Auntie Irene, Helena Gutteridge and The Mayor

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At the age of 70, my beloved Auntie Irene, under her scholastic name of Irene Howard, published her definitive biography of Helena Gutteridge, Vancouver’s first woman “alderman”. Ten years later, when she was 80, she completed her remarkable book Gold Dust On His Shirt, a moving saga of her family’s working class life in the gold mines of British Columbia, feathered with impeccable research of the times. At 90 she published a very fine poem, which is reproduced below.

And one morning last month, at the age of 94 and a half, Auntie Irene sat in the front row of chairs arrayed in a room off the main lobby at city hall, looking as elegant and vivacious as anyone who pre-dated Vancouver’s Art Deco municipal masterpiece by 14 years could dare to look.

She was there as a guest of honour, and rightly so, for the unveiling of a national historic plaque paying tribute to Helena Gutteridge, the woman she had written so authoritatively about more than 20 years earlier. Without Auntie Irene’s book, Gutteridge would almost certainly be just another footnote in the city’s neglected history of those who fought to make life better. With justification, Auntie Irene had subtitled her biography: The Unknown Reformer. Not only did her chronicle bring Gutteridge to public prominence, it was she who submitted the application for her recognition to Parks Canada and the august Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The application had been gathering dust throughout the nearly 10 years of government by the Harper Conservatives, who evinced no interest in commemorating activists, let alone a strong, challenging woman like Helena Gutteridge.

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From the moment she arrived in Vancouver in 1911, Gutteridge had set to work to change the way things were. She was a relentless campaigner for women’s suffrage, a social reformer and active trade unionist, president of the local tailors’ union and the first woman to crack the executive of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council. In 1914, she established a successful cooperative to provide employment for impoverished women, producing toys, dolls and Christmas puddings. She was the driving force behind the province’s first minimum wage for women and led a courageous, spirited, four-month strike by women laundry workers in the fall of 1918.

Marriage and a move to a Fraser Valley arm curtailed her activism for a time, but the Depression re-ignited her fire. Her marriage over, she returned to Vancouver a strong supporter of the new CCF and in 1937, Gutteridge entered history as the first woman elected to city council, championing, among other causes, low-income housing. Demonstrating anew her commitment to the oppressed, she hired on as a welfare officer in a Japanese-Canadian internment settlement, quarreling at times with bureaucrats who criticized her for being too generous. At the age of 66, low on money, Gutteridge went to work for a time at a city cannery. Despite the physical toll, she told friends she appreciated the chance to learn about the harsh conditions faced by her fellow assembly-line workers. For the rest of her life, living on a small pension, she threw herself into the cause of international peace, rejecting attempts to brand her as a “red”. When she died at the age of 81, her passing was noticed, but barely.

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Now, thanks largely to Auntie Irene, the contribution to the cause by Helena Gutteridge will not be forgotten. The mayor was there, pointing out that “we continue her work in earnest at city hall”. Liberal MP Joyce Murray was there, along with four city councillors, reporters, and of course, members of our family. There was a fuss made over Auntie Irene. She was interviewed by the Vancouver Courier, providing her usual trenchant comments on the significance of Helena Gutteridge. “When she saw something that needed to be done, she rolled up her sleeves and did it,” she told the Courier’s Martha Perkins. “I admire the fact that she was so progressive. She looked at the slums and thought: ‘This shouldn’t be.’” To our pleased applause, she was singled out from the podium, and, at the end of the formalities, the mayor came over to say ‘hello’. Gregor Robertson was more than gracious, He sat down beside Auntie Irene, and the two engaged in a lively conversation both seemed to enjoy. After bantering that she didn’t know whether to call him Your Excellency, Your Worship or Gregor (she settled on ‘Gregor’), she reminded the mayor of Helena Gutteridge’s political work and her passion for social housing. “It was a big and sorry problem, which she just took on and brought the other councilors with her.”

His Worship told me later: “It was great to have a chat with her. It’s always a highlight to connect with elders who have seen this city and world transform.” Indeed, Auntie Irene is almost the last surviving member in our extended family who were part of the resolute generation that persevered through the Depression, World War Two, the Cold War and so much more. The toughest thing I ever faced was running out of dope at a be-in.

Born in Prince Rupert in 1922, she had a childhood of upheaval, moving from mine to mine, living in tents and log cabins, and one of tragedy, shooed into the kitchen at the age of nine, as her mother lay dying on the sofa. There were three elder brothers, Art, Verne and Ed, then Irene and young Freddie. Their life was all about hard work and survival in the toughest of conditions, similar to the lives of so many British Columbians, whose labour built this province. At last, ironically, just as the Depression began, there was permanent work for her father Alfred Nels Nelson and two of “the boys” at the Pioneer Gold Mine near Bralorne. No one got rich. It was the Depression, after all. But there was stability. Inevitably, perhaps, it did not last. In 1935, her father was diagnosed with silicosis. At 60, his life as a working miner was over, with little to show for it but a deadly disease.

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He took up chicken farming in the Fraser Valley. That’s where our families intertwined. My mother’s parents were trying to extract a living from a stone-strewn farm in nearby Aldergrove. She and Irene became lifelong friends. The bonds were further fastened when Irene’s brother Ed married my mother’s younger sister Greta. In January, 1948, Alfred Nels Nelson took his final short breath and was gone. Years later, Auntie Irene wrote, bitterly: “Miners have died before from silicosis, but these men weren’t my father. Some fifty years later, as I write this, I sit and cry, and it’s not just about the oxygen tent and the desperate last gasps and my not being there that night. It’s about the gold, the Christly useless gold (that’s his word, ‘Christly’) stashed away somewhere – in Ottawa at the Royal Mint I guess, and Fort Knox, Kentucky.”

Her upbringing and the stark injustices meted out to ordinary people led to a career that produced numerous historical essays on workers and women, plus, of course, her authoritative account of Helena Gutteridge, which was short-listed for both a BC Book Prize and the City of Vancouver Book Prize and, as mentioned, her moving story of her own immigrant family, Gold Dust On His Shirt. It is a book that cries out for a wider audience.

So, all hail Auntie Irene and her other persona, Irene Howard. When you are ninety-four and a half years old, just waking up to the breaking of another dawn is a big deal. But how gratifying to have had that special day, when we all paid court. Her smile could have melted armies. At times, it truly is A Wonderful Life.

As promised, here is her marvelous poem, a tribute to the working life of her Scandinavian father, published in her 91st year.

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