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.