1906 streetcar strike — “We walk” declared Winnipeggers in support of the strikers

by Bruce Cherney

The mob’s anger had been approaching the boiling point for hours and then went beyond when they saw the source of their malice coming down the streetcar rails. Shortly after 8 o’clock in the evening on March 29, 1906, they stopped the Higgins Avenue streetcar in its tracks and attempted to set it on fire. The men of No. 3 Fire Hall on Maple Street answered the alarm, arrived on the scene and quickly doused the flames. 

But the over 1,000 people on the street were not to be denied. Someone produced an axe which was taken up by a “young hercules,” who proceeded to swing it with grim determination against the wooden shell of the streetcar. Through 20 minutes of exertion, he had reduced the streetcar to a wreck on wheels.

“To Main Street!” someone shouted out from amid the boisterous demonstrators. The cry was enthusiastically taken up and eager hands pushed the wreck onto the avenue where it was switched onto the main line. Another effort hurled the wreck toward the Canadian Pacific Railway subway near Higgins and Main. As the screeching noise of metal grating on metal echoed against the subway’s walls, the crippled streetcar lurched forward. By this time, more than 4,000 people  had been attracted by the clarion call of the carnage and were on-hand to lend either their verbal or physical support. 

The many hotel, street and CPR lights lining the route provided illumination for the crowd’s  activities and exposed to them uniformed police who had arrived to quell the pandemonium unfolding in the heart of Winnipeg. But the combined strength of the mob and the policemen’s lesser numbers made any effort to restore order futile, despite law enforcement officers periodically charging into the demonstrators with batons at the ready.

The riotous behaviour should have been expected.

“Crowds thronged Main Street all afternoon and the expectation of trouble was written on every face,” reported the Morning Telegram on March 30. “The sidewalks on either side of the thoroughfare were almost impassible from 2 o’clock onward ... a stranger might easily have thought that Winnipeg was celebrating some great fete or the day was public.”

What the “stranger” might not have realized in the early afternoon was that it was the first day of the nine-day 1906 Winnipeg Electric Railway Company strike. And any belief he may have had that some great fete was on-hand quickly evaporated by nightfall as one car burned, another was wrecked by the axe wielder and 12 others sustained damage.  

While the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 is better known, the 1906 strike was every bit as intense, although it involved significantly fewer strikers. The damage wrought in 1906 was not by strikers — they picketed peacefully — but by ordinary Winnipeggers to show support for the striking streetcar motormen and conductors. Echoing public sentiment, even the prominent local newspapers of the day expressed the belief that the grievances leading to the strike were well-founded.

The fact that their everyday transportation service was disrupted did not deter Winnipeggers from coming out in support of the strikers from Division 99 of the Street Railway Employees’ Union, who had been organized eight years earlier. People sported badges declaring “We Walk,” and refused to use Winnipeg Electric Railway Company (WERC) streetcars.

The slogan “We Walk” was not unique to Winnipeg, as it had been the motto during 1902 streetcar strikes in Richmond, Virginia, and  Waterbury, Connecticut.

While supposedly in the process of negotiating in good faith with their employees, the company principles, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann (they also owned the Canadian Northern Railway), had behind the scenes hired strikebreakers from Eastern Canada and American private detectives from the Thiel Detective Service Co., an international agency with an office in the Union Bank Building in Winnipeg managed by J.J. Brown. 

In the days leading up to the strike, company directors also harassed union leaders on the job, suspended a number of them and fired the union’s top officials — president T.F. Robbins, secretary F.E. Wager, and executive members A.E. Parker and A.W. Waller. 

Union officials also accused the company of union-breaking when it printed 1,000 application forms it wanted employees to sign, stating: “That I agree, if employed, by the company that I will not join or remain a member of any street railway employees’ union.”

Despite this form, the company denied “that any men have been dismissed because they were members of a union.”

The company said Robbins and Wager were dismissed because “the two men behaved in a very objectionable and insulting manner to the directors” during a meeting between them and three union officials. The official statement further intimated that if Robbins and Wager had their way, the railway would be in their complete control rather than in the hands of the directors.

The company made its case by saying that it had not dismissed Finlay McRae, who was the third union representative at the meeting, because he “conducted himself in a proper manner throughout the proceedings, and the directors had no objections to make to the way in which he presented the men’s claims.”

The WERC statement was typical of the paternalistic attitude then prevalent among Winnipeg’s business elite. In his book, Winnipeg: An Illustrated History, Alan Artibise wrote that employers viewed labour as a commodity to be bought and sold as cheaply as possible, and most employers were reluctant to yield up their “master and man” relationship to negotiate terms with workers collectively.

Winnipeg was in the midst of a lengthy economic boom and the business elite wanted to keep the “good times” rolling along (the good times ended in 1913). In 1906, Winnipeg was the gateway to the West, a centre for railway transportation, immigration, financial institutions, the grain trade, wholesale companies and manufacturing.

“You have no idea of the enthusiasm people have here about the prospects,” wrote Methodist minister and future Labour MP J.S. Woodsworth.

Politically, workers were virtually powerless as Winnipeg’s government machinery was controlled by the commercial elite who essentially ran the city to their own benefit. 

As a result, the elite frowned upon any challenge to their economic and political monopoly, so they fought tooth-and-nail against any perceived threat to their power — the strike of 1906 was such a threat. Still, there was a measure of difference in the streetcar strike compared to other labour disputes of the era. Support was so widespread that it transcended social class and many normally not friendly to labour — though by no means all — sided with the strikers, which was an indication of how just was their cause.

After the company issued its statement, union membership countered by claiming that the two men were dismissed not for insubordination but because they were important union officials.

In the afternoon of March 27, the executive committee of the streetcar union went to company headquarters in the Montgomery Building, 218 and 220 Portage Ave. (Portage and Notre Dame), where they met WERC officials — manager Wilfred Phillips, directors William Whyte, Hugh Sutherland and F. Morton Morse, and roadmaster Richard Knox. 

The union officials were ushered into the boardroom where they gave their demands. The response was icy as the company officials said they had nothing further to say to them. When W.H. Reeves, president of the Trades and Labour Council, attempted to speak, the company officials told him that it was none of his business.

“The men were treated in a most unfair manner by the officials of the company, who acted in a high-handed manner,” commented Fred Fay (sometimes spelled Fea in media reports. although the correct spelling is Fay), the Detroit, Michigan, representative of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees’ of America, “There is nothing left for us to do but submit the report of the executive committee to the employees when they meet together at midnight tomorrow.”

Fay and others had earlier met with Winnipeg Mayor Thomas Sharpe to discuss the negotiations, but the mayor did not reveal his position, although he said if asked he would be prepared to act as a peacemaker. Sharpe had even suggested the conflicting parties go to arbitration, but the company officials refused.

“If the worst comes to the worst (a strike) we shall then probably ask Mr. Sharpe to act as an arbitrator with a view to a speedy settlement, but otherwise we have nothing to do,” said Fay. “We are doing all we can to avert a strike, but if the officials refuse to give us any satisfaction I don’t quite see how the men can do otherwise.”

The Manitoba Free Press on March 28 commented that the public expectation had been that the company and workers would address contentious issues during the meeting, but the meeting was “extremely brief” and “no discussion of any kind” took place.

WERC manager Phillips said the case for the company had been unfairly reported. “It has been represented that practically no concession had yet been made by them in response to the representations made by the employees,” he told the media. “The fact is that the company has conceded everything except two points. The new points of which we are not prepared to make concession is in relation to the increase in wages and the recognition of the union.”

Unfortunately, these two points were the concessions uppermost in the minds of the union executive and WERC employees, and would form the basis of any subsequent labour disruption.

Blissfully optimistic — or intentionally ignoring the warning signs — Phillips said over a week earlier that “there is no danger of a street car strike in Winnipeg.” 

Yet, the company’s subsequent actions gave every indication that they knew trouble was brewing.

Just before labour tensions escalated, it was rumoured that the WERC was hiring strikebreakers. When journalists asked if it was true that up to 100 men from Montreal were on their way to Winnipeg, Phillips refused to reply, neither confirming or denying the persistent reports of such company activity arriving by telegram from Eastern Canada.

As strikebreakers were being hired in Montreal, Hugh Sutherland, a WERC director, said company officials would not go outside of Winnipeg for  streetcar motormen and conductors unless it was absolutely necessary.

But as early as March 27, there were confirmed reports that strikebreakers were on their way from Montreal to Winnipeg. Representatives of the WERC were reported to have been in Montreal for days prior  to the meeting with the Winnipeg union representatives, recruiting ex-employees of the Montreal Street Railway as strikebreakers.

“The feeling of the men on the cars throughout the city is hot for a strike,” reported the Free Press on March 27, 1906, “and they are incensed at the treatment accorded their representatives.”

The feelings of the WERC workers, the firings and the presence of Fay gave every indication a strike was imminent. The presence of Fay should have provided the final clue to the WERC directors about what was to happen. Fay was widely known as the international union’s go-to-guy in the event of strike actions, and was on the scene in order to prepare for other streetcar employee clashes with management across North America.  

By 3:30 a.m. on March 29, the 230 members of the local union had voted to go on strike. The strikers’ statement released at 4 a.m. said: “The fight is on. A strike is declared. Nothing was left to us but this step or else to renounce all the principles that constitute manhood. We will conduct the strike in a legitimate, law-abiding and honorable manner. Whether we win or lose it will be done honestly.”

Reeve declared that the vote in favour of a strike was due to “five thick-headed numb-skulls calling themselves a board of directors.”

The WERC’s official statement said the company paid workers’ wages that were “higher than anywhere else east of the Rockies.” The company supported its position by publishing comparable wages from other cities, and belittled the strikers’ demands as excessive because “the work is not skilled labor.” The WERC added that the men should be happy to have full-time work at a time when many jobs in Winnipeg were intermittent.

The company also said: “A very important point is that in Winnipeg one-half of the cost of a man’s uniform is paid by the company in the first six months of his employee. After six months free uniforms are given. There is no other company east or west of the Rockies which treats its men as liberally in this respect.”

T.D.M. Osborne, when moving a sympathy vote for the strikers by the Trades and Labour Council, said he thought it was unnecessary to bring “lawless men (strikebreakers) into the city,” and appealed to Winnipeggers to publicly express the belief that labour men should not be treated in such a way.

After the strike was announced, The Voice, the local labour newspaper, told Winnipeggers to “walk and walk till they (company officials) arbitrate ... Let the mayor and city council and all public bodies insist that the company be made to feel its responsibility and accept arbitration.”

The labour newspaper said “there were over a dozen clauses in the proposed agreement” submitted to the WERC, but only a few were in dispute, such as recognition of the street railway employee's union, an increase in wages and a system of choice in runs according to seniority.

At the time, wages for streetcar operators in Winnipeg were 20-cents an hour for the first six months of employment, 21-cents an hour in the next six months, 22-cents an hour in the second year, 25-cents an hour in the third year and after. The streetcar operators worked a 10-hour, six-day a week schedule.

During the same period, wages in Chicago were 23-cents, 24-cents and 25-cents an hour, and in Pittsburgh 23-cents, 24-cents and 25-cents an hour. In Detroit, streetcar operators received a flat rate of 23.5-cents an hour, which meant a new employee received that same wage as senior operators.

Electric streetcars had become a fixture in Eastern Canadian and major U.S. cities by the time the first electric car operated by the Street Railway Company controlled by Albert W. Austin began plying Winnipeg’s streets on January 27, 1891. When Austin’s contract with the city wasn’t renewed, the WERC began operating its electric streetcar system on September 5, 1892. By 1906, the WERC had a monopoly on streetcar service in Winnipeg and in the municipalities then not part of the city, such as St. James, Kildonan and St. Boniface. 

The company also enjoyed a monopoly for supplying electrical power to the city through its Assiniboine Steam Plant and was in the process of building a power station at Pinawa, which opened just after the strike on June 13.

In the era before government-run transit and power, this monopoly contributed to public resentment, as many felt the city was being run solely for the benefit of the WERC. The resentment boiled over on March 29 and March 30, 1906.

When the expected strike did erupt, it was the presence of out-of-town strikebreakers and detectives that gained the greatest animosity of the majority of Winnipeggers. The fact that these strikebreakers had been sworn-in by a local magistrate as special police officers added to the simmering rage felt by strike sympathizers who awaited any small spark to ignite their wrath. The spark came when armed strikebreakers appeared in streetcars running down the city’s main lines.

When he was informed that 100 outside “special constables” were sworn-in by Provincial Police Magistrate Alexander McMicken, Mayor Sharpe expressed his disapproval and informed the media he would not recognize their authority.

After being assaulted by an American special constable named A.G. Cardwell during the strike, Sharpe commented: “We have no place for such fellows as that in Winnipeg. That game will not work here and the sooner the strike breakers know it the better.”

McMicken admitted to the Free Press that he had sworn-in the constables at the request of the WERC and not civic authorities. He said he was unaware the men were Americans from the Thiel agency, claiming the men were sworn-in at the company’s request to only protect WERC facilities.

(Next week: part 2)