1906 streetcar strike — mayor fired the Thiel detectives and had police chief hire special constables

by Bruce Cherney (part 3)

The Manitoba Free Press said American Thiel Detective Agency strikebreaker A.G. Cardwell’s brutal acts in the first days of the 1906 streetcar strike was just “one of the many actions on the part of those imported strikebreakers, which have gone a long way towards exasperating the populace and provoking acts of violence.”

An absurd Winnipeg Electric Railway Company (WERC) statement issued after the assault on Mayor Thomas Sharpe said Cardwell had “apparently lost his head and mistook the mayor for a person attempting to obstruct the passage of the car.”

The company pledged in the statement to discharge anyone acting improperly to the public.

The Free Press reported “the Thiel men” drove streetcars through the crowd at top speed, endangering women and children who formed a large percentage of the people gathered to witness the day’s events.

“There were innumerable narrow escapes and each one of these only excited the crowd to greater demonstrations of violence. The rowdy spirits on board seemed to be enjoying the fun, and ran their cars back and forth repeatedly.”

In the police court, demonstrators caught taking part in the violence were being arraigned even as the action on the street continued. In the space of an hour and a half, Winnipeg Police Magistrate Thomas Mayne Daly dealt with a number of cases, meting out fines of $5 and $10 and remanding others facing charges for a later special session.

Thomas Cherry, a young man of 19 years, was fined $5 for throwing a stone through a streetcar window, while Tom Miller, who’s only crime was “hooting at police” clearing the crowd, was fined $10 and accused by the magistrate of being a “hoodlum.” Daly said his actions alienated the sympathy of the better class of citizens from the striking employees of the WERC. Apparently the magistrate had no sympathy for “hoodlums,” but as a member of the “better class of citizens,” implied by his comments that he at least tacitly supported the strikers.

The Voice said that the “city was as near the brink of a terrible tragedy as foolish men and actions can take it. As it was the city was disgraced with an armed force, machine gun and loaded rifles, bayonets at the charge, on Main Street.

“The officials seem to have lost their reasoning powers, their sense of proportion of things, and nearly precipitated a bloody slaughter by introducing the military instead of a hose wagon to a disorderly scene ...

“With an excited mayor, a force of men with rifles loaded ... and a dense crowd on all sides, he was calling for a massacre.”

Mayor Sharpe was severely criticized by The Voice for reading out the Riot Act and calling in troops. But Member of the Legislative Assembly, Dr. S.W. McInnis, publicly  defended the mayor’s actions. He said the mayor had done the best he could under the conditions. 

“It was a matter of keen regret throughout the province that the necessity arose for reading of the Riot Act, and that such a slur should have been cast on the fair name of Winnipeg,” he added.

Criticism of the mayor was at least partially unfair, since Sharpe continually showed a measure of sympathy toward the strikers and intense disapproval of the foreign “specials.” Even labour organizer Fred Fay looked to the mayor to intervene with WERC management on the behalf of workers in order to resolve the strike.

Still, Sharpe continually pressured the company to maintain full streetcar service in the city, which the WERC found was only possible using strikebreakers. And for such an order to be effective, the mayor had to guarantee to the company that the city’s streets would be safe without using American special constables.

A Free Press editorial on March 31 commented that the mayor called out the troops, who were a “disciplined force” led by “capable and clear-headed officers” in preference to hiring more “inexperienced” special constables. 

The newspaper editorial said by getting the demonstrators under control, the mayor was removing the pretense used by company officials that their own force of special constables was needed to protect WERC property. 

Yet, Sharpe would eventually also hire his own “specials.”

The troops were used by Sharpe as a restraint to prevent strikebreakers and the mob from physically attacking each other. 

There were no reports of the soldiers assaulting citizens, although one incident did involve a soldier and a strikebreaker. In this case, the strikebreaker sought safety from the mob by attempting to go behind the line of soldiers, but was repulsed by the tip of a sword blade placed on his chest. It was said the mob then attacked the strikebreaker as the soldiers remained in their formation and looked on.

Writing “to the people,” the military authorities urged citizens to keep away from “any streets on which rioting is likely to take place

“While every precaution will be taken — should the deplorable necessity to fire occur, and be ordered by the civil authorities — unless all keep away who are not desirous  of rioting, innocent people are likely to  be injured. This applies to a very great extent to men, women and children actuated by curiosity.”

In fact, once Mayor Sharpe read out the Riot Act, the troops had official approval to fire on rioters.

The troops were on duty for some 40 hours until April 1 and then dismissed by the mayor.

On March 31, special constables were hired and sworn in by the city Magistrate Daly to protect WERC property. The only difference between these constables and the Thiel agents was that none of them were Americans, which was done intentionally to remove a strong point of contention among the civilian demonstrators. 

Mayor Sharpe said he instructed Magistrate Daly to only swear-in constables approved by Police Chief John McRae who were “British subjects.” Apparently some of the men had stepped aside when they were asked if they were British subjects, and as such did not join the ranks of the new constables. Questions rose as to whether the men who stepped aside were remnants of the Thiel detectives imported by the WERC from the U.S.

The mayor’s actions did establish a dangerous precedent, which was followed in the May-June 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, resulting in unruly, armed  and essentially untrained local “specials” directly contributing to outbreaks of violence. 

Mayor Sharpe’s actions also initiated the belief among labour groups that the city would act in the best interests of employers when it came down to a showdown with their workers. 

“This did not mean that a concerted campaign against trade unions was about to be launched, only that if labour challenged any of the essential components of the municipal-industrial relationship, it would draw the wrath of both,” wrote David Jay Bercuson in his book, Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike (1990).

Whatever the motives attributed to the mayor, he was successful in restoring peace and the strike’s direction was turned toward a reconciliation between the streetcar company and its workers   over the course of the succeeding week. People still refused to ride the streetcars while the strike continued, but they no longer were involved in physical confrontations with the strikebreakers. 

It has been said by some historians that the mayor’s actions lessened the strength  of the union when dealing with the WERC, but subsequent negotiations show that the strength of the public’s refusal to ride the company’s streetcars was more of a determining factor in the labour dispute’s outcome.  

Also assisting the return to peace was an official statement issued by Trades and Labor Council president W.H. Reeve on March 30: “From the inception of the strike it has been the earnest endeavor of all concerned, whether directly or indirectly, that no infraction of the law should occur.”

Reeve’s statement urged all union men and sympathizers with the strike to refrain from violence. Actually, the strikers had not participated in any of the clashes between the demonstrators, authorities and strikebreakers, spending their time peacefully picketing.

Rev. Charles William Gordon, a famous author of the era under the pen name Ralph Connor, was seen anxiously hurrying down the street among the demonstrators by a Free Press reporter on March 30. Gordon was a member of the Ministerial Association that was attempting to bring a resolution to the strike. The reporter asked the priest and author his opinion of the violence. 

“It seems a strange thing to me,” Gordon replied, “that reasonable men cannot settle their differences without the club. It seems to me that there must be right on both sides, but as I said before I do not fully understand the trouble. At least someone is on the wrong. The club, however, cannot settle the question. To forsake reason and resort to the club is a retrograde step. It is a lapse into primitive savagery. Strong public opinion should be brought to bear on the question.” 

McInnis said Manitoba Attorney-General Colin Campbell would be introducing compulsory arbitration legislation in the next session of the legislature to resolve future labour disputes. Unfortunately, such a measure would not be in place to help bring an end to the existing strike.

By the third morning of the strike, Winnipeg’s streets were peaceful and no attempt was made to disrupt the running of the cars that were still  loaded with armed policemen, detectives and strikebreakers. 

“All Winnipeg walked to work again yesterday,” reported the Free Press on March 31, “the situation of the Street Car Company, so far as service was concerned, being a little worse than it was Thursday .... when the first car left the barn it was with the  purpose of attempting to keep up an appearance of working the system, rather than with the hope of doing any real business.”

Streetcar motormen, who had arrived in the city as strikebreakers imported from Montreal, told the newspaper there was a lack of reliable men to operate the fleet of streetcars, resulting in few cars plying their regular routes.

The Free Press reported on April 4 that streetcar service had improved slightly with the company claiming 30 cars were operating, but few people were observed riding the cars. “Occasionally one (streetcar) would be seen in the south end of the city (where Winnipeg’s elite resided) with a good load of citizens, but in the (working-class) north end the people seemed more inclined to trust to their feet.”

During the lull, the newspaper’s reporters asked the public which side they supported in the labour dispute, with the majority replying in favour of the strikers.

“The cost of living in this city,” said one of those interviewed, who was apparently well-versed in the reasons behind the strike, “is probably higher than in any other city on the continent in which street cars are operated. Rent, heat, and light are high in Winnipeg, and the general expense of living is high, so that although the men of the Winnipeg system may be paid on the average about as much as is paid in certain American cities, there still remains the difference in the cost of living to be provided for. I fancy that it is a general sentiment of the city that the company might justly make a slight increase in wages, especially in the case of men who are serving with the company in their first and second years, when wages are from 20 to 22 cents per hour.”

He said paying younger workers a higher wage would be “an act of real justice.”

Although there were no instances of boisterous actions by people on the street by this time, lawyer Horatio V. Lyon was accosted by Constable Ernest Geiser while simply crossing Main Street opposite city hall. Lyon said he had not uttered a word and was within 10 metres of crossing the street when a constable called out, “Arrest him!”

Lyon was taken to the police station “in the rough hands of two policemen.” At the station, he was deprived of his watch and chain, his money and private papers. But a discussion arose behind-the-scenes which resulted in the lawyer being released, although a summons to appear the next morning was issued to him. 

Lyon was later told the summons would be revoked, but this was unsatisfactory to the lawyer. Lyon issued his own summons for the arrest of Geiser and the two policemen who took him to the station “before five thousand on-lookers.”

When Lyon presented his case against Geiser in police court a few days later, the presiding magistrate dismissed the charges as frivolous. 

With the lull in Winnipeg, the violence was transferred to St, Boniface. On the evening of April 2, a car was attacked by a crowd of 300 people who hurled missiles that shattered windows and broke woodwork. Subsequently, the WERC applied  to St. Boniface authorities for police protection otherwise the cars would not run  across the Red River from Winnipeg into the community.

Besides the damage to body and property, what became apparent was that the strike had created deep divisions within the community. WERC officials were especially feeling the animosity levelled against them from nearly every quarter.

“The Street Railway Company is making a huge mistake if it is throwing away in dogged resistance to the reasonable measures the golden moments which might be utilized to make terms with its men,” said an editorial in the Telegram, which called for acceptance of arbitration under the mediation of Dr. William Patrick and Dr. Joseph Sparling of the Ministerial Association.

MLA Robert Rogers, the minister of public works in the Rodmond Roblin provincial government and a firm believer in public ownership of essential services, was in Toronto during the strike and sent a telegram to Mayor Sharpe urging him to convince the WERC president to tell his directors to meet the strikers “with a view of an immediate settlement.”

Sharpe relayed Rogers’ message and issued a statement to the effect that the directors were prepared to deal directly with their striking employees, although little was resolved until the two men from the Ministerial Association were brought into the picture. Reverends Joseph Sparling, the principal of Wesley College, and William Patrick, the principal of Manitoba College, were able to get the company officials to accept their arbitration and then relayed the demands made by the strikers.

Initially, WERC officials refused the mayor’s requests that they agree to arbitration, “because as far as they were concerned they had nothing to arbitrate,” according to a March 31 Free Press report.

If proper protection was provided, the officials told the mayor, they were prepared to run all the streetcars in their fleet.

Yet, the mood of the public finally caused the WERC officials to enter into negotiations with their striking workers.

A factor in helping to end the strike was the scheduled royal visit of Prince Arthur of Connaught. He was to arrive on a Monday and the strike was settled on the previous Saturday. It was better image for the city to have the people lining the streets to cheer the prince than having demonstrators throwing bricks at streetcars.

The ministers met with the strikers between 5 and 6 p.m. on April 2 to discuss resolving the strike, and then with the WERC directors between 8 o’clock and midnight to iron out an agreement.

Doctors of Divinity Patrick and Sparling issued a statement saying “as a result of the conference, the committee have been authorized to present a number of proposals to the men (strikers). The committee are hopeful that these resolutions are of such character as may produce a friendly settlement of the question in dispute.”

The proposals were placed before Fay, head of the international union of streetcar employees, at the Leyland Hotel.

On April 4, the two ministers met first with the strikers and then the company, although neither party would discuss the details of the negotiations with the media.

When the company directors were asked by the Free Press when regular streetcar service would be restored, they “could not say, as it was left to the discretion of the manager (Phillips).”

The newspaper claimed the WERC did not have enough strikebreakers to man all the streetcars and none of the cars were running after seven o’clock in the evening.

The last conference to decide the fate of the strike was held at noon Saturday, April 7, in  the Friendship Hall in the Silvester-Willson Building. In a unanimous vote, the strikers agreed to accept the WERC’s terms.

“Prior to the meeting none of the members of the (union) executive felt certain of what might occur — and the unanimity of the decision was in the highest degree gratifying to all,” reported the Free Press.

“As the eminent clergymen, who had been so actively engaged in negotiations rose to leave the room after completing their labors, part of the delegates rose to cheer, part united in signing a rousing chorus: ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow,’ and part clapped their hands and stomped their feet, in signification of profound satisfaction with the amicable settlement of the difficulty.”

“The greatest and most exciting strike in the history of Winnipeg came to a very happy termination on Saturday afternoon,” reported the Telegram, “much to the relief of the directors of the street railway company, the men concerned in the dispute, and, by no means least of all, to the satisfaction of the public in general. It was a weary nine days for all concerned.”

By Saturday afternoon at 4 o’clock on April 7, full service was restored with the former strikers manning the streetcars. Early in the afternoon, a streetcar “was sent north,” according to the Free Press, “to bring in a party of motormen and conductors from the remote parts of the city to serve the balance of the afternoon and evening. On its return trip, the car bearing banners on the front and rear, announcing the termination of the trouble, was greeted with waving handkerchiefs from hundreds of windows all along the route, and thousands of pedestrians along Main street, halted to watch the car on its progress to the (streetcar) barns (at the corner of Assiniboine and Main).” 

It was reported the people cheered when the oldest motorman brought the St. Charles streetcar down Main Street and then proceeded down Portage Avenue. The cheers continued as each streetcar passed the throng gathered to witness the restoration of service.

The first cars out of the barn carried few passengers, but as the day wore on, “the rush began,” the Free Press reported. “The cars filled up and by 5 o’clock ladies were hanging on the straps and men were glad to get a chance to stand on the lowest step and cling to the hand rails.”

Patrons of the St. Charles line, who due to the distance their neighbourhood was from the city were among the most inconvenienced and either had to walk, bicycle or receive car rides into the city during the strike, hung out flags from windows and came out to cheer when the first car passed on April 7, signalling the resumption of regular streetcar service.

Even Dr. Sparling, who along with Dr. Patrick was instrumental in resolving the labour dispute, could not resist taking a trip by streetcar to Main Street in order to observe the public reaction to the strike’s end.

Under the terms of the agreement, the motormen and conductors  accepted a one-cent an hour increase instead of the requested two-cents (they had earlier in the year received a one-cent wage hike).  

The wage scale agreed upon was:

• 21 cents per hour for the first six months.

• 22 cents per hour for the second six months.

• 23 cents per hour for the second year.

• 26 cents per hour for the third and successive years.

The wages came into effect on April 7, 1906, “by order of the board — (Sgd) W. Phillips, manager.”

Furthermore, the management agreed that all streetcar runs were to be completed as near as possible within 10 hours, and employees were also to receive free transportation on company lines.

But official recognition of their union by the company was delayed. Instead, a clause in the agreement said the WERC must not discriminate against union men and the union was allowed to solicit memberships from newly-hired employees.

“The Street Railway Employee’s Union has indeed done well,” according to a Voice editorial.

A Telegram editorial said that it was hoped the settlement would “prove the foundation of a permanent peace between the company and the men. Winnipeg is making history these days. It is important that her phenomenal growth be impended as little as possible between capital and labor ...

“Let us forget the heat and bitterness of the strike ... remembering only its lessons.”

“We deeply appreciate the support given to the men by the people of Winnipeg and by the daily papers,” said Fred Fay, the Detroit, Michigan, representative of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees’ of America, overseeing the strike action in Winnipeg. 

He said all the dailies gave a “fair” account of the strike, “and we never could have done anything unless the people had been with us.”

Fay also indicated to the media that a streetcar strike imminent in Oakland, California, had been averted due to news reaching the American city that a settlement in Winnipeg had been achieved.



(Next week: part 4 of 4)