1906 streetcar strike — company lost the public-relations battle for the hearts and minds of the people

by Bruce Cherney (part 4 of 4)

Reverends Joseph Sparling, the principal of Wesley College, and William Patrick, the principal of Manitoba College, worked wonders in arbitrating the dispute between the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company (WERC) and its striking motormen and conductors. Due to their efforts, “the greatest and most exciting strike in the history of Winnipeg ... (ended) on Saturday afternoon (April 7, 1906),” reported the Morning 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.”

Fred Fay, the Detroit, Michigan, representative sent to Winnipeg to oversee the strike action by the Amalgamation of Steel and Electric Railway Employees’ of America, told 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.

“We understood that the men, who had been acting as strike breakers here,” said Fay, “intended going to Oakland, but I am glad to learn that their services will not be required in that city. There is now no city in our jurisdiction in which there is any trouble of any kind between men and employees.”

Fay’s statement about labour peace reigning across North America was only temporary as another streetcar strike, which was more bitter than in Winnipeg, erupted in November 1906 in Hamilton. In this case, Canadian authorities were rumoured to have ordered Fay out of the country, forcing him to take refuge in the American Consulate in Hamilton. But as the strike continued, the order was termed a “bluff” and Fay remained in Hamilton to direct the union effort.

As in Winnipeg, “We Walk” buttons were distributed, the strikers gained a great deal of public sympathy, strikebreakers were enlisted by the company and intense rioting raged on city streets. 

At first, the mayor, who expressed sympathy for the strikers, opposed calling in troops, but eventually relented at the request of the police chief who claimed he was unable to maintain order using the limited manpower available to him. 

Hamilton Mayor S.D. Biggar read out the Riot Act and then mounted militia followed by foot troops imported from Toronto charged demonstrators, injuring about 200 people, 50 severely — a harbinger of the charge by the Royal North West Mounted Police (now RCMP) into the crowds gathered on Main Street during the May-June 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. The Hamilton strike ended in December when the company agreed to union recognition, but not a requested  wage hike. 

An editorial in the Free Press on April 9 said the Winnipeg strike should not have been required in order for the company to come to an agreement with its employees. It chastised the WERC for not having been willing to go to arbitration and thus avoid the strike.

“The averting of the strike would have saved the city not only inconvenience and expense, but also scenes of violence most deplorable from every point of view ...

“It is regrettable that the terms do not include an arbitration agreement, but in the absence of that it (the company) ‘will be willing at all times to treat with its men or any committee formed by them on any subject in the interests of the company or its employees.’”

Of course, “any committee” does not in any way refer to dealing with an employees’ union, which the WERC management refused to recognize. 

The editorial said the public would have preferred an arbitration provision in “recognition of the fact that the public are vitally interested in the settlement of trouble arising between the Company and the men which threatened a strike. The street car service is a public franchise, and the public should have the right to have representatives of the public interest intervene, if necessary.”

The editorial continued by noting the main feature of the strike was “the manifest sympathy of the general public with the men, and the manner in which the men, by their orderly, law-abiding behavior, were careful not to forfeit that sympathy. That this general public sympathy was due to the refusal of the Company to arbitrate is unquestionable.”

In fact, the public support given to the strikers was undoubtedly a major factor in leading the management of the WERC to conclude their position was untenable. “We Walk,” the slogan shouted out and demonstrated by the public’s refusal to ride streetcars manned by strikebreakers, showed continuing the strike would only work to the company’s disadvantage — it had lost the public-relations battle for the hearts and minds of the people.  

This was amply demonstrated by one 81-year-old women who walked downtown to shop in the company of her daughter. Once they had finished their shopping, the daughter suggested they should take a streetcar home. The elderly lady asked if the strike had been settled. When the reply from her daughter was in the negative, the 81-year-old woman, despite her exhaustion, refused to step into a streetcar and instead started to walk home.

In his April 8 sermon, Rev. J.W. McMillan estimated the labour dispute cost each of the strikers $23 in lost wages and the company $40,000 in lost business. “Not a paltry loss on either side,” he added.

The group which learned the most from the 1906 streetcar strike was the business elite, which retrenched to prevent any further worker inroads. After the workers’ partial victory in the streetcar strike, other means to combat workers’ demands were developed. 

Less than a month after the streetcar operators and conductors walked out, a hard line was adopted by the management of the Vulcan Ironworks  against its striking employees. 

Vulcan was along the Canadian Pacific Railway’s mainline in Point Douglas at Sutherland Avenue and Maple Street North, and contained foundries as well as precision machine shops.

Vulcan owners Leonard R. Barrett and his brother, Edward G. Barrett, were extremely hostile to labour, professing a divine right to run the company without union interference. L.R. Barrett said, “God gave me this plant, and by God I’ll  run it the way I want to!”

Frustrated by weeks of futile negotiations, the plant’s moulders went on strike on May 18. Vulcan’s machinist and blacksmiths presented their own demands and issued an ultimatum calling upon the company to immediately reply. The workers were subsequently informed by management that the plant was closed. After the lock-out, the three unions set up a joint committee to negotiate with the company.

The company expressed willingness to discuss wage demands, but adamantly refused to hold talks with union representatives. Subsequently, Vulcan declared itself to be an “open shop” free from unions.

For the first time in Winnipeg’s history, the company then enlisted the help of the court and obtained an injunction against the striking workers, prohibiting them from picketing in the vicinity of the plant. 

The court ruling removed a very public display of solidarity which may have united Winnipeggers to the workers’ cause as was the case during the streetcar strike. For the company, the absence of a picket line meant the unhindered passage of strikebreakers into the iron works and the company being able to maintain “business as usual.” 

Meanwhile, sympathy strikes ordered by union organizers for the Northern Iron Works and the Manitoba Iron Works were quickly settled with workers gaining a 2.5-cent an hour wage increase. The management of the two iron works sought a quick resolution to the disputes with their workers in order to fulfill pressing contract obligations. 

Two months into the strike, the Winnipeg Trades Council held a meeting during which a motion was passed declaring Vulcan as “unfair to organized labour.” The motion resulted from Vulcan’s refusal to negotiate with its striking workers as well as the company’s importation of strikebreakers from Eastern Canada and the United States. 

By the end of July, the strike was over with victory firmly in the hands of the company.

“The unions had been thoroughly whipped and the men found themselves competing with strikebreakers to regain their old jobs,” wrote David Jay Bercuson in his 1990 book, Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike.

Bercuson said labour had been licked in the shop and at the gate, “but the greatest defeat which proved to be the hardest to follow came at the hands of the court.”

In June, the company accused a handful of strikers of breaking the court injunction and initiated a lawsuit for $50,000 in damages. Vulcan accused the workers of initiating a conspiracy to injure their business by picketing, boycotting and unfair listing to bring them to union terms. The case dragged on for three long years. When the court made its ruling, the workers were found to be peacefully picketing but were declared a common-law nuisance. The judgement against the men was $500.

“The Vulcan Iron Works strike-lockout of 1906 set a pattern for labour-management relations in the city’s contract shops that was to be followed for the next thirteen years,” wrote Bercuson. “As with the streetcar strike both sides wanted a showdown; but in this case the union was not yet strong enough to take on this most obstinate of employers and suffered humiliating defeat.”

The magnitude of the streetcar strikers’ success could not be repeated in the resulting hostile working environment. In particular, Vulcan continued its pressure against the unionization of its workers. “This is a free country,” said Vulcan president E.G. Barrett, “and as far as we are concerned the day will never come when we will have to take orders from any union.”

With the help of the court, Vulcan was able to defeat worker strikes in 1906, 1917 and 1918.

Following a long period of festering tensions between employers and employees — including between Vulcan and the Metal Trades Council — hired special constables, police and the militia would again clash with crowds filling Winnipeg’s downtown streets during the General Strike of May-June 1919.