1919 Winnipeg General Strike — workers called for “living wage” and right to collective bargaining


by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

Ninety years ago, Canada’s most famous outbreak of labour unrest created such widespread panic that it was feared to be the first stage of a Bolshevik-style revolution that would sweep across North America. Of course, this was far from the case, but the overthrow of the Tsar  Nicholas II and the advent of the Soviet revolution in Russia had scared politicians and the business elite to the point that they saw “Reds” lurking around every corner.  

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 saw some 35,000 workers leave their jobs and over one-million working days lost. At the time of the strike, the city’s population was 200,000.

The strike was not a Bolshevik revolution, but  an open “revolt” against poor working conditions, the need for a “living wage,” as well as a call to uphold the collective bargaining right of workers.

The strike can be said to have been fought along deep social, economic and political divisions that evolved throughout the course of the city’s then brief existence. 

“Behind the strike are great economic and social evils,” claimed the Western Labor News (June 17, 1919), the newspaper of the strikers. “Clubbing pedestrians or shooting down men on parade or denouncing foreigners or deporting British ‘agitators’ will not remove the causes which makes strikes necessary.”

The events of 1919 are now mostly a faint memory, occasionally discussed in history classes, but there is no denying the impact the strike exerted in later years over the city, the province and the nation — even outside the borders of Canada.

At the time that the seeds of the strike were being sown, the First World War had just ended and labour was going on the offensive to expand the trade union movement and regain losses in real income caused by inflation that had run rampant during the war. In fact, workers had been steadily losing buying power in Winnipeg since 1910. The cost of living had increased by 75 per cent and real wages by only 18 per cent in the period from 1913 to 1919. The average construction worker earned about $900 a year, while the minimum needed for a family to survive in Winnipeg, as cited in studies undertaken at the time, was $1,500.

The validity of grievances expressed by workers is hard to dispute — they worked long hours for low wages and lived in appalling conditions in enclaves that were for the most part ghettos on the other side of the tracks, isolated from the rest of Winnipeg by the CPR lines, creating the North End in which the factories and plants were located.

A report by the chief health inspector for Winnipeg in January 1919 found “that 1,013 families are living in 361 houses where only 361 families should reside.”

Historian Gregory S. Kealey called this period the “Canadian Labour Revolt,” as worker unrest swept through Canadian cities. Strikes were called in support of the Winnipeg strikers in Calgary, Lethbridge, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Brandon, Fort William and Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) and Toronto. These strikes were short in duration, but a more serious labour action in Vancouver, during which 10,000 workers walked off the job, commenced on June 3. The Vancouver strike lasted longer than the Winnipeg General Strike, but was for the  most part ineffective.

“Typical of employers was a view of labour as a commodity to be bought as cheaply as possible, “ wrote Alan Artibise in Winnipeg: An Illustrated History. “Most employers were reluctant to yield up a paternalistic ‘master and man’ relationship and negotiate terms with workers collectively.”

In March 1919, 47 delegates from Winnipeg were sent to a convention of Western Canada labour leaders in Calgary. The Calgary convention is a landmark in Canadian history because it was used to create the concept of the One Big Union (OBU), with the purpose of organizing a movement of skilled and unskilled workers under the umbrella of a single negotiating entity. It was argued at the time that the One Big Union could be used to achieve new political and economic strength for workers.

Unfortunately for labour leaders, the Calgary convention also invoked suspicion of the “Red Menace,” when resolutions were passed calling for the sending of fraternal greetings to the new leaders of Soviet Russia. Such fears, added to the lack of communication between opposing factions, prevented a resolution to the Winnipeg General Strike that followed a few weeks later.

But, it wasn’t just business interests that fomented the fear of Bolshevism with the call for the OBU; the Canadian government also judged the movement by this standard. The Union government of prime minister Robert Borden objected to criticism of its continued policy of orders-in-council, incarceration of political prisoners and military intervention in Russia. When labour protested against the arbitrary abuse of civil rights, the government reasoned it had to be crushed as seditious.

Alfred J. Andrews, a prominent member of Winnipeg’s legal community and a founding member of the Citizens Committee of 1,000, was appointed by Acting Justice Minister Arthur Meighen as the department's representative in Winnipeg, and was charged “to represent the department and examine any evidence that may be available touching on the conduct of the principal instigators of the present unfortunate industrial disturbance with a view of ascertaining whether or not the activities of these men is of a seditious or treasonable character and to advise what should be done.”

Members of the Citizens Committee of 1000 at a banquet.

Throughout the course of the strike, it was instructions from Ottawa that intensified the animosity between labour and the authorities. The Borden government even sent secret police to Winnipeg to penetrate the ranks of the strikers.

Meighen, an MP from Portage la Prairie, was particularly active in investigating the strikers, looking for the presence of Bolshevik revolutionaries and “foreigners” inciting the strikers. 

Senator Gideon Robertson, the federal minister of labour, told striking federal workers that anyone who didn’t return to work would be fired. 

Meighen and Robertson met with the Citizens Committee during the opening days of the work stoppage. When Meighen was approached for a similar meeting with the Strike Committee, he refused, saying he didn’t want to be associated with “Bolsheviks.”

Labour never forgot the role played by Robertson and Meighen during the strike. When Robertson visited Winnipeg in 1932 — he was then the labour minister in the R.B. Bennett government — 6,000 workers met him at the rail station with banners proclaiming, “A Faker Comes to Town.”

Part of the myth of the Winnipeg General Strike is that it was instigated by the “alien” element of the city’s population, that is, immigrants from Eastern Europe, primarily from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as Ukrainians and Jews. Hundreds of these people had already been branded as enemy aliens during the First World War and placed in detention camps across Canada, including Manitoba.

“Focus shifted (after the war) from the immigrant’s association with the enemy to his association with revolutionary political movements in Russia and central Europe,” wrote University of Manitoba history professor emeritus J.M. Bumsted in an article on the strike appearing in the Spring 1994 Beaver magazine. “Many in the Canadian government became persuaded that these ‘foreign’ agitators would infect Canadian labour and especially the demobilized veterans with their radical ideas.”

Fear of the alien influence led to the Manitoba government establishing the Alien Investigation Board. Many aliens labeled disloyal prior to the strike were slated for deportation. “The way in which the immigrant seemed to be related to labour and to the returned soldier in early 1919 was chiefly as victim and scapegoat,” wrote Bumsted.

“Not a single ‘new immigrant’ —  enemy alien or otherwise — was actively involved on the leadership level of the 1919 Winnipeg strike, however. Prominent Jewish activist Moses Almazoff pointedly spent the entire strike period at Gimli over 60 miles away on Lake Winnipeg.”

It was a well-known fact in Ottawa that the leadership of the labour movement was primarily composed of British-born immigrants. 

During a June 6, 1919, Senate debate on an amendment to the Immigration Act, allowing for the deportation of “undesirable aliens,” Liberal Senator Lawrence Geoffrey pointed out: “The truth is if you took the names of the persons who are leading in the demonstrations in Winnipeg, they are not foreign names; they are all British and American.”

To this comment, “some honourable members” shouted out, “Hear, hear!”

Yet, the amendment introduced by the Borden government passed in both the House of Commons and the Senate and was given Royal assent.

It was a position supported by the Trades and Labour Council, which issued a resolution published in the Western Labor News on June 7, 1919. The resolution said, the council supported “all efforts on the part of the authorities in their efforts to deport all the undesirable aliens in our midst.”

The point of the resolution was to lay to rest the spectre of the “alien ghost” taking part in the strike evoked by the Citizens Committee, according to the strikers’ newspaper.

James S. Woodsworth, first elected a Labour MP for Winnipeg in 1921 and the first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the forerunner of the NDP), in a letter to his “old Winnipeg friends” published in the labour newspaper, said the strike was “not the work of alien enemies. It is positively criminal for leaders of the public opinion to thus deceive the people. The proportion of ‘foreigners’ ‘alien enemies’ (whatever that means) or otherwise — in the trades and labour unions is not large. There are few, if any, of them who are prominent as leaders ... The “leaders” are predominantly  English or Scotch.”

Labour leaders in Winnipeg adopted the traditions and democratic leanings of the British labour movement, simply because this was their heritage. They did not see themselves as either Marxists or Bolshevists.

The strike begins

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 started when a dispute arose between management and the Building Trades Council and the Metal Trades Council, with the two councils wanting to be recognized as bargaining agents for their workers. The employers’ associations were prepared to meet with individual unions, but not the councils. For example, the Metal Trades Council represented 19 craft unions of the metal workers. 

A strike was called for May 1 by the Building Trades Council and the next day the metal workers followed suit.

The two councils then appealed to the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, the central organization of the city’s unionized workers, asking for support through a sympathy strike. On May 13, an overwhelming majority voted in favour of a sympathy strike to start on May 15.

The response to the general strike call at 11 a.m. was immediate. The city was paralyzed. About 70 unions backed the strike as did hundreds of non-unionized workers. The city’s police force, which voted in favour of showing sympathy for the strikers, was asked by the Strike Committee to remain on the job.

Members of the Strike Committee on May 13, 1919.

“Thursday, May 15, 1919, is a date that will live long in the history of Winnipeg,” declared the leaders of the general strike. “In less than two hours the whole productive industry of a whole city was tied up, as men and women and boys and girls came trooping out of shop and store and factory, not a wheel was turning in the big plants, not a street car was visible, and on the face of every worker was the cheerful, optimistic smile of confidence in the justice of their cause, and their firm determination to organize in any manner, for any lawful purpose, which would better their conditions and assure all a living wage.”

Meanwhile, the business community took a different slant: “All eyes in Canada have turned upon Winnipeg where its citizens have been fighting wholeheartedly and with a very generous measure of success against a determined attempt to establish Bolshevism and the rule of the Soviet here and then expand it all over Canada. Between twenty and thirty thousand workers were tricked and betrayed into striking through the machinations of a number of confessed Bolshevists in the Winnipeg Labor Temple. The issue went right to the heart of the great body of the middle class citizens whom the strike leaders sought to deprive of the very necessities of life. The general strike was recognized as an attempt at revolution — and the citizens proceeded to combat it as such.”

On May 16, the Citizens Committee of 1,000 was established to fight the strike, although its membership declared their aim was only to operate public utilities and other essential services with volunteers. The committee was supported by the Board of Trade, the Manitoba Grocers’ Association, the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, the Retail Merchants’ Association, and other businesses and professional organizations. The committee’s position was that the city should not negotiate with the strikers, since sympathy strikes were unnecessary, expensive, and potentially dangerous to public and private property.

The committee remains to this day an enigma. Its membership was kept secret and no notes were taken of meetings. It is known that the committee was chaired by A.K. Godfrey, a past president of the Winnipeg Board of Trade, and was led by such people as A.L. Crossin, an insurance broker, and J.E. Botterell, a grain broker and a member of the board of trade.

“These were self-made men, lacking in liberal education or broad horizons, who had risen to success by dint of their often ruthless exploitation of both the environment and their workers,” wrote Bumsted of Winnipeg’s business elite. “They believed in the ‘survival of the fittest’.

“They controlled city government partly because they spent so much time maintaining their dominance, partly because of a voting franchise that favored property ownership and positively discriminated against the poor.”

Eligibility requirements placed municipal voting primarily in the hands of the elite, and the vote was further skewed by a plural voting system, which allowed voting in more than one ward provided the property qualification was met in each of the wards where ballots were cast.

To emphasize the alleged cruelty perpetrated on Winnipeggers, the Winnipeg Citizen made highly-volatile charges — some might say incredulous — in a recap of strike events on June 9: “Within two days hundreds of babies were ‘on the verge of death for want of milk.’ Sick people were unable to get medical attention owing to the absence of telephone service. The sick in hospitals and elsewhere were tortured and their sufferings enhanced by cutting off the delivery of ice. People were hungry on the streets because meals were unpurchasable at restaurants, and in an area stricken with a scarlet epidemic, water could not be turned on where required.”

The Citizen alleged the charges were substantiated by the strike committee’s own communications.

“The condition required a remedy, and it made its own corrective by bringing about the spontaneous organization of all citizens (into the Citizens Committee of 1,000) who, though innocent of any participation in the disputes between employers and organized labor, were made the chief victims of aggression.”

The newspaper, which was the organ of the Citizens Committee, further claimed many were in favour of collective bargaining and better wages, “but when starved, throttled, and threatened they lost all sympathy for anything but the restoration of their own civil and constitutional right.” 

The newspaper said the first effort of the Citizens Committee was to ensure delivery of milk and food “to the population at large,” alleging the strike committee would only deliver such supplies when individuals produced trade union cards.

Under public pressure, “the Strike Committee was forced to agree to send back creamery and bakery workers to handle and deliver milk and bread to all as in normal times.”

The indignation of the Citizens Committee and its newspaper intensified when bread and milk wagons appeared on the streets with printed posters declaring, “Permitted — By Authority of the Strike Committee.”

“It was the heyday of the Soviet system. Winnipeg was governed by a Strike Committee. The Soviets were allowed to get thus far only because of the unpreparedness of the military authorities for any such event as revolution.”

The Citizen said when the “offensive” signs appeared on delivery wagons, in restaurants and theatres, the “great indignation by the usurpation of governing authority by the Strike Committee” caused thousands of Winnipeggers to join the Citizens Committee and a “volunteer citizen army” enrolled by militia Brigadier-General Ketchen.

The citizen militia came into being after Winnipeg Mayor Charles Gray fired the entire city police force, which had voted 114 to 11 to strike. The motivation for their removal came when they refused to sign an anti-strike pledge.

By June, Alderman Sparling, the chairman of the police commission, said the city was not communicating with the police union and was instead instituting a round of new hirings. He claimed the city had “nothing to discuss” with the police union.

“Twenty-eight to thirty men are already on the list for the permanent police force,” said Sparling. “They will present themselves at the central police station ... and providing their credentials as to character and their physical condition are satisfactory, they will be placed on the regular payroll of the police force.”

The Western Labor News said the police commission’s action to take the “loyal forces off the streets” was due to the influence of the Citizens Committee.

Labour Alderman J.L. Wiginton was the one voice of dissent on the commission and claimed the police had assured the commission of its loyalty.

“If this commission persists in this attitude it will appear as though we are determined to place the city under martial law, and the (Citizens) committee will have to shoulder the responsibility of so doing,” he added.

It was reported only 20 of 225 men agreed to sign the “ultimatum” demanded by the police commission. Once the regular force was dismissed, 2,000 special constables (“specials”), 400 of them mounted, were sworn-in and placed under the overall command of Major Hillyard Lyle. The mounted men were led by Captain J. Dunwoody.

Police Chief Donald Macpherson was dismissed following a special meeting of the commission on June 11 and replaced by C.H. Newton, who had been the deputy chief.

A statement from the police commission said, it was deemed “advisable to place the reorganization of the police force in the charge of Deputy Chief Newton.”

Macpherson had been approached to take a three-month leave of absence while the reorganization took place, but he refused and also declined to relinquish the position as police chief, a job he had held since 1911.

“The police commission, in order to carry out its views regarding the reorganization of the force, were, therefore, compelled to relieve Chief Macpherson of his office,” according to the statement.

Since the reorganization included not rehiring the policemen fired by the police commission, it is likely Macpherson had shown too much sympathy toward them or had objected to their firing.

Meanwhile, the RNWMP detachment in Winnipeg was being reinforced. At the beginning of the strike there were only eight non-commissioned officers and 19 men in the detachment, but at the height of the strike the force increased to 245 men.

The war of words and actions taken by each group reflected how deeply Winnipeg was cleaved by the strike.

“Class division had long split the community and the general strike was only the latest and most serious manifestation of a lack of unity of economic or political purpose among the city’s residents,” wrote Artibise.

The Citizens Committee ensured that the forces aligned against the strikers would be unfriendly when they pushed city hall to hire 2,000 special police. In particular, the committee riled against “aliens” whom they declared should be deported.

Basically, the strike had been peaceful for most of its duration with only sporadic outbreaks of violence, although a climate of fear permeated the city. Financier August Nanton patrolled the grounds of his home at night with his chauffeur, gardener and undergardener, while his wife and daughter stayed with friends. 

On the other side, strikers regarded the Citizens Committee and the special police with suspicion and fear.

On June 1, 10,000 returned soldiers  marched on the legislature to express their solidarity with the strike. They demanded legislation from premier T.C. Norris to enforce collective bargaining and called for him to withdraw his ultimatum to the telephone operators (provincial employees and mostly women), as well they expressed their sympathy with the police officers  — many were veterans — who would be fired if they refused to sign the city’s ultimatum. They also urged the premier to use his influence to curb press attacks on the strike leaders and labeling the strike as the work of Bolsheviks. If their demands weren’t met, the First World War veterans demanded the premier and his cabinet resign.

(Next week: part 2)