Canadian workers’ proud history of organized resistance and defence of rights
This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike. On May First 1919, discouraged by post-war inflation and unemployment, Winnipeg’s metal and building workers went on strike, demanding higher wages. Winnipeg’s building trade workers walked out to gain better wages and hours. They were joined by iron workers who were fighting for company recognition of their union, the Metal Trades Council. On May 15, with the overwhelming support of its 12,000 members, the Winnipeg Labour Council called a general strike. Thirty thousand union and non-union people walked off the job. Among the first out were the city’s telephone workers. Winnipeg had no phone service for a week.
The context for this strike was the grave economic crisis in which Britain and by extension Canada found themselves following World War I, as well as the unconscionable treatment the workers received when they returned from fighting the trench warfare, in which thousands were sent to the most horrible death in the euphoria for empire which preceded the war. Thousands more died following the war of the Spanish flu. The war quickly smashed that euphoria, leaving Canada at a crossroads, not only flailing in the throes of an economy whose old basis had been smashed by the war but also without an aim rooted in the former empire-building. The service of governments to alien interests and the moloch of capital, with which the workers definitely did not identify, put a severe strain on the ability of governments to maintain labour peace.
The government of Canada along with the provincial government of Manitoba also clearly feared a revolution similar to the one that had just happened in Russia. They spread lies that claimed “immigrants” were behind the strike. The Government of Canada amended the Immigration Act so that even British-born immigrants, who in those days were automatically granted citizenship rights, could be deported. It mobilized the police forces against the striking workers and resorted to violence to crush the strike. The response of government to the terrible plight the workers were in at that time clearly revealed the role of the state in suppressing the struggles of the workers who had just sacrificed so much in the trench warfare of World War I.
Strikes were organized in Edmonton and Calgary in support of the Winnipeg General Strike and in up to 30 other cities and towns, events which are unquestionable symbols of the independence, resistance and unity of the Canadian working class movement.
In June, the federal authorities officially resorted to deportation threats to suppress working class politics, even though they attempted to deceive the public by avoiding the word “political” in their accusations. Amendments to Section 41 of the Immigration Act defined “a prohibited immigrant” as “anyone interested in overthrowing organized government either in the Empire (at the provincial level in Canada too) or in general, or in destroying property, or promoting riot or public disorder, or belonging to a secret organization trying to control people by threat or blackmail.” After nearly a month, Winnipeg’s mayor called out special constables whose presence just fuelled the strikers’ fire. Their leaders were arrested. The North West Mounted Police (which became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920) and special constables fired on the workers, killing two men. An additional 34 people were wounded and 80 arrested. A few days later, on June 21, the strike ended with a protest march organized by war veterans.
The Winnipeg General Strike became known as the largest social revolt in Canadian history which is the subject of many studies relating not only to the role of the government and police forces but also to the role played by unions, communists, socialists and the traditional political parties. The significance of this strike and of the times in which it took place will be further explored for the information of our readers.
Workers’ Forum, May 16, 2019, slightly edited for this publication