The First World War and the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919

On May 15th, 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike began. Though numbers vary, an estimated 30,000 strikers from all walks of life shut down the city until the strike collapsed under government pressure in late June [1]. A strike of this magnitude did not emerge from a vacuum; it was, in many ways, a byproduct of the First World War and the instability the conflict wrought on Canadian society.

Image: Anti-strike veterans parade near city hall on the 4th of June 1919. Archives of Manitoba (N12296).

The destabilizing effects of the war were felt long before its end. Longstanding worker grievances over long hours, poor working conditions, and insufficient wages were exacerbated by the exigencies of wartime industry. These grievances led to increasingly frequent labour disturbances: in 1917, 47,000 working days were lost, and, in 1918, this figure would reach 84,000 days – though few concrete concessions were won [2]. The return of peace provided no remedy for these ills. Firms, both small and large, drastically slowed or outright halted production given the sudden lack of demand. The actions of the Imperial Munitions Board, the agency charged with coordinating war production and, at the time, the largest corporation in Canada, are illustrative: nearly 290,000 workers were laid off within days of the signing of Armistice (amongst other austerity measures it enacted) [3]. As the gradual return of demobilized veterans further saturated the labour market, the situation dimmed further. This potent combination of high unemployment and unresolved labour disputes created a volatile situation.

The General Strike was an escalation of several labour disputes across the city, notably those of the Building Trades Council and Metal Trades Council. The strikers’ demands (better wages, improved working conditions, shorter hours, and recognition of unions) were nothing extraordinary, which makes government and public reaction seem so disproportionate. A movement that was, on the whole, reform minded was quickly cast as a foreign-led, revolutionary plot. Such a response was largely resultant from the political climate of 1919. While the ‘First Red Scare’ (the anti-communist hysteria following the October Revolution in 1917 and ensuing Civil War in Russia) is more closely associated with the United States, it was a phenomenon felt across the western world, and Canada was no exception.

As early as May 19th, The Winnipeg Citizen proclaimed that the strike was a revolution aiming to “dethrone British justice and British institutions” and establish a permanent “dictatorship of the Soviet” [4]. Later articles continued this revolutionary branding while adding in increasingly xenophobic elements. Regina’s The Leader published an article entitled “The Bolsheviks Should Be Deported” on May 28th, while Calgary’s The Herald was more overt, entitling an article appearing on June 18th “‘White People’ and Aliens” [5]. Facing these accusations, Winnipeg was not helped by its demographics. Heavy pre-war immigration, which saw the city’s population skyrocket from 42,000 in 1901 to 136,000 in 1911, included a not insignificant number of Eastern and Central European immigrants – the chief targets of xenophobic paranoia given their ‘connections’ with foreign enemies (Germany and Austria-Hungary) or the Bolsheviks – who settled in largely separate, isolated communities [6].

When seen in this light, the events of the strike are more understandable: pragmatic desire to end the strike and genuine fear of insurrection combined to prevent a peaceful resolution. Within days of the strike opening, the Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP) began receiving reinforcements and would climb from 27 to 272 men by June; simultaneously, elements of the militia began mobilizing several thousand anti-strike volunteers to be called upon to quell the strike [7]. Moreover, the regular police force, a body largely sympathetic to the strikers, was dismissed June 9th and replaced with 1800 ‘specials’, an ad-hoc group of anti-strike volunteers, to further strengthen their position [8]. With this power base established, a swift crackdown began. Strike leaders were arrested on June 17th and one violent confrontation on June 20th, in which RNWMP officers fired into a crowd of strikers, killing one and injuring countless others, put an end to the strike [9]. The events of Winnipeg cannot be understood without considering the larger context of the First World War which was instrumental in escalating simple labour disputes into a far more significant event.

References

[1] McNaught, Kenneth and David Bercuson. The Winnipeg Strike: 1919. Don Mills, Ontario: Longman Canada Limited, 1974, 45. Estimates vary between as few as 24,000 and as many as 35,000 strikers.

[2] McNaught and Bercuson, The Winnipeg Strike: 1919, 11-12.

[3] Cook, Tim. Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-1918 Volume Two. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008, 602.

[4] Unknown author. “Not a Strike – a Revolution! The Strike Situation in Winnipeg.” The Winnipeg Citizen, May 19th, 1919. Taken from Rea, J.E. The Winnipeg General Strike edited by David Gagan and Anthony Rasporich. Toronto: Holt, Reinhart and Winston of Canada, Ltd., 1973, 32.

[5] Rea, The Winnipeg General Strike, 56-60; 90. [9] McNaught and Bercuson, 3.

[6] McNaught and Bercuson, The Winnipeg Strike: 1919, 3.

[7] Bercuson, David. Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990, 167-168.

[8] Bercuson, Confrontation at Winnipeg, 154.

[9] Ibid., 172-174.

 

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