What Was the Winnipeg General Strike?

The General Strike occurred in 1919. This photo depicts present-day Winnipeg. Editorial credit: SBshot87 / Shutterstock.com
The General Strike occurred in 1919. This photo depicts present-day Winnipeg. Editorial credit: SBshot87 / Shutterstock.com

Winnipeg, also known as the “Cradle of Canada” or “Gateway to the West” is located at the heart of North America. It was recognized as Canada’s cultural city in 2010 because of its rich coalition of history, modern art, and cosmopolitanism. The multicultural city hosts festivals throughout the year to celebrate its history and diversity. Winnipeg was Canada’s third-largest city in the early 1900s but with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, the city faced several financial challenges and reduced prosperity and population. In 1919, over 30,000 workers abandoned their jobs and walked away, a strike that is famously known as the “Winnipeg General Strike.” The strike was as a result of labor conditions, post-World War I recession, and the influx of soldiers returning from the war seeking employment.

Overview of the Strike

Winnipeg is one of Canada’s most popular cities because of its rich history and cultural diversity. The Winnipeg General Strike, the largest strike in Canadian history and the first in North America, will forever be remembered by the Canadians themselves and the world at large, especially North America. After World War I, workers throughout Winnipeg began demanding for change. Their major demands were better working conditions and increased wages. However, the business class, which was accused of “growing fat” on workers’ labor and profiteering, refused to deal with the workers. The workers were left with no option but to call a general strike. For six weeks, from May 15, 1919, to June 26, 1919, the city was paralyzed with over 30,000 laborers, tradesmen, and provincial and city employees walking off their jobs. The economic activities in Winnipeg were brought to a standstill.

While the striking workers held on to their policy of non-violence, the police commissioner organized a police unit to confront the workers. On June 10, a group of about 1,800 policemen descended on the crowd with their clubs, leading to a confrontation. After several arrests, incidences of violence, bloodshed, deportation, and defeat, the strike came to an end. On June 21, 1919, the city’s mayor read out the Riot Act and immediately a group of Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers again attacked the crowd on Main Street. At least one striker was killed and several others injured in what is now known as “Bloody Saturday.” The strike was officially called off on June 25, 1919, after the heavy defeat. Although the Winnipeg General Strike ended in defeat, it has contributed to a stronger labor movement and social democracy in Canada.

Causes of the Strike

Several factors and events may have led to the strike, most of which are related to discrimination and poor working conditions of the city’s working class. The workers were being paid very low wages and the employment itself was unstable. The immigrant workers were discriminated against, the prices of commodities were rising, and the housing and health conditions were also poor. Additionally, the workers accused their employers of earning “fat profits” at their expense.

The general strike may also have been caused by the soldiers who were returning from World War I. These soldiers hoped for better social conditions and employment opportunities upon their return from the war. However, the Canadian workers saw them as competitors for the few available jobs.

The general strike came at a time when workers were agitating for the formation of unions to champion their rights. They were mainly influenced by the ideas put forward by the reformers, revolutionaries, and radicals. In March 1919, western labor delegates met in Calgary where they resolved to form a new union center known as One Big Union that would unite all workers from trades and industries into a single organization. Although the OBU was formed in June 1919, its idea may have contributed to the unrest.

The immediate cause of the general strike was the support for collective bargaining in building and metal trades, where workers attempted to negotiate their contracts with their employers. When the negotiations failed at the end of April, the workers went on strike on May 1 and 2. The strike was discussed in Winnipeg’s Trade and Labor Council (TLC) where the majority of the 12,000 members voted in support of a general strike. Subsequently, a Strike Committee was formed.

The Start of the Strike

Almost all workers of Winnipeg went on strike at around 1100 hours on Saturday, May 15, 1919. About 30,000 workers in both private and public sectors abandoned their jobs. However, the Strike Committee requested the police officers who also supported the strike to remain on duty. City waterwork workers also stayed on duty but worked at reduced pressure. According to some historians, the early days of the strike were almost festive. Many strikers gathered at the city parks to listen to reports on the progress of the strike and also discuss other social reform issues.

To keep the strikers informed of the ongoing happenings, the Strike Committee published a strike bulletin daily. The publication also encouraged strikers to uphold peace and remain idle, doing nothing but eating, sleeping, playing, and looking at the sun. Women leaders such as Helen “Ma” Armstrong rallied the working women to join the strike and also addressed public gatherings. Women’s League assisted with the distribution of food as well as raising money to help women workers pay rent. The general strike was also experienced in at least 30 other cities including Amherst and Victoria. The climax of the strike came on June 21, also known as “Bloody Saturday. On June 25, the Strike Committee announced that the strike would end the following day (June 26) at 1100 hours.

The Fate of the Strike Organizers

At the end of the strike, eight of the strike leaders were arrested and charged with seditious conspiracy. They were mainly charged because of their social ideas rather than their actions as their ideas were considered the cause of the unrest that led to the strike. The leaders who were arrested included J S Woodsworth, George Armstrong, William Ivens, Roger Bray, R B Russell, Abraham Heaps, John Queen, and Fred Dixon. Most of them were jailed for one year except Russell and Bray who received two-year and six-month sentences respectively. Heap and Dixon were acquitted after conducting a strong defense of their involvement in the strike.   


More in Society