Ninety-Four Years Ago: A Strike In Winnepeg

It was on this day in 1919 that the immense Winnipeg General Strike commenced. The strike was called for by a coalition of more than 70 labor unions in and around Winnipeg after an overwhelming vote in favor: about 96% of unions’ membership supported the call. By noon on 15 May 1919, the city of Winnipeg had come to a near standstill as more than 35,000 workers – almost half of the city’s workforce – walked off their jobs. The strike was a protracted one, effectively lasting until 21 June when a detail of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police charged a crowd of strikers resulting in at least one death and scores of serious injuries. (This police force would be merged into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police the following year, so many accounts anachronistically refer to a charge by the RCMP; “Mounties” they were, but not yet RCMP.) With an abrupt, violent, and deadly conclusion, the strike was not considered a success. By 25 June, the strike was formally called off.

The Province of Manitoba in general, and the city of Winnipeg in particular, seem to be Canada’s trouble spot. In the later 19th Century, Manitoba saw the rise of Louis Riel as leader of the Metis, an indigenous people of Canada. Little more than a year after Canada gained autonomy within the British Empire in 1867, Riel and his Metis agitated for the organization of their lands along the Red River (of the North) into an autonomous state. Riel and others formed a provisional government, unilaterally exercising governmental powers which Canada had not authorized. The resulting conflict, called the Red River Rebellion, lasted more than a year. The Metis were successful in negotiating the with Ottawa for the formation of Manitoba, but Ottawa, to assert control, dispatched a military force under Sir Garnet Wolseley (later famous for his expedition to relieve Gordon at Khartoum.) Ottawa thus asserted its sovereignty. Riel and those who had participated in the provisional government were exiled.

Manitoba saw further unrest and conflict in 1885 in the Northwest Rebellion. Canada had not made good on all of the previous promises to the Metis; the Metis in turn resorted to armed rebellion, once more under the leadership of Louis Riel. Riel’s rebellion was unsuccessful, and on 15 May 1885, Riel surrendered to Canadian authorities. This time Riel did not escape with his life. Riel was executed in July of that year. So Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1919 was a place in which many residents recalled the rebellious past.

Add to this the fact that 1919 was a a year fraught with stresses and strains across North America and across the globe. Societies throughout the world were reeling from the terrible cost of World War I, and a burst of social reform and experimentation took effect in nation after nation. Kings and Emperors were formally deposed, republics were established. Communist parties were formally organized in all major Western nations, including the United States and Canada. Labor looked to the successful Bolshevik revolution in Russia as a harbinger of a better day for Labor everywhere.

It was in 1919 that the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted, banning the sale of manufacture of alcohol, and ushering its own era of social upheaval. In June, the 19th Amendment enabling universal female suffrage in the U.S. was introduced, sparking enormous debate on the traditional role of women in society. And the unease and unrest were manifest in more physical ways as well. In the Spring of 1919 “anarchists” exploded bombs in several cities of the northeastern United States. Labor riots cropped up throughout the year as the economic uncertainties created by the war increased the disagreements between labor and capital. Police strikes were called in London, Liverpool, and in Boston. Race riots broke out as returning soldiers and others reacted to the great internal migrations that had taken place within the U.S. to supply labor for war industries. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans relocated from the Deep South to the opportunities provided by manufacturing jobs in the North as more and more soldiers had been sent overseas. Once the war was over, there was a nostalgic desire for things to return to “normalcy,” and tempers erupted into violence time and again. Reading the commentaries and observations of the day, one finds that many writers felt that the world had changed in every detail, and not for the better.

The wider world was no more peaceful, despite the “end” of “the war to end all wars.” The eastern theater of the First World War saw continued conflict; war broke out between Poland and the USSR, and between competing factions with in the new USSR. The Baltic states and Finland experienced armed internal conflicts between factions vying to fill the power vacuum left after the collapse of the Russian empire. In Turkey, Mustafa Kemel ignited the Turkish War of “Independence,” and Greek forces landed along Turkey’s Ionian coast to protect the interest of the Greek residents there. In Amritsar, India, a crowd of peaceful demonstrators was dispersed by the British Colonial Army using rifle fire; more than 1,100 people were wounded and nearly 400 killed. (The troops were recorded to have fired a total of 1,600 rounds.) And, yes, there were even troubles in Iraq, between Kurd and Arab, between Sunni and Shi’ite.

While it is true that virtually every year has wars, conflicts, social change, and riots, 1919 was unusually fraught with upheavals. It was against this background that the Winnipeg Strike played out. The western Allies had concluded the major conflicts of World War I in November of 1918. Millions of troops were demobilized in rapid order, returning to societies which had been forever changed by the experience of the Great War, but which had no mechanisms in place to assist this huge corps of veterans with reassimilating into civilian life. Tens of thousands of of Canadian troops came home to find very few job opportunities available and the openings they found were typically very low-paying positions. this contrasted unfavorably with the great profits that Canada’s industrialists had reaped from war contracts. Fostering resentment among people just returned from war seems a nearly certain way to provoke riot and rebellion, or, at the very least, strikes. Thus it was that the Winnipeg General Strike was called, and the city came to a halt 15 May 1919.

The strikers found great sympathy among the common workers, but great hostility in the press and media of the day. Villified as “Anarchists” and “Bolsheviks” by the major papers throughout North America and England, the strikers were in fact, mainly neither. These were in the great majority, ordinary, moderate folks seeking a fair shake, not subversives seeking to topple the world order. But after several weeks without any concessions from the businessmen nor from the politicians, and with the violent events of 21 June, the Strike Committee formally called an end on 25 June. There was a sense of futility and failure. Yet some important things were accomplished in the longer run.

In the wake of the strike, a Royal commission’s investigatory report concluded that “if Capital does not provide enough to assure Labour a contented existence … then the Government might find it necessary to step in and let the state do these things at the expense of Capital.” In the following years, the Parliament of Canada would enact legislation to further the interest of labor and to define the obligations of business , and Canada’s acts would influence similar legislation in the United States. Though there have been other major strikes in Canada since 1919, none have had the scope, the scale, nor the impact of the Winnipeg General Strike.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Capital and Labor are both wild forces which require intelligent legislation to hold them in restriction.

— John D. Rockefeller

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