The Winnipeg General Strike Is Immortal

A century ago this month, immigrant workers and World War I veterans launched the most dramatic labor struggle in Canadian history. Winnipeg's 1919 general strike is a reminder of our power as workers — and the brutality to which the bosses will resort to protect their profits.

Mounted troops galloping around a bend in the road at Main Street and Market Avenue on Bloody Saturday, June, 21, 1919. Archives of Manitoba

One hundred years ago, Winnipeg was a powder keg.

In the early twentieth century, the city’s mostly Anglo-Canadian ruling class lived south of the railyards, in tony neighborhoods like Crescentwood where baroque Queen Anne style houses sat quietly along tree-lined avenues. Across the tracks, in the North End, Winnipeg’s largely Central and Eastern European immigrant working class lived in tenements and shanties which were vulnerable to constant outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever.

The women of the North End toiled in garment factories, while the men risked life and limb in the factories and railyards. Separating Winnipeg’s two worlds was the Arlington Bridge. So many men lost their lives in the construction of the Arlington Bridge that it became known as the “Ribs of Death,” so named for its rib cage-like silhouette which towered over the men laboring in the railyards below.

Workers’ frustration had been mounting for years, fueled not just by inequality and poor living and working conditions, but also by radical ideology that spoke to their concerns and captured their imagination. In Europe and North America, the workers’ movement was growing in militancy, and there was increasing talk of socialist revolution.

In 1907, Jewish workers in Winnipeg formed an Arbeiter Ring, or workers’ circle, a mutual aid society animated by the dream of abolishing capitalism. The Arbeiter Ring had its own school, as did the Jewish communists and Labor Zionists. In the schools, tailor shops, and railyards, the Internationale was sung “with gusto.”

In 1909, the Federation of Ukrainian Social Democrats was formed to promote the wellbeing of Winnipeg’s working-class Ukrainians, many of whom were Christian. Less than a decade later, it had become an explicitly Marxist party with thousands of members. Internationally, its sympathies lay with the Russian Bolsheviks.

As the second decade of the twentieth century wore on, other sparks began to fly around the powder keg. In 1914, the Panama Canal opened, making Canadian international trade far less reliant on the rail freight, Winnipeg’s core industry. The city languished. The local rail barons took care to protect their own profits, but that required cutting labor costs, meaning the working class suffered increasing unemployment on top of everything else. Meanwhile, the cost of living went up 75 per cent between 1913 and 1919.

The number of labor unions in the city tripled during this time, and labor movement leaders were starting to get elected to government positions. Strikes were growing more frequent — in 1917, the city saw as many work days lost to strikes as it had in the previous four years combined. The city’s workers were growing both more desperate and more emboldened. A mass meeting held by labor leaders in December of 1918 ended with shouts of “Long live the working class!”

The final straw was the return of Winnipeg’s soldiers from the First World War. After miraculously surviving the meatgrinder of wartime Europe, they were anxious to come home. But for obscure logistical reasons they were kept indefinitely in Britain, awaiting ships that never seemed to arrive. There, they grew restless. Some rioted against their officers, demanding immediate passage across the Atlantic.

When they finally returned in the spring of 1919, they were disappointed and appalled. The city was in disrepair, and there were few jobs waiting for them.

Fred Tipping, a labor leader who played a role in the strike, said, “I think perhaps one of the big factors was the feeling that some of the employers had benefited rather than sacrificed during the war. Fortunes had been made in the war years. But most of the workers had been called upon to go overseas and fight. And they thought when they came back that the time for sacrifice was past.”

It wasn’t, and alongside the rest of the city’s workers, many disillusioned veterans found themselves spoiling for a fight.

“The One Big Union”

The leaders of Winnipeg’s unions were socialists who wanted workers to take bold action and remake society. At the December 1918 meeting, they called for the end of capitalism and spoke passionately in support of the Bolshevik revolution. By late spring of 1919, they suspected they had the makings of a powerful general strike on their hands, and they were right.

In mid-May, after a few unions had already gone out to strike on their own accord, the city’s labor leaders put it to a vote. Members of more than seventy unions were presented with black and white marbles to drop into a ballot box — black meant no strike, white meant yes. The system, which didn’t require English proficiency or literacy, was designed for maximum turnout. In the end, only five hundred black marbles were cast. The white marbles numbered eleven thousand.

The strikers demanded the right of collective bargaining, a living wage, and reinstatement of all strikers to their jobs when it was over. The collective body would call itself The One Big Union, echoing the slogan of the radical US-based Industrial Workers of the World.

The general strike began two days later, on May 15. The first to walk out were the telephone operators, known as the “Hello Girls.” By mid-day, twelve thousand unionized workers had either walked off the job or not shown up at all. But there was a shock: an additional twelve thousand non-unionized workers also joined in the strike. That number grew as the days wore on, until roughly thirty thousand workers were on strike.

Together, they made up one-sixth of the city’s population. But most of their families joined them in the strike brigade, bringing the total number of striker and strike supporters to about half of the city’s population. They were led by a strike committee made up of roughly fifty people, helmed by militant unionist Bob Russell, pro-labor preachers J. S. Woodsworth and William Ivens, socialist city aldermen Abraham Heaps and John Queen, and unionist-turned-legislator Fred Dickson.

On the first day of the strike, the three main local organizations representing veterans held a meeting and voted to endorse the strike. Police officers, too, expressed their support, though they agreed to stay on the job despite their allegiances. It was unclear whose side they would take in the event of trouble.

But across town, another coalition was being formed. The local ruling class secretly formed a group on the second day of the strike called the Committee of 1,000, dedicated to crushing the workers’ rebellion. The strikers quickly learned of the committee’s existence, but couldn’t identify its members, who operated with near-total anonymity. Among them were likely many powerful industrialists and political figures.

A few days into the strike, the Committee of 1,000 made its first move. It started with the issue of food provisions. Many strikers were already poor and at risk of going hungry, and the strike had ground all city operations to a halt, making it that much more difficult to attain milk and bread. The Strike Committee hit on a solution — it would issue permit cards to specific food delivery workers. This way, the strikers could be fed and the delivery workers could act not in defiance of the strike effort, but as part of it.

The next day, the Committee of 1,000 used the newspapers to allege that the permit cards were proof that the Strike Committee was attempting to supplant the legitimate city government and build a parallel government of their own, laying the groundwork for a Bolshevik-style revolution. One headline read, “The One Big Union Is Bolshevism, Pure and Simple. Note the Striking Parallel.” It featured two columns comparing the Russian revolution to the Winnipeg strike.

Throughout the early weeks of the strike, news media and government officials portrayed it as “a cloak for something far deeper — an effort to ‘overturn’ the proper authority.”

The years after the Bolshevik revolution saw North America’s first Red Scare, a time characterized by intense state repression of anarchists, socialists, communists, labor leaders, and anyone suspected of being a red. The Red Scare was laced with xenophobia; socialism was portrayed as a foreign ideology spread like a disease by sinister subversives from Central and Eastern Europe.

Winnipeg was no exception. In the days and weeks that followed, the newspapers depicted the strike as a foreign plot to undermine Canadian sovereignty. Counter-protesters held aloft banners that read “To hell with the alien enemy.” The Committee of 1,000 called for deportation.

“‘Yah! Yah! Aliens! Aliens!’ shrieks the self-constituted Committee of 1,000,” read a dispatch from the Western Labor News, which became the daily strike paper. But “the bosses have no quarrel with the rich alien.”

Relying on this mixture of xenophobia and anti-socialism, the Committee of 1,000 spread the rumor among affluent citizens that the strikers were a savage mob who at any moment would begin slaughtering innocents. So effective was the propaganda campaign that the residents of Crescentwood deputized citizen guards to perch atop a makeshift watchtower, lying in wait for the hoards coming to murder them in their sleep.

Caught Red-Handed

But the hoards never came. The strikers were peaceful, even jubilant, for the first few weeks of the strike. In the North End, Helen “Ma” Armstrong, described in the newspapers as a “female bolshevicki,” led the Women’s Labour League in setting up soup kitchens to make sure the strikers and their dependents were fed.

“If you are hungry, go to them,” wrote the Western Labor News. “We will share our last crust together. If one starves, we will all starve. We will fight on, and on, and on. We will never surrender.”

Despite the hardship, the strike atmosphere was amicable. The strike brigade set up bicycle lessons for the children. Theater troupes performed to keep the strikers entertained. Daily meetings were held in Victoria Park to spread news related to the strike and inspire the workers to stand strong. They were so well-attended on the ground that some onlookers had to climb into the trees to hear their leaders’ message of unity and inspiration.

Commerce was paralyzed, and the ruling elite was desperate for scabs. One Western Labor News dispatch read, “At the time the Committee of 1,000 were agitating the public mind against the ‘alien’ with demands for his deportation, ‘Milady’ was touring the alien district in limousine and taxi, begging, pleading, imploring and bribing the ‘female of the alien species’ to come to her aid and replace the female workers who were on strike.”

When few accepted the offer, wealthy people sometimes scabbed themselves. One affluent woman recalled her relatives being driven by chauffeur to the telephone office to fill in for the Hello Girls.

The police maintained their composure during the strike and were even commended by the Western Labor News, which wrote, “Everybody loves the police — except the Committee of 1,000.” But in Winnipeg, that exception held weight. In late May, Mayor Charles Gray gave the police an ultimatum: abandon their union, which was known to be sympathetic to the strike, or lose their job. The police refused, and in early June were all sacked.

They were replaced by recruits known as special constables, or “specials.” The specials were a motley crew of rural farmworkers and returned veterans who, like their brethren on the other side, were restless and combative, but whose anger was trained on the strikers rather than the employers and politicians. The specials received no training or uniforms, only an armband and a wagon spoke to wield as a trunch.

Gray also banned all parades, angering the pro-strike veterans in particular, who had been marching regularly throughout the work stoppage. Meanwhile, the Committee of 1,000 was appealing to the federal government for help. The committee’s leader, former Winnipeg mayor AJ Andrews, came back from Ottawa with a mandate to report any and all activity from the strike leaders that might be construed as treason or sabotage.

On June 10, the day after the specials were sworn in, the veterans led a parade in violation of Gray’s orders. The specials, some on horseback and others armed on foot with their billy clubs, approached the crowd. A scuffle broke out. One special, a returned soldier named Fred Coppins, was pulled from his horse and beaten.

The Committee of 1,000 and its allies propagandized heavily around the incident. “Sergeant Coppins, who won the V.C. against the Huns over there, and nearly lost it in the struggle against the Huns in Winnipeg,” read one article the next day, referring to his assailants as “three alien enemies.”

For the next week, Winnipeg was eerily quiet as the strike dragged on, the mood darkened, and tensions mounted. The city was hit with an unprecedented heat wave, followed by violent thunderstorms.

On the night of July 16, AJ Andrews’ plan to root out saboteurs came to fruition: ten strike leaders were dragged from their beds and taken by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to the Stone Mountain Penitentiary, where they were charged with sedition. That same night, the mounties raided the city’s labor halls, confiscating the subscription rolls — a list of traitors, caught red-handed.

Bloody Saturday

On June 21, the powder keg finally blew. The day would come to be known as Bloody Saturday.

The pro-strike veterans planned a silent parade to demand the release of the strike leaders. They were joined by thousands of others, including many immigrants who knew they risked arrest and deportation by participating in the parade.

The strikers marched wordlessly down Main Street toward City Hall. Mayor Charles Gray appeared and ordered them to disperse, but the thousands stood firm, hushed and expectant.

Suddenly, the strikers noticed movement on the periphery. A streetcar was gliding toward them. The streetcars had been immobile for weeks, as the drivers were among the most militant strikers. It was a sight heavy with symbolism: a streetcar driven by scabs, cutting straight through the crowd and threatening to divide the ranks, literally and metaphorically.

A group surrounded the streetcar and rocked it back and forth until they tipped it on its side. They then set it ablaze.

The mounties were offstage, ready to be deployed at the first sign of trouble. Gray gave them the signal and they appeared seemingly out of nowhere, barreling through the crowd. The people panicked, retreating to the sidewalks and pressing their bodies against the buildings to make way for the army. Winnipeg was now an occupied city.

The mounties made several passes on horseback, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Most crushed backward in fear, but some defiantly threw bottles and stones. The first shot rang out: a Ukrainian man was shot in the legs, and later died of gangrene. Then another: a Ukrainian man shot straight through the heart died on the spot.

The specials appeared on the scene. Clubs in hand, they chased strikers down side streets. One detachment of specials trapped a group of men, women, and children in an alleyway, where they beat them mercilessly — an incident later known as Hell’s Alley. It’s impossible to know how many were injured that day, as immigrants feared that seeking treatment for their wounds would implicate them in seditious activity and result in their deportation.

Back on Main Street, military trucks rolled through the streets, their carriages jammed with soldiers pointing bayonets in every direction. The street emptied. The silent parade had ended in silent defeat.

The Strike Isn’t Over

When the strike leaders were released on bail, they encountered terror and demoralization among the strikers. Furthermore, their funds had run out. It would be impossible to feed half the city for much longer.

On June 26, they announced that the strike had reached its bitter conclusion. But they issued an additional call: the struggle would continue in the halls of government. Until labor leaders controlled the levers of the state, the state would always be aligned with the capitalist class, and would ruthlessly repress working people in exactly the manner seen in Winnipeg.

Some remember the Winnipeg General Strike as a failure. “If it was such a successful event, and it was so well organized, why didn’t they try it again?” asked historian David Bercuson. “The answer is because they got their clocks cleaned.”

But others remember it as a phenomenal and important act of heroism, one that indelibly transformed Canadian politics for the better and remains a source of inspiration for the working class.

Two strike leaders, JS Woodsworth and Abraham Heaps, eventually made their way to parliament where they established the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the more left-leaning precursor to the current New Democratic Party (NDP). The CCF swept to power in Saskatchewan in 1944 where, led by Tommy Douglas, it established Medicare, North America’s first public health insurance program.

But more than that, the strike showed what solidarity looked like on a mass scale, and how common cause and unity of purpose could dissolve divisions and prejudices. The thirty thousand who went on strike included native-born and immigrant workers, skilled and unskilled, Christians and Jews, men and women. For six weeks, they held fast together. Despite their hunger and their hardship, they remained so strong that only an army could break them apart.

According to the Western Labor News, the strike “demonstrated the nature of the class struggle, the ruthlessness and brutality of imperialist capital,” and “the real purpose of military and semi-military bodies.” It also “started men and women to think and study, to realize the power they possessed if they could use it unitedly.” The paper continued:

Labor already knew that two dozen men on horseback, shooting to kill, could disperse a crowd of several thousand unarmed men and women. The Committee of 1,000 has, however, many lessons to learn — among other things the members of that committee must be taught that ideas are more powerful than bullets… We shall “carry on” until victory is won.

The struggle continues to this day, wherever working people fight for their emancipation from poor living and working conditions and domination by capitalists.

“The Winnipeg General Strike is the proudest achievement of the Canadian working class,” said historian Norman Penner, whose father Jacob was a communist striker and later a city council member in Winnipeg, where communists maintained strong support among the North End working class into the 1980s, and where traces of left radicalism remain today.

Despite its defeat, he said, “The Winnipeg General Strike is immortal.”