The Winnipeg General Strike

By Jim Naylor

The Winnipeg General Strike is a landmark in North America by any measure. From mid-May to late June 1919 – for six weeks – about 35,000 workers – the bulk of Winnipeg’s labour force – walked off the job and risked hunger, blacklisting, and potential police and military repression. The event has often been commemorated by the labour movement in the city as it is this week; and sometimes more widely. There was, for instance, a tremendous exhibit in 1994 at the Manitoba Museum to mark the 75th anniversary, and a long-standing bus tour that many of you will have taken.

My favourite, though, was a small event – the unveiling of a plaque at City Hall in 1986 (not the Steelworkers’ plaque, but one placed there by Parks Canada to mark the event). It was a wonderful example of what the strike means, or doesn’t mean to different people. The speakers were, if I remember correctly, Judy Wasylycia-Leis (now an NDP MP), who spoke about the Gainers meat packing strike that was going on at the same time in Edmonton and suggesting that they were, in essence, part of the same struggle for workers’ rights. This is generically true, I suppose (and raising the banner of solidarity was of course a good thing) but doesn’t really say anything specific about the events of 1919. Next up was Jake Epp, the Manitoba Tory MP and minister of health in the Mulroney government. He suggested that there was a time, long ago, when workers and bosses fought (although he managed to use none of those words), but we live in a more civilized society now. Then was Mayor Bill Norrie, who used the occasion to talk mainly about the rebuilding the Nairn Avenue overpass. Clearly, for these two, the faster the strike was forgotten, the better. The other thing I remember about the event was that they had dressed someone up in a period Mountie costume who stood around looking a bit self-conscious (although I may have been projecting that). Anyhow, I felt this was in considerable bad taste, considering that the RCMP was formed from the NWMP and the Dominion Police in the aftermath of the Winnipeg strike specifically and overtly to fight such uprisings for workers’ rights.

Anyhow, the 1986 event was a clear example of the way the general strike lived on in Winnipeg as a touchstone of class conflict (or the kind of liberal denial of social classes and class struggle), but also without very much clear discussion of what really happened in 1919, and what specifically we might learn.

First of all, 90 years is a long time. As we try to draw lessons, we have to be careful not to take events out of context. The general strike took place at a specific and extraordinary moment in world history, in the aftermath of World War I, at that time the most destructive war in history and by almost any measure, among the most pointless. A combination of factors – rapid industrialization before and during the war, full employment during the war that had given workers bargaining power that they had never had before, and of course the war itself, in which workers were promised democracy but received only greater and greater restrictions on workers’ freedoms, along with mass death on the front lines — were an explosive combination pretty much everywhere.

This was an era of revolutions in Russia, Germany and Hungary, In US, there was a general strike in Seattle, a strike of over 300,000 steel workers (most notably immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who had been largely shunned by the official trade union movement), 400,000 coal miners struck, 120,000 textile workers, 50,000 men’s clothing workers. One in five of all American wage workers struck in 1919.

In Canada, a similar wave of strikes took place in every region of the country. Without wanting to diminish the centrality or the drama of the Winnipeg strike, Winnipeg was hardly alone. At least 20 cities in Canada from Victoria to Amherst, Nova Scotia, experienced general or near general strikes in 1919. And, it is worth noting, these were not simply strikes in sympathy with Winnipeg, but generally were locally rooted struggles parallel to the one taking place here. To the extent that strikes did not develop successfully, it was because demands were often won, or electoral breakthroughs made in municipal elections (or in the case of Ontario, provincially, with the defeat of the Tories and the election of a farmer-labour government) and workers were willing to wait and see what might be achieved on that front. It is worth noting that industrial action and electoral action was not necessarily seen as opposed to each other.

This context is important for many reasons, but it is crucial to understanding the strike itself. The mainstream understanding of the strike is that it was about collective bargaining and helped secure it for Manitoba workers. This is what it says on the Steelworkers’ plaque at City Hall. Well, it was sort of about collective bargaining. What prompted the strike was the refusal of employers to negotiate with federations of metal trades workers and of building trades workers. Interestingly, they had dealt before with individual craft unions, but were balking at the emergence of incipient industrial or general workers’ unions.

I should point out that collective bargaining meant something different then, or at least had a different flavour than it does now. The collective bargaining system that we now have prohibits things like the Winnipeg General Strike. Sympathy strikes and strikes during collective agreements are banned. In 1919, that would have been seen as a restraint on workers’ power that prohibited true collective bargaining.

By the spring of 1919, in fact, Winnipeg had come close to a general strike on three previous occasions over the preceding couple of years. Most importantly, in 1918, about 15,000 Winnipeggers had joined an escalating strike movement in support of the newly organized civic workers. The 1919 strike started after the local Trades and Labour Council (as it was called at the time) organized a referendum in which members of affiliates voted 11,000 to 500 in favour of a sympathetic strike.
What is notable, though, is that well over twice that many, and probably three times, walked out. Most of the strikers were not even members of unions; certainly the possibility of forming a stable union, let alone achieving recognition from employers, was remote for many of them. At the very least, any direct (or even very indirect) benefits for huge numbers of the strikers are hard to glean.

For this reason, I would argue that the event was in many ways more of a local (and potentially regional and national) revolt than a strike. It was both the product of pent up anger, but also of a broad and vaguely defined hope for a better world. This was, in part, rooted in the war itself. As the war progressed, governments and ideologues made increasing reference to the war having some greater purpose. Given the level of sacrifice and suffering, there was a sense that something new and better had to emerge from it. There was a sense, as one worker told a royal commission struck to study the 1919 labour uprising, that Canadian workers “were under the impression that something was promised them but they did not know what.” In part, workers began to take claims that the war was being fought for democracy seriously, but in their own way. To them, democracy meant not just formal processes, but a real (if in many cases vague) reorganization of social relations in the workplace and in communities. And they knew their bosses and war-time profiteering politicians well enough to understand that if democracy was going to come, they had to grab it themselves.

So collective bargaining was an issue, but as much as anything else, it was the catalyst for a much broader struggle. This can be seen by looking at two key groups who stood outside of the officially defined trade union movement for the most part: immigrant workers and returned soldiers. Both, in their own ways, were wildcards in this struggle. They were workers, no doubt, but as we know working-class unity is potentially a fragile thing and could easily have fractured. Indeed, what is astounding about 1919 was the way in which it came together since both immigrant workers and returned soldiers had reasons to be resentful of the trade union movement in the months before the strike. How class identity was able to overcome these fractures might be something we can discuss, since 1919 is an important case.

There is a tendency to think of the Winnipeg Strike as a battle between the working-class North End and the bourgeois south part of the city. This is not particularly accurate. Certainly the leaders of the strike committee, and most members of unions, did not live in the North End. They lived in the British working-class neighbourhoods of Fort Rouge, the West End, and Weston, among others. These neighbourhoods were where many of the incidents of the strike — conflicts over milk and bread deliveries, and so on — took place. There were, of course, organized workers in the North End but, significantly, a huge proportion of those unorganized workers who downed their tools were the largely Eastern European workers from the North End. And they did so in spite of the various exclusions they had faced. The last months of the war, in particular, had seen vicious attacks on immigrants and attempts to exclude them from the better jobs that many of them had moved into during the wartime labour shortage. Many such immigrants, politicized by the long struggle against Tsarism and against anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, and inspired by developments there in the previous two years, were able to look past this and recognize at least a common enemy in the bosses.

This was the case despite the difficulty the strike leadership had in addressing the specific interests and identities of Eastern Europeans immigrants. The strike leaders responded strongly to the overt bigotry of the anti-strike Citizens’ Committee of 1000 and the city’s newspapers although, frankly, they rarely articulated demands that specifically addressed the plight of Winnipeg’s non-British immigrant workers, beyond the somewhat dubious (given the history of the British empire) call for “British justice” for all. Still, in the context of the strike opponents’ attempts to paint anything such immigrants said or did as treasonous, it was a way of saying, in 1919, that “no one is illegal.” As well, we have to note that the fact that few non-Anglo workers were in the official strike leadership was the product of both prejudice and the fact that their official presence would have ensured their deportation (there is some evidence that “ethnic” leaders like Jake Penner were de facto participants in leading the strike). And the rough inclusion of immigrant workers (immigrants from Britain were not considered immigrants at the time) was important since the strike, I think, did help restructure relations between workers of different ethnicities in important and lasting ways. I should add that the role of socialists affiliated, for the most part, to the various “language” organizations attached to the Social Democratic Party of Canada, as well as other leftists, was probably central to the success of the strike in the North End.

The returned soldiers were an even greater unknown. In January 1919 a full scale anti-immigrant, anti-“Bolshevik” riot had broken out in Winnipeg made up largely of returned soldiers. They marched to the Swift meatpacking plant to get them to fire immigrant workers (“enemy aliens”) and they attacked a socialist memorial meeting for Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and then spent two days roaming the streets of the North End, attacking immigrants, smashing windows, breaking into homes and stores, demanding to see naturalization papers, and making people kiss the Union Jack. The local daily papers supported them. Certainly returned soldiers were generally anxious about their jobs and futures and could be potentially set against those who hadn’t fought in Europe and particularly immigrants. However, in the strike, veterans split largely along class lines.

Through the strike there were parades of pro-and anti-strike veterans. A major concern of the strike committee, which was concerned about avoiding excuses for military intervention, was to prevent these parades from ever meeting. It was a silent march organized by returned soldiers that was attacked by the mounted police and irregular “specials” on Bloody Saturday.

The point I want to make is about the significance of class. Despite deep divisions, the common interests of workers were identified and allowed for a degree of unity that surprised, probably, everybody. I think that this is significant now, in an era when many sometimes think of class as simply another social identity, and a focus on class is sometimes seen as avoiding, denigrating, or marginalizing other struggles. But there is no reason to think of this as a zero-sum game. Common participation in a movement for working-class ends demonstrated in practice how diverse and complex class was. While not pretending for a minute that prejudice was adequately addressed, or that deep gender divisions and expectations were undone, the labour movement that came out of the strike was less narrowly Anglo and male that it was going in. An essentially class event enhanced, rather than undermined, the struggles of those who faced other forms of oppression.

This is an interesting and important point because earlier generations of socialists, and particularly Marxists, have been tarred with the brush of working-class essentialism, of seeing only working-class struggles as important and ignoring others. The charge is not entirely unjustified, and is probably true the Anglo male socialists who led the strike. My point here is that real events tend to break out of that narrow box, by putting other issues on the agenda. And, indeed they were downplayed in many ways in 1919.

Speaking of how we remember the strike, this is interesting and important, because in the labour movement our understanding of the strike is shaped, largely, by intervening organizations who, in a sense, remembered it for us. The strike lives today largely because every working-class current in Winnipeg claimed the strike as its own. The plaque I spoke of earlier, at least according to the website, points to the strike as leading to the CCF (and, by extension, I suppose, the NDP). Certainly the Communist Party, along with the picture of the North End as the home of the strike, similarly drew such connections. And, although it died out in the decades after the strike, the One Big Union – a significant union at least in Winnipeg, where it was led by R.B. Russell – has a strong claim for a connection since it, too, was a product of “1919.”

Well, they are all right, and wrong. A clear genealogy can be found in each case, which is hardly surprising in that the Winnipeg General Strike was general, and no working-class political current could exist without a deep relationship to it. And, of course, the period was one of a deep radicalization, reflected in all sorts of ways. Attention is often drawn to several events. In Winnipeg, there were a series of meetings – the most famous was the Walker theatre meeting that took place the December before the strike. It was cosponsored by the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC) and the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, and one after another leaders of each, and of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as well, denounced the federal government’s suppression of civil liberties during the strike and expressed their solidarity with the Russian revolution. The 1700 people present (made up of both Anglos and Eastern European immigrants) passed a series of revolutions and cheered the Russian Soviet Republic, declared their solidarity with the German Revolution, and spoke of a working-class future.

The other key event was the Western Labour Conference, held in Calgary just two months before the general strike. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council had sent two prominent SPCers, R.B. Russell and R.J. Johns, as its delegates (they played central roles at the Calgary Conference). This was a meeting, essentially, of the entire Western Canadian labour movement, which decided to organize general strikes against the imperialist attack on the Russian Revolution and in favour of the 6 hour day, and decided to begin the process of forming a separate revolutionary union movement, the One Big Union.

What is interesting, though, is the connection between all of this and the Winnipeg strike. The strike leadership (including many SPCers) repeatedly played down the connection with radicalism, repeatedly stressing that the aims were quite limited in terms of collective bargaining. The strike’s opponents, the Citizens’ Committee of 1000, on the other hand, termed it a revolution, worse: a revolution led by foreigners. This has led to a rather odd dichotomy in its aftermath: a debate about whether the event was a strike or a revolution. The bulk of an earlier generation of historians of the strike (from the 1950s to the 1970s) came from the CCFNDP tradition and argued that it was simply a strike for limited social goals. Indeed, the notion that it was an attempt at a revolutionary seizure of power soon disappeared from the agenda.

As I’ve suggested, though, it was neither. During the strike, the strike leadership played down any broader socialist claims. In part this was a defensive reaction to the unrestrained red baiting of the opponents of the strike who attempted to use the foreign Bolshevik claim to delegitimize the claims of the original strikers, and to turn the returned soldiers against the strike. The extreme volatility of the returned soldiers added to the strike leadership’s defensiveness, as did the very real fear of martial law and military action against the strikers. The War Measures Act was still in effect; constructing the event as an uprising led by enemy alien revolutionaries was clearly a means of creating the conditions for repression. Consequently, strikers were told to do nothing.

This, though, is only part of the explanation. The strike was led by socialists of various stripes. Prominent members of the SPC and SDPC played central roles. These parties were revolutionary parties in the sense that they saw capitalism as unreformable and that it was necessary to replace it with socialist society run by workers. It was unclear to them, though, how the general strike fitted into this process. For socialists of this era, the development of socialism was an organic process that required both the development of appropriate social conditions as well as the working-class education. Their goal was “making socialists” through education. The strike was, for them, potentially as much of a hindrance as an opportunity. In any case, there was little evidence to them that Winnipeg workers were ready for socialism. The general strike was perceived as a more narrowly economic struggle, as an ordinary strike writ large.

It is easy to overstate this, though, since this perception was already changing. The SDPC, which surpassed the SPC in size in Winnipeg, rejected the refusal of the SPC to address issues of strategy. The Calgary Convention in March had raised the issue of striking for explicitly political ends, and the Winnipeg Strike was, in itself, a massive event in political education. Whether in Victoria Park, or around the city, an estimated 171 mass meetings took place. It was an exercise, in itself, of a kind of democracy that far outstripped the restrained, drop-a-piece-of-paper-into-the-ballot-box-once-every-few-years kind of democracy. But there seems to have been little thinking about how, strategically, the strike could be built and broadened to provide a real kind of political defeat for Canadian capitalism. The opportunity did, in fact, present itself. With broad strike movements across much of the country, and the possibility that the railway running trades could strike and carry the strike to even the smallest centres, an even broader challenge was quite possible. At times, it was even likely. But it was never clearly posed or discussed by the socialist leadership at the time (to be fair, the political parties, the SPC and SDPC were hardly national organizations). The SPC had never had a national convention and the SDPC was more or less a coalition of groups.

This relates to the political legacy. Although all claimed it, the political organizations that formed in its wake were often formed in an attempt to provide a more effective political strategy. Ian Angus, in the May-June 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension argues, correctly as far as it goes, that the Communist Party was an attempt to provide that leadership. He is incorrect in suggesting that “most of the leaders” of the strike joined the CP, but the connection he suggests is quite real; the CP represented a new socialist strategy developed by those who had, in many cases, been socialist militants before the strike and, no doubt, many who had been radicalized by it.

In fact the left in Winnipeg in the aftermath of the general strike was large, diverse, and fascinating; they drew many different conclusions about the strike. The socialist leadership of the strike ended up, in the short term at least, in the One Big Union and in the Independent Labour Party. It was the latter that made important electoral breakthrough as several of them were elected, from jail, to the Manitoba Legislature. The fact that the ILP was an electoral party and that it eventually joined the CCF when it emerged in the 1930s, does not mean that they should simply be dismissed as social democrats. They still talked about revolutionary change. They ran in elections, but, for a time in the 1930s, disaffiliated from the CCF because of what they considered its non-working-class composition and sentiments. The OBU played an important role politically and culturally. They brought in a speaker – Marshall Gauvin – who gave anti-religious speeches (among other topics) at the Metropolitan Theatre every Sunday night for decades. A Women’s Labour organization formed and debated the role of women and women’s activism in many fields. The CP, of course, had its whole range of activities. All of this was not simply the product of the general strike — Winnipeg had a healthy labour and socialist culture going into it — but this culture was stronger, and more pluralistic, coming out of it.

So the strike didn’t, in some way, create either the CP (the Russian Revolution did that), or the CCF or NDP (contrary to Angus’s comments, current historians of the strike do not argue that it gave birth to the CCF). General strikes and NDP, of course, do not fit easily in the same sentence. And, the radicalism and spirit of revolt present in the strike were directed not just against capital, but frankly against the trade union officialdom of the day. This is not to say there are not connections. The strike lead to many things and its significance was hotly debated in the 1920s and 1930s just as we are doing now.

In the aftermath of the strike, there were show trials that are worth commenting on. Those who were arrested and tried (some immigrants were simply arrested and deported under the new and rapidly passed immigration act), were not in fact tried for any activities during the strike. They were tried for their ideas. The Canadian state put socialism on trial. They were charged for possessing the Communist Manifesto, for having attended the Walker Theatre meeting, etc. The state tried to criminalize their ideas. And it blew up in their faces. Some of the parallels to today – of labeling ideas and organizations as “terrorist” and criminalizing them – are apparent. But the defendants used the occasion of the trial (and their imprisonment) to publicize their ideas. Pritchard’s address to the jury is a wonderful case in point. It was published and very widely distributed. Ironically, despite the socialist strike’s leadership difficulty in connecting the strike to the broader struggle for socialism, the strike was a breakthrough for Marxist ideas in Winnipeg and beyond. And the very example of the strike demonstrated that there was a political subject – labour – capable of taking over a city and perhaps much more.

Jim Naylor teaches History at Brandon University. This is a slightly edited version of a talk presented on May 8, 2009 in Winnipeg at the “Rekindling the Spirit of 1919” event organized by MayWorks.

– – – welcomes letters. The following is a response to Jim Naylor’s article:


Dear friends:

Thank you for posting the thoughtful and valuable talk on the winnipeg
Strike, by Jim Naylor. I agree with most of what he says — and the
points on which he disagrees with my Canadian Dimension article are
far from vital to the subject.

But since he raises it …

Naylor: “He [Angus] is incorrect in suggesting that ‘most of the
leaders’ of the strike joined the CP.”

If the “leaders” are defined only as the Anglo SPC and Labor Church
people who were in the spotlight, of course Jim is correct. Few of
them joined the CP. But if we include the Jewish, Ukrainian and other
immigrant workers (many of them affiliated to the Social Democratic
Party) who actually organized factory walkouts, built the rallies, led
the picket lines, I think the picture is different. By the early
1920s, many — I believe most — of the left-wing leaders of those
communities in Winnipeg were in the CP or its associated groups. They
were leaders in 1919 and they became Communists.

Naylor: “So the strike didn’t, in some way, create … the CP (the
Russian Revolution did that).”

I didn’t say it did. I said that the Canadian Marxist left concluded
from the Winnipeg Strike that a new party was needed, that the SPC,
the SDP and the various Labour parties were inadequate to the task.
But it is misleading to say the Russian Revolution created the CP. The
revolution took place in 1917. The unity congress that created the
Canadian CP was in the spring of 1921, four years later. In between, a
host of experiences, including the Winnipeg strike, convinced an
overwhelming majority of Canadian Marxists that a party on the
Bolshevik model was needed.

As I said, these are side issues that historians and activists can
discuss and will probably disagree on for many years — the most
important thing is, as Jim writes, that the strike showed “that there
was a political subject – labour – capable of taking over a city and
perhaps much more.”

Let’s work together on the “much more.”

Ian Angus