Category Archives: Analysis

Where Science and Socialism Intersect

A book review by Barry Weisleder

I strongly recommend the latest book by Ian Angus, “A Redder Shade of Green”.  This anthology, published by Monthly Review Press (New York, 2017, 198 pages), contains well-written articles, very accessible to non-experts, that first appeared between 2009 and 2017.  They summarize the latest scientific findings on the state of the environment and provide cogent arguments against climate change deniers and environmental reformists.  Between the covers is a compelling case made for involvement in existing social movements that are doing what can be done right now to reduce carbon emissions. Opposition to the construction of oil pipelines, to fracking for gas, and to military operations (all of which consume inordinate levels of carbon-based energy) are the leading examples.

This book is a fitting companion piece to Angus’ prodigious work “Facing the Anthropocene” (2016) which adduces a sweeping political economy of carbon capitalism, from its origins to today.

The author roots eco-socialism, the programme for system change to avoid catastrophic climate change, in the seminal work of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and their Red Chemist colleague Carl Schorlemmer.  Angus not only explains the “metabolic rift” between capitalist production and nature, but documents how the “Great Acceleration” of fossil fuel usage post-WW2 defines a new fraught epoch, the Anthropocene.  The insatiable drive of global capitalism to grow and profit, at any cost, threatens to disrupt the “Earth System” irreparably, portending the end of human civilization.

“A Redder Shade of Green” correctly targets the system of irrational growth and waste, and it identifies the tiny class that rules over it.  Redder rejects the claims of liberal Greens and pro-capitalist conservationists that all or most of humanity is fundamentally to blame for excessively eating, clothing, sheltering itself, and reproducing.

The sub-title of the book, “Intersections of Science and Socialism”, signifies its strength, and affirms its commitment to build mass movements in the streets to challenge the powers that be.  Effectiveness can be achieved by collaborating with everyone willing to fight for a better future, regardless of differences on social class and ultimate political goals.  At the same time, Angus insists, eco-socialists should relentlessly advance a scientific critique of the fundamental enemy.

Unfortunately, the intersection of Socialism, as a philosophy or programme, with the revolutionary vanguard of the working class, is entirely missing.  The paramount need to create a political party, one that is capable of leading the struggle against the toxic mode of production to a socialist and democratic conclusion, is conspicuous by its absence.

Angus seems to try to justify postponement, or abandonment of the project of building a revolutionary workers’ party with the comment “we have to accept that the socialist movement is not going to triumph in the immediate future.” (page 163)

Just as it is foolhardy to try to predict when the Earth System, an incredibly complex and unpredictable matrix, will go beyond ‘the tipping point’, it has been repeatedly proven wrong to exclude the outbreak of socialist revolution.  After all, as Redder demonstrates, the world is dominated by a global socio-economic system riddled with deep and explosive contradictions.  Indeed, no workers’ revolution that did take place actually happened as predicted.  And those upheavals that were first predicted did not occur when or where they were anticipated.

Furthermore, when revolutionary conditions arise, it is usually too late to start building a party; it is then too late to get it sufficiently rooted to be able to lead insurgent masses to a decisive victory.  Given the dire fate of the environment today, humanity can ill afford to squander any opportunity to make radical change.

Finally, doesn’t it beg the question:  Where are the eco-socialists going to find the most like-minded comrades?  Where will they find the very best builders of broad, mass movements now needed, if not in a revolutionary workers’ party or pre-party formation?  That recognition is actually the Reddest Shade of Green.

Canada joins war in Mali

By Roger Annis, from A Socialist In Canada

On June 24, the first significant components of Canada’s military mission to Mali in north-central Africa touched down. The presence will eventually count 250 soldiers.

Although operating under the aegis of the United Nations Security Council’s ‘MINUSMA’ mission (The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), the Canadian intervention is “not necessarily a peacekeeping mission” according to General Jonathan Vance, Canada’s chief of defence staff.

There was no vote in Parliament on the intervention into Mali, but a vote would have been moot. The intervention enjoys cross-party support. Indeed, the soft-left, labour-based New Democratic Party has criticized the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for not acting more decisively to send more Canadian soldiers abroad.

Canada’s recent history in Africa is scarred by two military interventions. In 2011, the Canadian government and military participated in the violent overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi and his government. The overthrow caused the dismemberment of Libyan society.

Twenty years before that, the Canadian military disgraced itself in Somalia. In 1992, it sent its crack Canadian Airborne Regiment into the country alongside its U.S. partner. The regiment earned infamy when later revelations showed many of its members to be racists and extreme rightists. They engaged in abuse, torture and even murder of Somali detainees. The scandal led to the dismemberment of the regiment and the resignations of two successive chiefs of staff of the Canada armed forces.

The Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien elected in 1993 was obliged to convene a formal inquiry into the affair, but it was cancelled in mid-stream soon after Chrétien and the Liberals won re-election in 1997. The government did not pay a high political price for the cancellation, but the affair contributed to Canada’s decision to limit to a support role its participation in the U.S. attack against Iraq in 2003.

Western intervention into Africa

As with the Security Council’s ongoing, 14-year-old military mission in Haiti, the purpose of the Security Council mission in Mali is to ‘stabilize’ the country in favour of foreign investors and the military. Established in 2013, MINUSMA numbers some 11,000 soldiers, most of whom are drawn from African countries. Some 150 MINUSMA soldiers have been killed in action.

France is the largest foreign military presence in Mali as part of its ‘Operation Barkhane’ across northern Africa. That mission aims to maintain the imperialist stranglehold over the region which contains valuable gold and uranium deposits.

France does not operate under the UN ‘peacekeeping’ fig leaf in Mali, instead calling its own shots. It invaded Mali in January 2013, seizing on the chaos created when the Mali military overthrew the country’s elected president in April 2012. The coup aimed to forestall peace talks with the ethnic Saharan minorities that live in the north of the country. They have long sought autonomy amidst Mali’s majority Black population.

The United States is the largest imperialist military presence in Africa. For more on that story, read:

*  America’s war-fighting footprint in Africa, by Nick Turse, published in Tom Dispatch, April 27, 2018

*  The US military is conducting secret missions all over Africa, by Nick Turse, VICE News, Oct 24, 2017

France’s military adventuring in Africa enjoys broad domestic support, including from the moderate political left in that country. Much of the radical left issues rather tame critiques of the mission, accepting the premise that ‘something’ needs to be done about the problem of ‘jihadism’ in Mali and north Africa. In Canada, the broad political left is largely silent on Canada’s military adventuring in Mali and elsewhere in the world.  Critical journalists merely argue that Mali is too dangerous and too chaotic to be worth the demise of any Canadian soldiers.

The deployment into Mali follows Canada’s disastrous military intervention into Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014, and its ongoing, military/political intervention into Haiti. The Haiti mission began in February 2004 when Canada joined in assisting the overthrow of Haiti’s elected president of the day. The Security Council’s ‘MINUSTAH’ mission in Haiti began in June 2004 and is ongoing. (The name of the mission was recently changed to ‘United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti’).

In Afghanistan, 158 Canadian soldiers died. The prestige of Canada’s military suffered greatly following revelations of participation in routine practices of torture and abuse by the Afghan police and army. Growing numbers of Canadians began to see that the U.S.-led Western intervention into Afghanistan, now dating back nearly 20 years, has had nothing to do with human development for the country and everything to do with projecting imperialist power and diktat. The 2013 book Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan tells this story.

The Liberal Party federal government elected in October 2015 cancelled a formal investigation into Canada’s role in detainee torture and abuse in Afghanistan.

Mali is scheduled to hold a presidential election on July 29, 2018. But the vote may not proceed, considering the volatile political and military situation in the country. This writer published extensive reports on the situation in Mali between 2012 and 2015.  One is titled Mali war and occupation, which is in the archive of articles by Roger Annis and other writers on the April 2012 military coup d’etat in Mali and its aftermath. One of the feature articles in that archive is: The political left in France and in Mali assess the French military intervention and its aftermath, by Roger Annis, March 30, 2013.

One of the foremost writers in English on the history of northern Africa is Jeremy Keenan. He is a professor of anthropology at the University of London and author of the 2012 book The Dying Sahara: U.S. Imperialism and Terror In Africa. In 2012, he wrote this article, ‘Algerian state terrorism and atrocities in northern Mali‘.

Mali is one of the poorest countries in Africa. It sits on the periphery of the Sahara Desert, whose boundary is moving steadily south as global warming increases. Mali desperately needs social, economic and environmental assistance. The last thing it needs is more imperialist military intervention and foreign exploitation of mineral and other natural resources.

The working class movement in Canada should speak out and demand ‘Canada Out of Mali’.

Mainstream news reports:

*  Canadian peacekeepers begin arrival in Mali as yearlong mission begins, by Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press, June 24 2018

*  Mali ‘far messier’ than other peacekeeping missions, says Canada’s defence chief, CBC News, June 24, 2018

Related news:

*  36 civilians dead in militia attack on village in central Mali, reports Fulani ethnic group, The Associated Press, June 25, 2018  Attack took place in area populated by ethnic Fulani, accused of al-Qaeda ties

*  Mass grave in Mali holds 25 bodies tortured and murdered by Mali army, Reuters, June 19, 2018

*  Twenty-five bodies found in central Mali after army sweep, Agence France presse, June 18, 2018

*  Executions by Malian government troops highlight human-rights challenges for Canadian soldiers, by Geoffrey York, Globe and Mail, June 22, 2018*  Bomb attack against UN military base in central Mali kills six, Deutsche Welle, June 29, 2018

*  UN Security Council approves Sahel counterterrorism force, Deutsche Welle, June 21, 2018

[The UN Security Council has approved an African counterterrorism force in the Sahel region of central Africa. The resolution creating the force was introduced by France. Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – known as the G5 – agreed in March to deploy a counterterrorism force in the region alongside the African Union and sought UN backing.

[The force is under a separate command but will complement the UN’s 15,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali and the 4,000-strong French troop presence in the region, known as Barkhane. Germany participates in an EU training mission in southern Mali and has a mandate to contribute up to 1,000 troops in support of the UN mission.]

It’s War

The June 7 election of the Doug Ford-led Progressive Conservative Party to government in Ontario means an escalation of the class war against working people, visible minorities and impoverished social layers.

The former right wing Toronto city councilor and brother of deceased Mayor Rob Ford cloaked his fiercely anti-labour agenda in populist rhetoric pitched against ‘the establishment, the downtown elites’.  This allowed Doug Ford to channel mass discontent with 15 years of Liberal government cutbacks and corruption.  Premier Kathleen Wynne tried to save the furniture from the fire with a late shift to the left (e.g. increasing the minimum hourly wage, promising more spending to improve health services).  But her Liberal Party lost half its voters and is now reduced to a rump of seven seats in the Ontario Legislature, one shy of official party status.

The labour-based New Democratic Party, running on a mildly left-reform platform, surged to 33.6 per cent and nearly doubled its seat total to 40.  Several of its best policies (re-nationalize Hydro One, free university, drug and dental care, raise taxes on the rich, build social housing and public transit) came straight from the NDP Socialist Caucus playbook.

Andrea Horwath was over-the-top ecstatic at becoming Leader of the Official Opposition, pledging to hold Ford “to account”.  But this won’t do.  The Tory agenda today is much more aggressive than that of right wing Premier Mike Harris in the mid-1990s.  The horror show must be confronted and stopped by mass protest in the streets and work places, not by reliance on polite parliamentary criticism.

NDP and union leaders should be challenged to lead the fight outside the Legislature. In fact, the labour tops should have mobilized the ranks to campaign for the NDP, to counter the threat of the rampant anti-worker agenda of Ford and his conservative hate mongers. A serious effort to expose Ford’s populist propaganda might well have won the election for the NDP. Instead many labour officials sat on their asses; some even urged ‘strategic’ voting, which meant a vote for the Liberal Party. Unforgivable. This shows why union leaders should be paid no more than the average wage of their union collective agreement. Privileges and fat expense accounts be gone! Replace the conservative bureaucrats with rank and file militants and turn the unions into instruments of class struggle.

Still, one thing is very clear:  Doug Ford’s victory does not signal a unilateral shift to the right. The election rather reflects a polarization to both the left and the right.  The highly disproportionate first-past-the-post electoral system perpetuates capitalist rule by usually delivering a majority of seats to parties that gain a minority of votes. On June 7 the Conservatives captured 61 per cent of the seats (76 in total) with only 40.5 per cent of the votes cast.  In other words, nearly 60 per cent of those who cast ballots supported parties ostensibly to the left of the Tories. That includes the Green Party which won 4.6 per cent and (for the first time in Ontario) one seat. Taking into account a voter turnout of 58 per cent (up from 51 per cent in 2014), it is evident that only about a quarter of the electorate backed Ford Nation.

But Ford says he has a mandate to implement his policies, swiftly.  What are they?  He will probably begin by breaking the strike of teaching assistants at York University, CUPE Local 3903, and then repeal Bill 148, the labour law reforms that include a $15/hour minimum wage set for 2019.  Next will be a tax cut of 20 per cent that will most benefit the rich.  His tax credit for child care costs will not create more spaces, raise or enforce standards, or boost pay for low wage workers.  No steps to build social housing, and no significant increase in health care funding are in store.  On transportation, Ford pledged to take ownership of Toronto’s subway system, which could be the fast track to privatization — while bus service remains woefully inadequate.

Jobs?  The $6 billion Ford says he will find in “efficiencies” translates to firing thousands of teachers, health workers and others in the public sector.  Scores of schools and hospitals will be shuttered.  Cuts in services will be staggering and bloody, impacting most harshly on the impoverished.  Welfare rates will be rolled back and frozen.  Will hydro bills shrink by 12 per cent as promised?  Not likely as the private investors in Hydro One, sold off by Wynne’s Liberals, demand profit dividends.  Most workers won’t miss the demise of the regressive cap-and-trade taxes, a license to pollute, but there is no climate justice plan in its stead.  Hostile to indigenous people’s needs, Ford boasted he’d personally drive the bulldozer to exploit rapidly the Ring of Fire resources in Northern Ontario, with or without local consent.

On education, the Tories promised to repeal the new sex-ed curriculum but earmarked no new funds to repair crumbling school infrastructure.

Surprisingly, Ford never presented a fully costed platform. Economists estimate that the changes he promised, including tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, will create a $20 billion budget hole.  The shortfall is sure to come out of the hide of the working class.

Many workers who voted for Ford expect him to put money in their pocket and deliver $1 beer.  Imagine the disillusionment, indeed the raw anger, that will be felt when they realize they’re less well off.

As Karl Marx observed over 150 years ago, “The point is not to interpret the world, it is to change it.”  Today, the task is not to wait for unfocussed anger at Ford to swell; it is to fan the flames of discontent, build a broad, democratic, united front against capitalist austerity. It is to provide leadership in the struggle for a Workers’ Agenda.  The municipal elections in October offer an opportunity for the left to unite and confront the Ford agenda with a socialist platform. In any case, the road to effective action at all levels will entail replacing the leaders of the mainstream workers’ organizations with radical grassroots activists.

The class war is escalating.  There is no denying it.  The point is to wage it and to win it through mass protests, up to and including sectoral and general strikes with the aim of replacing the Ford regime with a Workers’ Government.

The Winnipeg General strike in the Context of the Bolshevik Revolution

The Winnipeg General Strike began on the 15th of May 1919 and ended on the 25th of June. During that time, the strike  Committee, set up by the unions, ran the city. It was the first worker run city in Canada, brief though it was. For 42 days, 6 weeks, the workers ran the City of Winnipeg and the bosses and politicians could do nothing about it.

A year and a half earlier on Nov 7 1917, under the leadership of the Bolsheviks led primarily by Lenin And  Trotsky, the workers had seized power in Petrograd establishing the very first workers state in history These two events were closely related

Both of  these events rose out of the massive imperialist convulsion pf blood and gore and disease and destruction known as World War I. The 4 long years of mud and blood and artillery fire and machine guns and rain and cold had been a hell none of the soldiers could have imagined.

Repeated, uncaring orders from aristocratic officers on both sides for hundreds of thousands of soldiers to go over the top into the teeth of merciless machine gun fire had resulted in slaughter and mountains of corpses with the maggots and rats they inevitably draw.

When these workers in uniform recoiled and refused to continue such insane and suicidal behaviour they were summarily court marshalled and shot dead.

This was brutal imperialist competition in its most basic and bloody form.

Working class Canadians had signed up en mass in a wave of enthusiasm for the flag waving, the parades, the chance to go overseas and do something exciting and heroic. Their drab lives in the forests, mines, factories and grain fields did little to hold them back.

Their introduction to the reality of modern war came quickly and roughly. These young Canadians adapted to it, and became among the toughest soldiers on the allied side. German officers would watch where Canadian troops were sent and send in reinforcements. Partly this was because of the grit shown by these kids from the Canadian wilderness and partly it was the greater willingness of British officers to send in the colonials to try to reduce the long casualty lists of dead and wounded being sent home to Britain.

But at least this was the war to end all wars, the war to make the world safe for democracy. Or at least that was what the ruling class said it was.

At the end of it all, demobilization was slow. Canadian troops were left in camps in England in mud and rain, often without pay and even short of food. No longer the naïve patriotic kids who volunteered, Canadian soldiers rioted repeatedly. There was talk of using Canadian troops to fight to red army in the Soviet Union. The mood among the men was against this. They were sick of war and wanted to go home. Many of them felt a strong sympathy with the new workers government in Russia.

A contingent was sent from Canada to Vladivostok on the east coast of the Soviet Union. They were sent through Victoria. During a march through the city to the ships, they mutinied. The mutiny was quelled and they sailed with the mutineers in irons. They got to Vladivostok, but never fired at shot at the Red Army. The Red Army won against the Aristocratic Russian generals and their foreign allied imperialist troops.

How had such a thing happened? Why were the workers ruling Russia? Such a thing had never happened before.

The overthrow of the Tsarist regime and then the Kerensky government was precipitated by the horror of the war. Bolsheviks, who had opposed the war from the outset, entered the army to be with the worker and peasant soldiers, share their fate and agitate against the war.

As the death toll skyrocketed and arrogant aristocratic officers treated the soldiers as valueless pawns the soldiers began to rebel. The bolsheviks were informing them of the uprisings in Petrograd and elsewhere. The soldiers began simply to shoot their officers and head back home. At home they overwhelmingly supported the workers and the revolution.

This was the revolution the imperialists including Canada’s ruling class feared and loathed. They saw bolshevism in every workers action, every workers meeting and every whisper of unionism.

Canadian workers, after the profound and sobering experience of the war were far less naïve as the war ground to an end. Their leaders knew about the revolution and many supported it. There was no communist party in Canada in 1919. It would be formed in a barn in Guelph Ontario in 1921. But there were class conscious leaders, socialists, anarchists and syndicalists, many of whom would later become members of the early Communist party. Labour conferences in Canada in this period overwhelmingly expressed solidarity with the new Soviet Union and passed resolutions demanding that The Canadian soldiers in Vladivostok be brought home.

Immediate Causes of the Strike

Soldiers returned home desiring jobs and a normal lifestyle again only to find factories shutting down, soaring unemployment rates, increasing bankruptcies and immigrants taking over the veterans’ former job. The cost of living was raised due to the inflation caused by World War I, making it hard for families to live above poverty.

Another component which caused the strike was the working conditions of many factories that upset the employees, thus pushing them to make the changes that would benefit them.

After three months of unproductive negotiations between the employers of the Winnipeg builders exchange and the union, worker frustration grew. The city council’s new proposal to the workers was unsatisfactory to the four departments, electrical workers took action and a strike was established. Waterworks and fire department employees joined a few days later.

Strikers were labelled as Bolsheviks who were attempting to undermine Canada. The city council viewed the strike as utterly unacceptable and thus dismissed the striking workers. This did not discourage the workers; instead, other civic unions joined the strike out of sympathy, which was an important feature of twentieth century social history.

On May 13, City Council gathered again to review and look over the proposed agreement issued by the strikers and their leaders. Once again, City Council did not accept the proposal without their own amendments, specifically the Fowler Amendment, which read that “all persons employed by the City should express their willingness to execute an agreement, undertaking that they will not either collectively or individually at any time go on strike but will resort to arbitration as a means of settlement of all grievances and differences which may not be capable of amicable settlement.”

This amendment incensed the civic employees further, and by Friday, May 24, an estimated total of 6,800 strikers from thirteen trades had joined the strike.

Organization

In Winnipeg, workers within the building and metal industries attempted to strengthen their bargaining ability by creating umbrella unions, the Building Trade Council and Metal Trade Council respectively, to encompass all metal and building unions. Although employers were willing to negotiate with each union separately, they refused to bargain with the Building and Metal Trade Councils, because the solidarity of the unions greatly strengthened the workers bargaining position

Restrictive labour policy in the 1900s meant that a union could be recognized voluntarily by employers, or through strike action, but in no other way. Workers from both industrial groupings therefore struck to gain union recognition and to compel recognition of their collective bargaining rights.

The Building and Metal Trade Councils appealed to the Trades and Labour Union, the central union body representing the interests of many of Winnipeg’s workers, for support in their endeavours. The Trades and Labour Union, in a spirit of solidarity, voted overwhelmingly in favour of a sympathetic strike in support of the Building and Metal Trade Councils.

Ernest Robinson, secretary of the Winnipeg Trade and Labour Union, issued a statement that “every organization but one has voted in favour of the general strike” and that “all public utilities will be tied-up in order to enforce the principle of collective bargaining”.By suspending all public utilities, the strikers hoped to shut down the city, effectively forcing the strikers’ demands to be met. The complete suspension of public utilities, however, would prove impossible. The Winnipeg police, for example, had voted in favour of striking but remained on duty at the request of the strike committee to prevent the city from being placed under martial law. Other exceptions would follow.

At 11:00 a.m. on Thursday May 15, 1919, virtually the entire working population of Winnipeg had gone on strike. About half of these workers were not even union members. Somewhere around 30,000 workers in the public and private sectors walked off their jobs. Even essential public employees such as firefighters went on strike, but returned midway through the strike with the approval of the Strike Committee.

Although relations with the police and City Council were tense, the strike was non-violent in its beginning stages until the confrontation on Bloody Saturday.

Sympathetic Strikes

General strikes broke out in other cities, in solidarity with the Winnipeg strikers and in part as protest against local conditions. Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Amherst (Nova Scotia) and several other cities were locations of these sympathy strikes. Thirteen sympathy strikes in 13 cities have been recorded, some nearly as big as the Winnipeg strike

When Winnipeg strike leaders were arrested in June, Toronto streetcar drivers went on strike.

Victoria, BC held a general strike in protest at the police repression on Bloody Saturday and to show local labour strength.

Opposition

The local newspapers, the Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune, had lost the majority of their employees due to the strike and took a decidedly anti-strike stance. The New York Times front page proclaimed “Bolshevism Invades Canada.” The Winnipeg Free Press called the strikers “bohunks,” “aliens,” and “anarchists” and ran cartoons depicting radicals throwing bombs.

These anti-strike views greatly influenced the opinions of Winnipeg residents. However, the majority of the strikers were not revolutionary. The winnipeg strike and the huge symparht strike could not have ended up in a workers Canada. There was no centralized leadership like the bolsheviks in Russia which could tackle the problem f state power.

When certain unions refused to comply with various boss and City Council demands their members were dismissed and replaced without any second chances. In regards to this, the Federal government opposed the dismissal of the Winnipeg police force and afterwards refused to step in when the police force was dismissed by the city thus creating the workforce called the “specials”.

Most opposed to the strike was the state including three levels of government: federal, provincial and municipal. The opposition could have been more efficient if they coordinated their policies and deals with each other rather than gradually working into the agreement and not being the total opposition that they were labelled in the first place.

At a local level, politicians showed sympathy for the strikers making them neither a monolith nor unalterably an enemy. The federal government’s only direct interest in the general strike other than calls from the local authorities was keeping the railroads and post office running.

A counter-strike committee, the “Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand”, was created by Winnipeg’s elite, among whom were A. J. Andrews, James Coyne, Isaac Pitblado, and Travers Sweatman, all four of whom would later co-prosecute the sedition cases

The Committee falsely declared the strike to be a violent, revolutionary conspiracy by a small group of foreigners also known as “alien scum”. On June 9, at the behest of the Committee, the City of Winnipeg Police Commission dismissed almost the entire city police force for refusing to sign a pledge promising to neither belong to a union nor participate in a sympathetic strike. The City replaced them with a large body of untrained but better paid special constables who sided with the employers.

Within hours, one of the special constables, a “hero”World War I veteran Frederick Coppins, charged his horse into a gathering of strikers and was dragged off his horse and severely pummelled.

As the situation spiralled out of control, the City of Winnipeg appealed for federal help and received extra reinforcements through the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. Despite these drastic measures, control of the streets was beyond the capacity of the city in the period between Tuesday June 9 and Bloody Saturday, June 21.

The Citizens’ Committee saw the strike as a breakdown of public authority and worried that the Strike Committee was attempting to overthrow the Canadian government.

The Citizens’ Committee met with federal Minister of Labour Gideon Decker Robertson and Minister of the Interior (and acting Minister of Justice) Arthur Meighen, warning them that the leaders of the general strike were revolutionists. Meighen issued a statement May 24 that he viewed the strike as “a cloak for something far deeper–an effort to ‘overturn’ the proper authority”. In response, he supplemented the army with local militia, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police and special constables. Legislation quickly passed to allow for the instant deportation of any foreign-born radicals who advocated revolution or belonged to any organization opposed to organized government.

Robertson ordered federal government employees back to work, threatening them with dismissal if they refused. The two ministers refused to meet the Central Strike Committee to consider its grievances.

Bloody Saturday

On June 10 the federal government ordered the arrest of eight strike leaders (including J. S. Woodsworth and Abraham Albert Heaps). On June 21, about 30,000 strikers assembled for a demonstration at Market Square, where Winnipeg Mayor Charles Frederick Gray read the Riot Act. Troubled by the growing number of protestors and fearing violence, Mayor Gray called in the Royal Northwest Mounted police, who rode in on horseback charging into the crowd of strikers, beating them with clubs and firing weapons. This violent action resulted in the death of two strikers Mike Sokowolski (shot in the heart) and Mike Schezerbanowicz (shot in the legs, later dying of gangrene infection), 35 to 45 people injured (police, telephone operators, firemen, utility workers and laborers) and numerous arrests.

Four Eastern European immigrants were rounded up at this time (two of them were deported, one voluntarily to the United States and the other to Eastern Europe). This day, which came to be known as “Bloody Saturday”, ended with Winnipeg virtually under military occupation. Interacting with other prisoners that consisted of editors and strikers, police shut down the striker’s paper called the Western Labour News and arrested the editors for commentating on the event.

At 11:00 a.m. on June 25, 1919, the Central Strike Committee officially called off the strike and the strikers returned to work.

Aftermath

Eight of the strike leaders arrested on June 18 were eventually brought to trial in what were called “state trials” of political crimes. Five were found guilty of the charges laid against them. Their jail sentences ranged from six months to two years.

Sam Blumenberg and M. Charitonoff were scheduled for deportation. Only Blumenberg was deported, having left for the United States. Charitonoff appealed to Parliament in Ottawa and was eventually released without deportation. The lack of criminal proceedings taken against them was taken as evidence that their arrests were part of a government ruse so as to continue the fiction that foreigners, not British born, were the “agitators” of the strike.

A jury acquitted strike leader Fred Dixon.

The government dropped charges of seditious libel against J. S. Woodsworth, whose “crime” was quoting in the strike bulletin from the Bible. Woodsworth was elected MP in the next federal election as a Labour MP and went on to found and lead the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a forerunner of the New Democratic Party.

A Settlement

Fearing that the strike would spread to other cities, the Federal Government ordered Senator Gideon Decker Robertson to mediate the dispute. After hearing both sides, Robertson settled in favour of the strikers and encouraged Council to accept the civic employee’s proposal. Bolstered by their success, the labour unions would use the strike weapon again and again to gain other labour and union reforms.

After the strike many employees had mixed emotions about the solution the mayor provided agreed to. The metal workers received a reduction from their working week of five hours but did not receive a pay increase. Many of workers lost their pension rights and a deeper division between the working class and the capitalist class persisted.

Civic employees were obligated to sign an oath promising not to partake in any sympathetic strikes in their future. Among the Bloody Saturday participants, many lost their jobs and others resumed their previous jobs but were placed at the bottom of the seniority level. This was in spite of the fact that the violence was caused by the specials and the RCMP.

The Royal Commission which investigated the strike concluded that the strike was not a criminal conspiracy by foreigners and suggested 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.”

Organized labour thereafter was hostile towards the Conservatives, particularly Meighen and Robertson, for their forceful role in putting down the strike. Combined with high tariffs in the federal budget passed in the same year (which farmers disliked), the state security forces’ heavy-handed action against the strikers contributed to the Conservatives’ heavy defeat in the 1921 election – they lost every one of their seats on the Prairies.

The succeeding Liberal government, fearing the growing support for hard left elements, pledged to enact the labour reforms proposed by the Commission. The strike leaders who had at least faced charges if not served time in prison (such as Woodsworth mentioned above) were applauded as labor’s champion and many were elected to serve in provincial and federal governments.

Role of women

The role of women during that time period played an influential part when dealing with the strike. As active citizens, various women were among the crowds joining the bystanders, sightseers and victims at major rallies and demonstrations. The division of women in the province included the strikers and women called “scabs” that were against the strike and tried every way to end it. Striking women would unplug the telephone operators and the scabs would plug them back in. It was especially hard for the women at home due to the low income and absence of goods and services to survive weekly as well as fully depending on their own salary.

By 1919, women constituted roughly one-quarter of that labour force, mainly working in the service, clerical and retail parts of the economy. Around 500 women workers walked off after the first call of the strike, followed by hundreds more days later. The Young Women’s Christian Association provided emergency accommodations to women who lived far away from their job. They accepted women strikers and non-strikers to get through the strike with ease. A major figure rose named Helen Armstrong, who was head of the local branch of the women’s labour league, accompanying husband George Armstrong, who was one of the strike leaders. Helen was responsible for the women’s kitchen maintained by the women’s league to feed the striking women. Male strikers were allowed to come to the kitchen to eat but had to provide a good reason as well as sometimes even paying for their meal.

Being arrested and put in jail, Helen made the media with names like “the wild women of the west” and “business manager for the women’s union”.

Among many other women who were sent to jail, Helen was granted a substantial bail of $1,000. When newspapers and articles commented on the strike and the women involved, the Winnipeg Tribune referred to many of the militant women as having accents thus labelling them as foreigners whenever something was published.

After the strike concluded many women came out for “ladies day” at Victoria park on June 12 and occupied seats of honour near the front cheering along with J. S. Woodsworth promoting emancipation of women and the equality of the sexes. This event was a catalyst for the equality of women and soon after leading to women being able to vote.

Lasting Lessons

What for us are the lasting lessons of the Winnipeg General strike.

First, it was based on strong solidarity among the unions and the willingness of leaders of various unions to subordinate their differences in the interests of solidarity and the needs of the workers as a whole. We could use a lot more of that today, witness the destructive withdrawal of Unifor from the Canadian Labour Congress which has nothing to do with worker needs and everything to do with the interests and bloated egos of the trade union bureaucrats.

Secondly, it demonstrated that the workers could set up a leadership, allocate and carry out responsibilities and ensure peace, security, distribution of food, operation of basic services and even opening of cinemas under authority of the strike committee. It was possible over 6 full weeks to run the city without the bosses and their crooked politicians.

Thirdly, although brutally suppressed, this massive and impressive action brought the bosses to concede, greater union rights, better pay, shorter hours in many cases and women’s suffrage shortly after.

Fourthly, it showed the possibility of Canada wide action by workers as demonstrated by the size and number of sympathy strikes from Halifax to Victoria.

Finally, it was a strike not only for wages and working condition but for rights. It was not merely economic but political in scope and contributed to the subsequent establishment of worker based parties such as the early communist party formed in 1921 in Ontario and in Calgary in 1932 the CCF.

The Farcical May Day March in Toronto

Around the world, millions demonstrated for workers’ rights and socialism in the main city squares.  It was the continuation of a proud revolutionary tradition that began 132 years ago.  But in Toronto, fewer than two hundred people met in a muddy field at the corner of Keele Street and Four Winds Drive.  After a much-delayed rally on the soggy grass, featuring excellent socialist hip-hop rapper Mohammad Ali Aumeer, and a good opening statement from the organizers, the gathering of far-left factions walked for an hour south to a desolate Downsview Park.  There the event ended in disarray.

Now is the time for some accountability on the part of ‘organizers’ of one of the most farcical gatherings for May 1 in the modern history of the day in Toronto.

At the terminus, there was no concluding statement from the organizers.  The saving grace was a circle dance led by Kurdish women, and a rendition of the Internationale led by Socialist Action.  SA hosted a lively contingent, walking and chanting at the front of the parade.  Other organizations on the left, ostensibly socialist, anarchist and left social democratic, were conspicuous by their absence.

The purported reason for holding this virtually hidden display of workers’ solidarity, far from the eyes and ears of working people concentrated in the busy downtown districts, was to bring the celebration closer to teaching assistants on strike at York University, to indigenous people and environmentalists fighting Line 9, and to the victims of Ottawa’s imperialist war policies.  These were good goals.  But, sadly and predictably, this plan failed on all fronts.  The demonstration did not approach the site of the strike.  It attracted almost no friendly onlookers en route, and obtained zero mass media coverage.

Apart from a dozen, stalwart, flag-waving members of CUPE Local 3903, there was no significant union participation visible, and no presence of indigenous people’s movements evident.

Instead of the 1,000+ folks who typically gather at Dundas Square or Toronto City Hall or Christie Park or Queen’s Park on the occasion, this effort of the so-called United May Day Committee was one of weakest displays of outreach, event planning and parade marshaling seen in decades.  Organizers did not inform SA, and others, of the meetings of the UMDC.  As a result, we are reduced to openly expressing our concerns post-facto.

Clearly, there are hard lessons to be drawn from this sad experience.  Just as importantly, activists in the unions, international solidarity campaigns, and on the left should strive to ensure that the May 1, 2019 march does not repeat the egregious errors of the rather pitiful one just held in 2018.

We can and must do better in the future.