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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.