In May and June of 1919, workers in Winnipeg fought the bosses to win union rights. In doing so, they challenged the very authority of the capitalist state to run society. Today, the corporate media and the creators of public opinion try to present Canada as a peaceful land where class struggle has played no role. The fact is that workers in the past have fought, and even died, to gain their rights and will do so again in the future. 100 years later, the events of Winnipeg provide a heroic example and a wealth of lessons for today’s working class militants fighting against a new capitalist crisis.
The foundations of the General Strike were laid in the years immediately preceding 1919. The Winnipeg business community rabidly opposed anything that limited its right to power and profit and steadfastly refused to negotiate with, or recognize, any union of the workers. In response, Winnipeg was wracked by bitter strikes since the turn of the 20th century. Scabs, injunctions, and armed militias were the tactics the bosses used to prevent the workers from gaining a collective agreement. During the war years inflation cut into the standard of living of the workers, while profiteers made millions out of war production. Workers were determined to use the wartime labour shortages to recover lost ground, while the bosses were determined to resist this, creating a contradiction that could not be solved by peaceful means.
Politically, there was an increased radicalization in the Western Canadian labour movement. The Russian Revolution of 1917 played an important role in showing the workers that there was an alternative to the rule of capital. In March of 1919, the Western Labour Conference opened in Calgary. This body sent greetings to the Soviet Union and demanded British, Canadian, and US withdrawal from Russia. There were even blockades of shipments from Vancouver and Victoria to supply the Allied occupation of Vladivostok. The Conference also called for the formation of an industrial “One Big Union” and for a nation-wide ballot for a general strike to institute the 30-hour week. In Winnipeg, union ranks were swelled by immigrants who learned how to fight in the British labour movement. These activists largely considered themselves Marxists in the mould of James Connolly.
In 1917 a series of strikes in Winnipeg went down to defeat after the use of injunctions and scab labour. More and more workers adopted the idea that the only way to win was by combining in larger numbers, and the steel workers did just that in the spring of 1918, forming the Metal Trades Council. In April of 1918 three civic employees unions struck for better pay. Immediately, the Winnipeg Free Press and business leaders started up a campaign against the right to strike in the public sector. Here we can see that 100 years later not much has changed! However, the previous movements had built up strong workers’ solidarity with talk of sympathetic action by all civic workers. The unions managed to hammer out a deal with the city, but when the deal was presented to council it was amended to remove the right to strike from civic employees. The following morning the city firemen struck and were followed by many others in sympathetic action. Fire, water, light and power, public transportation, telephone, and railway maintenance were shut down and the municipal government entered into panic. Both public and private sector workers united to defeat the attack on workers’ democratic right to strike. 10 days later the city signed the original contract without the no-strike clause – the workers had won a significant victory.
In 1918 the Metal Trades Council again tried to negotiate a contract and win recognition from their employers. They struck and there was even the threat of a general strike, but no solidarity action materialized and the workers were defeated. The clear conclusion from the victory of 1917 and the defeat of 1918 was that general action by all the workers in the city was necessary to win decisive gains from the bosses. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council gave itself the right to call a general strike upon a referendum vote of all union members in the city.
The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike was sparked off by disputes in the building and metal trades. Construction workers in the Building Trades Council were attempting to recover their lost wages from wartime inflation. Over the period prices had increased 75 per cent while wages only increased 13 per cent. The Metal Trades Council was again seeking recognition after the defeats, injunctions, and scabs of 1906, 1917 and 1918. Many other workers in the city were also in dispute; telephone operators, streetcar workers and even the civic police had voted to strike for higher pay.
On May 6, the Trades Council met to discuss the disputes. Delegates from the Building Trades reported that the employers were threatening to remove recognition if the union did not accept their final offer. There was also no movement in the Metal Trades. This, combined with the other disputes convinced the Council that the only way forward was to call a general strike. Ballots were distributed and counted May 13 – the result was overwhelming, over 95 per cent of organized workers in Winnipeg voted for an indefinite general strike.
At precisely 11am on Thursday May 15, Winnipeg came to a halt. However, women workers have the honour of starting the strike at 7am as 500 telephone operators walked off the job four hours early. The strike was total with 94 of 96 unions heeding the call. Eventually 30,000 people, almost the entire working population, both union and non-union, were walking the picket lines. The feeling was that this was it, do or die, the workers would not face the same defeats and humiliations of past struggles. However, the workers and their leaders did not have a theoretical understanding of where the strike would take them. They were courageous working class fighters, and many of them considered themselves Marxists, but their aims were just to gain a union contract and recognition. They thought of a general strike as just like any other strike, but bigger. That with enough pressure they could get the bosses to bend to the economic demands of the workers. Even those who believed in a socialist society saw it as something separate from this struggle. The capitalists and their state had a much higher level of class consciousness than the strike leaders and took immediate action.
The forces of reaction formed the “Committee of One Thousand,” which was headed up by members of the Winnipeg Board of Trade, the Manufacturers Association, the Winnipeg Bar, plus wealthy individuals and students. The Committee of One Thousand worked to undermine the strike by any means necessary, arranged volunteer scab labour, and started up a red scare about the strike being a Bolshevik conspiracy to overthrow King and Country.
The civic police approached the strike committee and offered to join the strike and provide security for the pickets. Here we see that in the final analysis, when the class struggle reaches revolutionary proportions, even the organizations of the capitalist state suffer desertions to the side of the working class. The lower ranks of the police and army are made up of working class boys in uniform. No matter how much reactionary propaganda the officers try to instill, the ranks still have mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, in the factories and with skillful agitation can be won over. However, the strike leaders rejected this offer as they feared that this would be a challenge to government authority. They discouraged picketing and advised workers to stay off the streets to avoid confrontations or anything that may be interpreted as “revolutionary.”
The right-wing forces raised a hue and cry over the lack of essential services. In a general strike there is no milk or bread for both the bosses and the workers. In response the strike committee began issuing permits for essential deliveries titled, “PERMITTED BY AUTHORITY OF STRIKE COMMITTEE.” However, this infuriated the reactionaries even further as it made it seem that essential services were being provided by the strike committee and a new workers state was being formed. People were even calling the strike headquarters at the Labour Temple the, “James Street Soviet.” The strike leaders denied this, but they had control of the city and in effect this was the beginning of dual power.
An indefinite general strike is not the same as any other strike for economic demands. In a normal strike the workers attempt to get a boss to meet their demands by removing the boss’s ability to make profits. The general strike is no longer about profits; it asks the question, “Who is master of this house?” Not a wheel turns, not a light shines without the behest of the working class and the general strike shows very clearly who has the power. Once the workers realize that essential services for their families are not being provided, then the strikers themselves start supplying those services. The strike committee is forced to extend its role into that of managing society, even providing safety and security (i.e. police). In Winnipeg, the strike committee definitely had an extended character, with 300 delegates (three from each union local plus five from the Labour Council) and an executive of five. For the capitalists opposing a general strike, the question is no longer an economic calculation of how much money they are willing to lose, it is now a question of power and that is something they will never give away at the bargaining table. In Russia in 1917, these extended strike committees had the name of soviets and formed the base for a new workers’ state. Formation of a new workers’ state is the logical end point of a victorious general strike and without that conception by its leaders, the strike was doomed to defeat.
The federal government mobilized Mounties and troops, including machine guns and armoured cars, to Winnipeg to put down the strikers. The civic police, who had shown sympathy to the strikers, were issued an ultimatum: they had to sign a pledge disassociating themselves from the Labour Council and against sympathetic strikes. After they refused, almost the entire force of 240 were fired. In their place was put a “special police” of anti-strike war veterans and students. This “police” was a disorganized rabble with clubs that sought to beat up workers on the streets. Marxists have always explained that in the last analysis, the state is armed bodies of men in defence of private property. In Winnipeg the armed bodies of the civic police proved themselves unreliable for their class role, and so they were replaced by more primitive individuals. A hysterical reactionary propaganda was also unleashed blaming the strike on Bolsheviks and “undesirable aliens” who should be deported.
However, sections of the working class were also mobilizing. Train crews and engineers were threatening to cut off the Canadian Pacific rail line, which would have paralyzed the country in the era before commercial air travel. The general strike was also spreading to other cities. Calgary, Lethbridge, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Brandon, Fort William, Port Arthur, Amherst, Sydney, Toronto, and Vancouver all faced action, either in sympathy or for their own issues. The Vancouver general strike even encompassed more workers (60,000), had more radical aims (the resignation of the government), and continued six weeks after the defeat of the Winnipeg strike. Things started getting out of the control of the strike committee as thousands of pro-strike war veterans began a series of parades in downtown Winnipeg. Both the capitalists and the workers instinctively understood the revolutionary repercussions of the strike, the only ones ignoring this were the leaders.
On June 6, the federal parliament passed a bill in record time (three readings, two houses, plus the governor general – all in 45 minutes!) permitting deportation without trial of naturalized citizens suspected of sedition. On June 18th, the government put this law into practice and arrested six Anglo-Saxon strike leaders and a handful of “enemy aliens.” Despite the ban on public demonstrations, the pro-strike veterans gathered opposite city hall on June 20th to protest the arrests and the resumption of streetcar service. The following day an even larger crowd gathered and as a provocation a streetcar was sent into their midst. While the workers attempted to turn the streetcar over the Mounted Police charged into the crowd swinging their batons. They were met by flying stones and bottles and one rider was unhorsed. The next time the Mounties charged, they fired their revolvers into the crowd. Striker Mike Sokolowski, a Ukrainian immigrant, died instantly due to a bullet through the heart, Steve Skezerbanovicz died of his injuries a few days later, dozens of others were injured. Special police were waiting to beat and arrest strikers as they fled down alleyways. June 21 1919 came to be known as “Bloody Saturday.” Five days later, on June 26, the strike committee called off the strike without succeeding in any of their aims. It was a defeat that contained many lessons.
The Winnipeg General Strike was a heroic episode which is not just of historical importance for today’s working class militants. What was missing in the six week long strike was an understanding that trade union activity alone, so-called syndicalism, is not enough to defeat the capitalist class and their state. The difference between the defeat in Winnipeg in 1919 and the success in St Petersburg in 1917 was the presence of a revolutionary party that could lead the workers to take power through their democratically elected organs. Many of the militants involved in the Winnipeg strike and the forming of the One Big Union in 1919, went on to learn these lessons and founded the Communist Party of Canada in 1921. It is impossible to know the exact outcome, but if there was a mass revolutionary party in 1919 to unite the strikes in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Toronto, a party that organized the workers on the streets rather than telling them to stay home, the results could have been quite different.
In capitalism’s present crisis we will face the possibility of new mass movements and general strikes. In Ontario, the demand for a general strike is gaining popularity in the movement against Doug Ford’s austerity; and as right-wing governments come to power across the country, similar movements are sure to spring up. Reformists in the movement will point to Winnipeg as an example of how there must never be general strikes. Reformism is becoming less and less useful to the working class movement; how can you have reformism when capitalism cannot afford reforms? New conflicts will arise where the workers are not prepared to accept the attacks of the bosses while the bosses cannot maintain their system without putting through attacks. In this situation the only way to achieve even reforms is to make the capitalists afraid for the survival of their system. One day general strikes are a good way to mobilize the workers and act as a mass show of force in preparation for the final struggle. However, in the final analysis, capitalism is showing itself to be a failed system that cannot provide workers with a job, an education, a home, or healthcare. The task ahead of us is to build a new revolutionary organization that can aid the workers in the inevitable future struggles and towards the only thing that can bring a lasting victory – the eradication of capitalism.