Winnipeg General Strike 100 years ago led to bloodshed, political change

WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg General Strike, which started 100 years ago Wednesday, lasted only six weeks.

But the fallout from the unprecedented display of strength by both ordinary workers and anti-union forces continues to be felt to this day.

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While the workers returned to their jobs — those who weren't fired anyway — and strike leaders were arrested, the walkout by 30,000 unionized and non-unionized labourers led to a royal commission, renewed unity in the labour movement, and the creation of a new political party.

"The workers may have been defeated in terms of their immediate objectives ... but the work to change the world — certainly to change the city and their own neighbourhood — that didn't come to an end. In fact, one might say it intensified," said Nolan Reilly, a retired history professor from the University of Winnipeg.

Reilly and his wife Sharon, a former curator at the Manitoba Museum, have published a walking-tour book about the sites central to the strike.

The dispute erupted when a young Winnipeg was Canada's third-largest city — a transportation hub with a population of roughly 180,000.

Veterans returning from the First World War wanted jobs. Workers already in the city were facing harsh conditions and low pay.

The walkout began as a sympathy strike for construction unions that were trying to form industry-wide bargaining groups. The walkout began at 11 a.m. on Thursday, May 15, 1919.

It spread quickly. The city effectively ground to a halt when telephone operators, firefighters, many police officers and others all walked off the job.

Sympathy strikes sprang up in other cities as the days dragged on.

"Once the strike is declared, and people start going out on strike, the moment captures them. And there is a remarkable degree of social cohesion and class solidarity," said Reilly.

Politicians and the business community labelled the strike a Bolshevik conspiracy and said it was an effort by foreigners to undermine democracy, law and order. Special constables were recruited and the North West Mounted Police's ranks were filled.

On June 10, the federal government ordered the arrest of eight strike leaders.

On June 21 — a day that became known as Bloody Saturday — police armed with guns and clubs charged on foot and horseback into a crowd on Main Street. One worker was shot and killed; another who was shot died later of gangrene. Thirty others were wounded.

Five days later, the strike was called off.

Strike leaders would stand trial on sedition. Seven of the eight were convicted.

The defeat spurred new efforts to change the system from within.

"A lot of people who went through the strike drew the conclusion that they needed to be involved in political action," said David Camfield, an associate professor of labour studies at the University of Manitoba.

J.S. Woodsworth, who had charges of seditious libel dropped, would be elected in the next federal election under the Labour Party banner. He would later help found the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a forerunner of the New Democratic Party. A.A. Heaps, another leader in the strike, also played a pivotal role in the CCF.

A royal commission into the strike concluded that the merchandising class had enjoyed increased prosperity during the war, while workers' conditions had worsened. It said it might be time for government intervention.

"If capital does not provide enough to assure labour a contented existence with a full enjoyment of the opportunities of the times for human improvement, then the government might find it necessary to step in and let the state do these things at the expense of capital," the report said.

In the decades that followed, industry-wide unions would become the norm.

When he was still teaching, Reilly would take his students on his walking tour and show them the class divisions from 100 years ago that are still apparent today — working-class homes and labour halls north of downtown, contrasted with houses that grow more opulent toward the south where the mansions of Wellington Crescent housed many business leaders in 1919.

"I didn't have to provide them with a lot of statistics. They could see it visually."

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