Winnipeg General Strike: A Battle for Fair Wages and Collective Bargaining

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919

On May 15, 1919 tens of thousands of Winnipeg workers walked off the job. The building and metal trades federations were asking for fair wages and collective bargaining.

They shut down privately owned factories and shops as well as public services including police, firemen, postal workers and telephone and telegraph operators.

The Strike

The strike began on May 1 when the workers in the building and metal trades went on strike because their employers would not enter into negotiations. On May 15, a large number of workers, including those in other unions, joined the strike. They shut down the city’s factories, shops, and trains as well as many public sector services such as police, firemen, postal workers, telephone and telegraph operators, and utilities workers.

In response to the strike, Winnipeg’s wealthy manufacturers and business people formed the Citizens’ Committee of 1000. They argued that the strikers were Bolsheviks and “alien scum” and that they were trying to stage a revolution. They also feared that the strike would encourage strikes in other cities. The federal government stepped in and supported the employers by threatening to fire federal employees who continued to support the strike. Two Cabinet members, Senator Gideon Robertson and Arthur Meighen, visited Winnipeg to assess the situation.

The Citizens’ Committee

A fervour for industrial unionism and radical politics had transformed postwar Winnipeg into a hotbed of class confrontation. The refusal of employers to recognize the councils of unions for their metal and building trades pushed workers into an explosive position that threatened to upend their society.

Tensions were heightened by the growing popularity of revolutionary ideas sparked in part by the Bolshevik overthrow of the Czar of Russia. Fearing a similar revolution at home, business leaders formed the Citizens’ Committee to oppose the strike and turned to the federal government for support.

Worried about escalating tensions, several cabinet ministers visited Winnipeg and met with local officials and the Citizens’ Committee. However, the Committee refused their requests for federal intervention. Instead, Ottawa supported the city’s employers by amending the Immigration Act to allow for the deportation of British-born immigrants and broadening the Criminal Code’s definition of sedition. It also dismissed the municipal police force and brought in a baton-wielding civilian volunteer militia, the Red Coats, to quell the strike.

The Federal Government

Seeing that the strike was growing, federal authorities were concerned. They sent Senator Gideon Robertson, Minister of Labour and Arthur Meighen, Canada’s Minister of Justice to Winnipeg. The two refused to meet with the Citizens Committee or any of its allies. They also issued ultimatums to workers in federal institutions who supported the strike and enacted new legislation, which included broadened definitions of sedition and alienage.

At a second meeting called by the Socialist Party at the Majestic Theatre, speakers condemned the press for misreporting events in Russia and rejected capitalism. They advocated a new system that would put workers in control. This meeting was also attended by undercover federal agents who reported to their bosses that a new militancy had emerged amongst the Winnipeg workforce. This prompted the government to escalate its action. It established a Citizens’ Committee of 1000 and branded the strikers as Bolsheviks and “alien scum.” The committee ignored the strikers’ basic demands and concentrated on discrediting the movement with these false charges.

The Arrests

A century later, the issues that sparked the general strike continue to be debated. Labour activism has never been more relevant, and the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining remains a key battleground across Canada, and around the world.

Influential capitalists quickly formed the Citizens’ Committee of 1000 and launched a campaign to stop the strike. They branded the strikers as Bolsheviks and “alien scum” and portrayed them as foreign agitators who wanted to destroy Canada. There was little evidence to support these claims, but the Citizens’ Committee used them to block any attempts at conciliation.

The federal government stepped in to protect the interests of business. Canadian Minister of Labour Gideon Robertson and the future Prime Minister Arthur Meighen met with city officials but refused to meet with the Citizens’ Committee or strike leaders. They threatened to fire workers in federal institutions and changed the Immigration Act to allow for immediate deportation of immigrants deemed to be disloyal or seditious.

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