90 Years Ago: The Winnipeg General Strike

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Readers will recall that we reprinted in our last issue an earlier article on the Seattle General Strike of 1919, which pointed out the importance of this event in the development of the class struggle in North America, analyzed its strengths and weaknesses and showed how, despite persistent myths of the passivity of the working class in North America, the post-World War I revolutionary wave, which put capitalist social relations into question, did not spare North America.

In this issue, we continue our look at the history of the revolutionary wave in North America with a new article on events north of the 49th parallel, where the working class in Canada launched its own offensive against the capitalist system in a series of struggles across the year 1919, culminating in the Winnipeg General Strike in May and June of that year that would threaten the capitalist social order and would, in the form of spontaneous mass assemblies of workers, prefigure a new social order beyond capitalism.

Winnipeg was a bustling city in the spring of 1919, the largest city in the Canadian West and home to the tallest building in the British Empire at the time. An important transportation hub linking Western and Eastern Canada as well as a route into the United States, Winnipeg stood as an important center of working class life in the western part of the continent. In the spring of 1919, Winnipeg's isolation on the immense northern prairie, where it sits almost 500 miles from the nearest major metropolitan center, did not prevent it from serving as the focal point of a wave of working class struggle that swept Western Canada.

The working class in Winnipeg had to overcome many obstacles in order to come together in the massive struggle it launched that year. Ethnically diverse, with workers coming from Anglo-Scottish, French, Jewish, German, Mennonite, Ukrainian and other heritages, Winnipeg's working class was far from a homogenous. Differences of trade, gender and language further segmented the working class, although the most important fission at the time was probably that between workers who had served on the battlefields of Europe during World War I versus those who had labored in the factories, in the shops and on the railroads at home. The situation was so bad that in January 1919, the ruling class successfully manipulated tensions between the returning war veterans, who faced unemployment and insecurity, and immigrant workers, resulting in anti-immigrant rioting. Returning soldiers marched on a meat packing plant demanding that foreigners be fired from their jobs. The veterans also attacked a socialist memorial meeting for the martyred German revolutionaries, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. For several days immigrants were attacked in the streets and even in their homes. 

Try as they might, the bourgeoisie and its state apparatus were unable to use these divisions to keep Winnipeg's working class prostrate as it faced the social and economic turmoil that accompanied the war and its conclusion. Throughout the spring of 1919, Winnipeg's working class demonstrated a tremendous capacity to transcend these various divisions and act in concert as one force in defense of its own class interests. In perhaps one of the most important developments in the Winnipeg struggle, working class veterans who just four months earlier had been suckered into anti-immigrant rioting, overcame the xenophobic bourgeois ideology and threw their support to the general strike. [1] Even rank and file police officers attempted to join the rebellion.

These events occurred in the context of widespread working class support and sympathy for the proletarian revolution in Russia throughout North America in general and in Winnipeg in particular, where for example a mass meeting of 1700 workers, including immigrants and native-born workers, in December 1918 voiced support for and adopted resolutions endorsing the revolutionary struggles in Russia and Germany. The example of the Seattle General strike also stood clearly in the minds of the workers as well. Events in Winnipeg drew further momentum from the Western Labour Conference held in Calgary during March 1919. During this conference, delegates from unions across the West seceded from the Trades and Labour Conference of Canada (TLC) to propose a new organization called One Big Union (OBU), sharing much in common with the principles of revolutionary syndicalism defended by the International Workers of the World (IWW). Many delegates who formed the OBU openly identified with the Russian Revolution and called on the working class to launch a revolution in Canada to overthrow the bourgeois state and create a new society modeled on Soviet Russia. While the OBU itself would prove ephemeral, its formation in March of 1919 led to two main consequences. First, it set the Canadian ruling class back on its feet, leading to the development of a Red Scare in Canada and causing the authorities to react to each working class struggle with a high degree of paranoia and fear. Second, it imbued the working class with a spirit of struggle and created the sense that a new society was indeed possible and that the working class could make it happen.

In May, with the country already gripped by tension, Winnipeg's building and metal workers went out on strike against intransigent employers unwilling to bargain. In response to the building and metal workers' strike, the Winnipeg Trade and Labour Council (WTLC) decided to hold a vote of all affiliated unions on a proposal to declare a general strike. Within a week the votes were in with more than 11,000 workers voting for the general strike compared to just 524 opposed. On May 15, 1919, the factories, shops and rail yards in the city fell silent. The response to the strike was even more impressive than its organizers had expected. Not only did workers in the affiliated unions come out, but thousands of unorganized workers also joined the ranks of the strikers. For the next six weeks, the city's industries would come to a virtual standstill with 30,000 strikers filling the city's streets, parks and halls to protest, voice their demands and plan the direction of the struggle. Following the example of the Seattle General Strike, the strike committee authorized continuation of vital services, demonstrating the embryonic dual power that existed in the city. The strike committee even gave permission for the local theatre to remain open so that workers could have a place to gather during the strike.

Almost from the outset, the radicalism of the Winnipeg working class was evident. The strike spread like wildfire from sector to sector and workers very quickly took the strike into their own hands by spontaneously forming mass assemblies and appointing committees to ensure that the city was fed and essential services were provided. In the mass assemblies workers debated and discussed the goals of the strike, taking matters into their own hands even where this conflicted with the union hierarchies. Displaying tremendous unity in the face of all that on the surface would appear to divide them, the Winnipeg working class consistently rejected the intense ideological barrage and yellow press efforts of the bourgeois newspapers to divide them along the lines of ethnicity, gender or war veteran status. One historian has estimated that at least 171 separate mass meetings of workers took place during the six week course of the strike. [2]

The local ruling class in Winnipeg, as well as the Canadian federal state itself, did not stand idly by, while the working class ran what they considered to be "their" city. In addition to the vicious ideological barrage, which labeled the strikers as "Bolshevist dogs" and "traitors to the Crown", the local bourgeoisie organized itself in the Citizens' Committee of 1000, (CC 1000) with the stated aim of destroying the strike and returning Christian order under the King's government to Winnipeg. Firmly convinced a revolution was underway, the CC 1000 quickly worked to ensure the cooperation of the federal government in crushing the strike. On the 26th of May, the federal government ordered Winnipeg's postal workers back to work or face termination. On advice of a top member of the CC 1000, the federal government passed tough new immigration laws to permit the arrest and deportation of aliens advocating subversion or the destruction of property.

The Winnipeg working class stood strong, rejecting orders to return to work. Returning soldiers sympathetic to the strike held parades in the city, further worrying the authorities. The CC of 1000 and federal authorities held back on deploying violence to crush the strike. Fearful of the consequences of a violent end to the strike, the authorities played a delicate game of wait-and-see, all the time remaining resolute in their call for an end to the strike and the arrest of its leaders. Nevertheless, the authorities were constantly preparing the means of the repression for when the moment came, growing more and more desperate as the stakes became more dire for their social order in Winnipeg and the radicalism of the working class threatened to spread as a series of sympathy strikes broke out in Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton and other cities in Western Canada.

However, just as the strikers stood at the height of their power, basically running the city through their mass assemblies and the various committees, the movement began to lose momentum. Contrary to the worst fears of the bourgeoisie, the working class in Winnipeg was unable to pose the question of overthrowing the bourgeois state or put the fundamental nature of capitalist exploitation into question in a conscious way. Although their actions already prefigured these questions similar to the way they had been posed in Russia and Europe in the preceding two years, the Winnipeg working class was unable   to bring matters to a revolutionary conclusion. Despite the widespread sympathy for the Russian and German revolutions, the political consciousness of the workers had not assimilated the lessons of the European struggles. The strike committee leaders were all members of either the Socialist Party or the Social Democratic Party of Canada, but their role in the struggle was guided more by their experience as union leaders than by the political lessons of Soviet Russia. The demands of the struggle remained mired at the level of "trade union consciousness," calling for the right to bargain, for a more egalitarian distribution of the fruits of economic development and for a right to be represented in critical decisions about their city and their various industries. In a sense, although their actions already posed the possibility of a different social order, workers' consciousness remained at the level of reformism.

This gap between the workers' actions and their consciousness and the strong role of the unions ultimately gave the bourgeois authorities the time they needed to regain control of the situation. In mid-June, fearing that the loyalty of the city's police force would not hold, the authorities organized a force of special police to crush the strike. However, the special police proved wholly inadequate to the task and a crowd of 15,000 strikers thoroughly routed a force of 1200 special police sent in after an attempt to direct traffic in the downtown area led to a riot. With options running thin, the authorities consented to mobilizing the Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP) to crush the strike. On June 21, the RNWMP and special police brutally attacked a parade of returning soldiers, while agents moved to arrest the main strike leaders in Winnipeg and other labor radicals across the country.  As a result of the repression, but also under the weight of its own limitations, the strike was officially over by June 26th with a provincial government pledge to investigate its causes.

In drawing a balance sheet of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, one must first salute the radicalism of the working class during those six spring weeks. Time and again, the workers surprised the local bourgeoisie, the federal state and even their own unions in their determination to reject divisions and their capacity to spread the struggle and take over the management of society. While the working class was ultimately unable to pose the question of overthrowing the bourgeois state in a conscious way and the ruling class, through its state, was able to once again gain the upper hand, the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 stands as a potent reminder that far from the stereotype of a passive North American working class, workers on this continent have their own radical history of struggle. A history that the working class will need to re-appropriate as it responds to the devastating attacks on its living and working conditions imposed by a global capitalist system in full decomposition.

Henk 06/03/2009

[1]           The recent solidarity demonstrated by immigrant and non-immigrant workers at the Lindsey oil refinery struggle in Britain is a modern day reminder of the capacity of workers to overcome xenophobic propaganda aimed at dividing them.


[2] Michael Butt cited in Tom Mitchell and James Naylor "The Prarires in the Eye of the Storm" in Craig Heron, ed. The Workers' Revolt in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 1997. pg. 187


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