100 Years After: Winnipeg General Strike
Illustration by Mike Sokolowski
H.C. (Clare) Pentland grew up in and around Brandon, Manitoba, and spent his working life in Winnipeg — two cities that experienced dramatic General Strikes in 1919. His incisive thoughts on the Winnipeg Strike written in 1969 and republished here reflect the ways in which this cataclysmic event both helped define the cities he lived in and nurtured an appreciation of working-class life and working-class agency that informed his views. At the time, he noted, remarkably little had been published on the strike. What had been written reflected — as it would for several years to come — a liberal or social democratic view of industrial relations and an associated notion of the “natural” evolution of trade unions and the state. The fact that the proximate cause of the strike was a demand for collective bargaining on the part of the metal and building trades workers was focused upon in order to paint the strike as a precocious struggle for the collective bargaining system that would be established in Canada after the Second World War. By extension, the strike was seen as laying the ground for the future social welfare system that would smooth out such fractious social relations.
Pentland avoided placing the Strike in such a narrow box and instead explored it as “one of the great class-confrontations of capitalist history,” anticipating many of the themes of the “new labour history” that was just beginning to emerge.
What made the Strike “general” was that it mobilized an entire class. This included, at its core, Winnipeg’s unionized workers who voted overwhelmingly to risk hunger, permanent dismissal and perhaps violent repression to support their colleagues. But, more than that, perhaps half of the strikers were not union members at all. What was their stake in the confrontation? Most remarkably, the Strike mobilized in large numbers those who had benefitted little from a labour movement dominated by skilled men of mostly British origin who appeared primarily interested in defending their own relatively privileged place in the labour market. Not only did the city’s large population of Eastern European immigrants have little access to most skilled jobs, some workers and returned soldiers rioted just months before the General Strike in an effort to exclude immigrants from jobs. Yet as the strike developed, veterans’ organizations divided mostly along class lines and huge numbers paraded in support of the Strike. Women, too, mobilized on several fronts: as workers (telephone operators were the first out on strike), as supporters — the Women’s Labour League ran a food kitchen, and as participants in the Central Strike Committee. This was a revolt by the working class writ large.
Earlier studies focused, not inappropriately, on the social cauldron of rapidly growing and industrializing Winnipeg. But this also was an era of revolutions and mass strikes, from Russia to strikes of hundreds of thousands of steelworkers, coal miners and textile workers in the United States. General strikes and explicitly working-class election campaigns proliferated across Canada; the two roads to power were not seen as contradictory. Historians who contributed to Craig Heron’s Workers’ Revolt in Canada: 1917-1925 explain both the various sources of workers’ growing anger and desperation in early 20th-century capitalism and the growing sense of hope that the national mobilization that occurred during the war could be turned to build a better world; radical ideas proliferated as workers debated how to make it happen. As opposed to an earlier focus on western Canada, it is clear that intense class conflicts played out in a number of ways across the country. This was most dramatically on display in Winnipeg as workers motivated by anger, hope and radicalism downed their tools in unison; at the same time threats from capitalists and the state of the harshest repression tended to silence their most radical voices — a combination which led to the endless debate over what the workers’ believed they were fighting for.
The class culture of the local business and legal elite — organized in the Citizens’ Committee of 1,000 — has also been carefully studied. Historian Tom Mitchell explained how they mobilized ideas of Britishness and citizenship in an attempt to isolate the dangerous germs of foreignness and radicalism. This allowed for a vicious bigotry unleashed against immigrants and for show trials aimed at criminalizing anti-capitalist ideas.
Finally, we have a much better picture of the ways in which the issues of the strike continued to shape working and capitalist-class politics and cultures through the next decades. From those prisoners who were elected to the Manitoba legislature in 1920 to the campaigns of the One Big Union, the Communist Party and the CCF, the lessons of the Strike were repeatedly debated, and these workers’ actions continued to fuel the fight for a workingclass future.
James Naylor teaches history at Brandon University and is the author of The Fate of Labour Socialism: The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Dream of a Working-Class Future.