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Learning from the mistakes of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike

Canadian PoliticsLabourSocial Movements

Main Street in Winnipeg during Bloody Saturday, the violent climax of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Photo courtesy the Eva Stewart Collection at the Archives of Manitoba.

As was described in part one of this series on syndicalism, contrasting the shortcomings of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike with successful strikes can allow commemoration to inform contemporary struggles for social justice.

Historians Reinhold Kramer and Tom Mitchell note that on the first day of the General Strike, “Milk deliveries having been suspended and the pasteurization system shut off, a great stench arose as thousands of gallons of milk began to sour at railway stations and Crescent Creamery. Delivery of bread ceased too. The flour mills shut down and bakeries stopped baking […] Even the water supply was limited, ‘rationed’ to 30 pounds pressure […] industry languished.”

This display of working class power put a halt to the productive capacity of the entire city. Shutting down the production process is essential to the success of any strike. In his 1986 book Rivethead, Michigan-based writer and former General Motors employee Ben Hamper recalls the emphasis that his employers put on ensuring production was never disrupted: “How many times had I heard the woesome lament: ‘For each minute the line is down, the Company loses another $10,000.’”

Critics of militant labour actions often cite examples of lengthy and drawn-out strikes that end in failure. In such cases, employers ensure that production continues, generally through the use of replacement workers commonly known as ‘scabs.’

Although production had ceased in Winnipeg in 1919, Kramer and Mitchel describe that “no one among the Winnipeg Strike leaders had thought fully about how to run an entire city,” and that “the lack of a full theory about how to manage a general strike in a democratic, non-revolutionary context meant that even the strikers themselves were cut off from the food supply for a day or two.”

By the time his book came out in 1945, British activist Tom Brown had time that the strike leaders in Winnipeg did not to address these unforeseen issues by studying syndicalist activity around the world. Brown advised workers to not only halt production but to “take possession of the places of work and operate them for the working class and cut off the supplies and services of the employing class. The millers supply the flour to the bakers, the bakers distribute bread to the people.”

As renowned Russian dissident Emma Goldman wrote, “Syndicalism recognizes the right of the producers to the things which they have created; namely, the right of the workers to help themselves if the strike does not meet with speedy settlement.” Brown notes that this enables strikers to “eat as we have never feasted before,” and that by using “the boycott against the employing class,” the weapons of “starvation and deprivation which the capitalists have so often used against the workers would be used against them.”

According to Brown—who was active in anarchist circles in England from the 1930s through to the 1960s—the employer, who depends “upon servants to clean his home and cook his meals, to wash him and dress him and to do everything but chew his food for him” would be confronted with “No food, no water, no gas, no servants for their homes. The more time they spend cooking or carrying buckets of water the less time they have for blacklegging or shooting workers.”

Such tactics were put in to practice successfully during the Spanish Civil War. Though ultimately crushed by Franco’s fascist forces, the Republican side—made up of trade unionists, communists, anarchists, workers and peasants—is considered one of the most successful examples of large-scale syndicalist action in contemporary history. As Brown describes: “The bakers of Barcelona, before the Revolution, knew the locality and amount of all stocks of flour, and the oven capacity of the city’s bakeries… when the revolutionary workers of Barcelona went to the barricades, their baker comrades ensured them and their families bread.”

With regard to the press, Brown argues that newspaper compositors and machinists should “refuse any longer to print the lies and provocations of the employing class, as they refused on the eve of the 1926 General Strike in Britain. But instead of walking out of the print shops they remain at work and turn the newspapers into organs of the General Strike.”

Special Constables armed with makeshift clubs march down Portage Avenue during the Winnipeg General Strike, June 10, 1919. Photo courtesy the City of Winnipeg Archives Photograph Collection (P1 File 22).

In Winnipeg, the Strike Committee called out pressmen to join the strike, who readily joined, to “protest the fact that capital controlled the press.” The striker’s small paper, the Western Labour News, thereby monopolized the news for a short while. However they did not take hold of the mainstream presses and run them as Brown advocates. As Kramer and Mitchell describe, “aided by reporters from Chicago and New York, the Manitoba Free Press came back on the 22 May, the Telegram and the Tribune on the 24th, all three rabidly anti-labour.”

As for municipal services in Winnipeg, Kramer and Mitchell note, “at the city water-works, employees had agreed to stay on as long as the pressure remained at 30 pounds. But the same evening that Andrews spoke to City Council, A. E. Findlay had been ordered to increase the water pressure. When employees discovered the change the next morning, they walked off the job. The Citizens, however, already had a committee assigned to the waterworks, and citizen volunteers immediately arrived from Vulcan Iron Works and from Bullman Brothers, companies which, by the strangest coincidence, needed water the most.”

Rather than walking off the job, yielding their strategic hold of the waterworks and allowing employers to undermine the strike by arranging for production to resume—as did the workers in Winnipeg—Brown advocated that “the Municipal Workers’ Syndicate maintains the essential services of town life […] Rail, road and water transport workers carry goods and services among the many industries and localities.”

In addition to the Spanish example, another real world example described by Brown took place when “the workers of France in 1936 took possession of factories […] in one of the most successful strikes ever known. Unfortunately they returned them to the employing class in return for holidays with pay, wage increases, and a shorter working day. Almost at once the Popular Front government […] began the piece-meal reconquest of the gains made by the strikers.”

The most striking example of a general strike described by Brown took place in Italy, one year after the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Brown describes that:

The Italian engineering employers had demanded a substantial reduction of wages and, meeting refusal, decided on a lock- out. […] Telephone and telegraph wires hummed, couriers and motor-cyclists sped through the night and, in one swift, coordinated action, the metal factories were seized by the workers.
Other industries at once responded. Railwaymen and road transport men moved supplies. Food was provided by the workers in bakeries and flour mills, by the co-operatives and by the peasant organizations. Post Office and telephone workers maintained communications among many factories ‘on strike’.
But what of the government, the army, and police? Railwaymen were willing to refuse to move any soldiers under arms or any military supplies. The police were helpless, for the strikers were barricaded in the factories, surrounded by barbed wire and electrified fences.
At that time in Italy there was a strong, well-armed Fascist military organization, but it was helpless against the stay-in strike. The workers had the means to arm themselves in defence against the blackshirts—steel, forges, and machines. Mussolini looked on, powerless to intervene.
The Italian workers were victorious. The employers withdrew their demands for wage cuts and, instead, offered increases and other concessions. Unfortunately, the workers accepted these offers and, against the advice of the Syndicalist minority, handed back the factories. They enjoyed their gains for a little while, then reaction began nibbling at the gains of 1920, until, two years later, the workers—weak without their factory fortresses and their direct action spirit, and debilitated by political propaganda—were defeated.

Contemporary strikes and general strikes

While 89 percent of police and about two thirds of returned veterans supported the Winnipeg General Strike, it was ultimately put down by the Royal North West Mounted Police (now the RCMP) and hired company thugs known as ‘specials.’

The Italian example cited by Brown of railwaymen refusing to transport groups intending to suppress strikes by force is crucial and can apply in instances when strikes do not enjoy as much support from police as did the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. A related contemporary example of such action occurred this May, amid protests in New York against the police killing of George Floyd, when bus drivers refused to transport people arrested during protests, an action that was supported by their union.

Another contemporary example from earlier this year comes from France, the birthplace of syndicalism, where the tactic of general strikes is more culturally embedded. In response to six weeks of strikes and protests, French President Emmanuel Macron made a major concession to unions protesting his pension reform plan. According to Dominique Reynié, a politics professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, “I never really believed in the possibility of relaunching these reforms after Covid… It was difficult before, now it’s even more difficult… It would be a little suicidal, I think.”

Using the syndicalist tactic of industrial unionism, author Jane McAlevey describes organizing many different healthcare workplaces to bargain as one. Simply put, it is far more powerful to bargain as, say, 20 united workplaces than it is to bargain as a single unit. However, while a collective agreement or contract between employers and a union is in effect, striking is technically illegal (although some argue that there are no illegal strikes, only unsuccessful ones), and these contracts usually end at different times. This means that workers within a given industry cannot strike legally at the same time. This is not a coincidence but a central feature of what labour lawyer and author Joe Burns calls the “system of labour control.”

McAlevey addressed this by organizing with the next contract in mind to ensure that all healthcare union contracts expired at the same time. Two contracts later, when all Las Vegas healthcare workers could legally strike simultaneously, they won big, despite the fact that employers spent large amounts of money bringing in “union avoidance firms” to harass and intimidate workers.

The types of benefits that workers gain from such victories are not insignificant. McAlevey quotes a healthcare worker in her most recent book who describes: “I got a fifteen-thousand-dollar raise in the first year alone. It’s so interesting now, those in charge actually listen to us, which they never did before.”

May Day, 1936. The end of the General Strike was not the end of the labour movement in Winnipeg. Image courtesy the City of Winnipeg Archives Photograph Collection (OP5 File 24).

“The whole bakehouse”

Strikes remain the most powerful tool available to regular people under capitalism, and the general strike is the most powerful kind of strike. Demonstrating the significant amount of education that is required in advance of such an action, American anarchist and political philosopher Murray Bookchin wrote that “the revolution of 1936 marked the culmination of more than sixty years of anarchist agitation and activity in Spain.”

Indeed, as Brown describes, “every strike is a training period, a skirmish before the social general strike.” This means that even though those working towards general strikes or some form of utopia may never see them come to pass, they can still commit themselves to the work with the knowledge that the potential exists for them at each step of the way to enjoy taking part in incremental victories.

Even if it takes a half century or more, it is better to begin today than tomorrow in working towards the point at which the working class “shall demand, not the half-loaf which is said to be better than no bread, but the whole bakehouse.”

Riley McMurray is a Winnipeg-based writer who leads 1919 General Strike historical tours by bicycle. Find him on Twitter.

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