Our Times 3

The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike

From the CD Archives: Reprinted from Canadian Dimension, July 1969

Social Movements

Cover of booklet to accompany a new sculpture commemorating the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Courtesy of Bernie Miller and Noam Gonick.

The General Strike of 1919 was not only Winnipeg’s climactic event, but a watershed of some consequence in the evolution of Canada. It stands, too, among the great class-confrontations of capitalist history—less profound, to be sure, than some of the crises experienced in Europe, but in a place by itself in America. It was far more massive and disciplined than the Seattle General Strike which barely preceded it, even without counting the general sympathetic strikes that occurred simultaneously in a dozen other Canadian cities—often massive affairs themselves, though barely mentioned in any record.

This is not all. The suppression of the Strike marks one occasion on which the Canadian state aligned itself openly and flagrantly on the side of employers, and moved with full weight and ferocity to crush labour. The blatant judicial partiality with which the post-strike trials were conducted, again, has been matched rarely, if at all, in Canadian experience.

Finally, the defeat of the Strike has important consequences. It promoted labour political activity, particularly in Winnipeg, leading towards the formation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. It contributed substantially to the decline of Winnipeg. And it facilitated, perhaps initiated, the mindless wandering which was to be the lot of Canadian society in the 1920s and 1930s.

A great General Strike, like a revolution, exposes the anatomy of a society, providing a unique opportunity to see what the society is really made of. So, in a search for true identity, Englishmen can explore the English Revolution and Frenchmen can explore the French. Canadians have a parallel opportunity to dissect themselves by way of the General Strike of 1919; but, so far, they have not done so. There is one monograph on the subject, by D.C. Masters, from which much factual information can be dug; but it displays the author’s difficulty in comprehending western radicalism, and tends to treat the Strike as an aberration rather than as a culmination of historical forces. A very good account of the Strike appears in Kenneth McNaught’s biography of J. S. Woodsworth, to which readers are referred since lack of space has squeezed such an account from these pages. In this remembrance I have preferred to examine the character and background of the Strike, and to suggest some of its consequences—the features I consider most neglected and deserving of further inquiry.

Different strikes

A startling feature of the Winnipeg General Strike is the totally different conception held by the contending parties of what was happening. As seen by the 35,000 strikers (nearly 20 percent of Winnipeg’s 1919 population without counting families), the Strike was to establish their right to bargain collectively through agents of their own choice. To the employers and affluent classes of Winnipeg whose “Citizens’ Committee of 1,000” became the spearhead of opposition to the Strike, to the press, and to vested interests elsewhere, the same General Strike was the culmination of a revolutionary conspiracy intended to overthrow established institutions and install a soviet system in Canada. The was much calculated deceit in this image but—so effectively can preconceptions distort reality—many men believed and continued to believe that they had faced revolution. The prosecutors and judges of the strike trials, months after the event, provide examples. They already knew before the trials began, beyond penetration by evidence or argument, that the defendants were guilty of a seditious conspiracy in which were linked the One Big Union, the Socialist Party of Canada, the Walker Theatre meeting of December 1918, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, and the General Strike itself. “One cannot escape the conviction,” Masters says, “that the prisoner in the dock was O.B.U.”—and he might almost equally have named the Socialist Party, the Strike, or even Russian Bolshevism.

This totally difference of conception is also reflected in the unarticulated way in which the two sides conducted themselves, jousting with imaginary opponents. To the strikers, the Strike remained as it had originated on May 1, a familiar dispute over collective bargaining and wages. Hence the unprepared direction of the ad hoc Strike Committee and the routinized admonition to all strikers to be quiet and orderly, which was observed with remarkable faithfulness. This was the more realistic position in the sense that the Winnipeg metal masters would probably have conceded an acceptable form of collective bargaining after June 7, allowing a negotiated settlement of the Strike—if the counter-revolutionary forces arrayed by that time had not been determined and able to prevent it. For the strikers—though decent and noble (which could not be said of their opponents)—were naïve: a general sympathetic strike in Winnipeg (May 15), and in all other western cities, the Lakehead, Toronto, and some Nova Scotia points (after May 22), was not an ordinary industrial dispute, least of all in the tense atmosphere of 1919.

The opponents of the Strike were engaged, not in dealing with an industrial dispute, but in putting down a revolution. Quiet erosion of the Strike to defeat would not suffice; there had to be violent suppression. There were practical reasons. Some episode of violence was needed to give credence to the conception of the Strike as a revolution which the Citizens’ Committee and press had built up. Suppression was needed to frustrate a negotiated settlement and labour victory—a calamity in the eyes of the Citizens’ Committee, but a disaster even more from the viewpoint of the eastern capitalist interests and craft unions for whom the Borden government acted, equally appalled by the possibility of a successful independent industrial unionism in the West and by the unsettling effects of such a success on the workers of the East.

Yet, there was a further element in the behaviour of the Strike’s opponents—a compulsion to fulfill the myth which hysteria had created. In particular, the vengeful spirit of the Citizens’ Committee smacks of the guilt-feelings of war profiteers who had found a way to absolve themselves by attacking something worse: a bunch of revolutionary foreigners. They were not to be robbed of their scapegoat.

Provocation and police

Violent suppression, nevertheless, proved hard to bring about. The strikers remained peaceful but unfaltering through all the ominous preparations, and continued so after the June 16-17 midnight arrests of strike-leaders. The arrests did provoke, however, another silent parade of returned soldiers on June 21, and when the Mounted Police rode several times through soldiers and by-standers, swinging clubs and firing volleys into the crowd, violence was at last achieved. Suppression, too—the somewhat leaderless Strike Committee called off the Strike on June 25. Many wanted to continue it but, even then, there appears to have been no suggestion of meeting counter-revolution with revolution.

In this strangely disconnected contest, class interest and class-consciousness had an obvious prominence; yet in no simple array of a Red Army against a White Army. Canada obviously shared in the tensions that marked 1919 everywhere, but much more in the West than the East. The special features of the West that differentiated it from the East therefore demand attention.

One special feature was that the West had suffered far more than the East, and more than any place outside Europe, from the wartime massacre of its young men—a fact that helps to explain its outlook. When war came, these men enlisted in inordinate numbers and, given the way the war was conducted, they were killed in inordinate numbers, producing a drastic change in the age composition of the population of the western provinces—whereas the East was little affected. This phenomenon throws light on the western opposition to conscription and, taking into account the ostentatious spending of war profiteers, the conviction that conscription of wealth should precede the conscription of men. In general, it left a sense of injustice, sacrifice, and entitlement that contributed to the fervour and brittleness of western behaviour.

Without discounting that, the events of 1919 flowed from the conditions, markedly different from eastern ones, under which western unionism developed.

In Canada’s vigorous expansion after 1897 the West was in the vanguard, and Winnipeg—an imperial as well as a colonial city—was its capital. Farm settlement held the limelight, but there was also a phenomenal growth of wage employment in the West. As in the western United States, the land was wider and rawer than in the East, the scale of operations larger, the capitalists more ruthless, and often absentees.

The workers who came to western Canada were strong, independent, ambitious men, perhaps the most wide-awake and informed labour force then in the world. They worked well, but wanted a just reward, and readily formed unions to get it. As in the western states, the isolation of communities which turned the inhabitants inward and the high general level of the work force invited an industrial form of unionism, to which western workers took vigorously and consistently. On the whole, the results of their efforts confirmed them in the belief that was needed was still broader and more powerful unions. Wages failed to keep pace with prices in Canada, not just in 1917 and 1918, but over the whole period from 1900 to 1919. While average real wages made no progress, the real wages of some groups declined drastically—notably those of metal miners who loomed larger in the West. Another issue over which tremendous battles were periodically fought was union recognition. In most of these contests the employers made clear that if they were going to recognize any unions, it would not be the industrial (and usually radical) unions that faced them. In these titanic battles—the stimulus to Canada’s early labour legislation—the employers were usually victorious, with more or less help from the craft unions.

Nevertheless, the lion’s share of the rapid growth of Canadian unionism that occurred after 1897 was in the western provinces. Their numerical share of Canadian unionism rose from about 20 to 35 percent, and their weight in vitality and militancy was considerably higher than that, as western unionists were rather cockily aware—eastern unionism being relatively stagnant in numbers, ideas, and spirit after 1902.

It was in 1902 that the craft unions of the American Federation of Labor executed a high-handed take-over of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada, expelled everybody else, and kept the T.L.C. ever after as their puppet. The take-over was prompted by several sympathies of Canadian unionists that the A.F.L. found highly objectionable: for Canadian labour autonomy, for “dual” and industrial unionism, for Socialism, and for compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes. The effect of A.F.L. domination in the East was to discourage unionization, except of craftsmen. In the West, where the majority of workers consistently favoured industrial unionism, its effect was to produce a series of conflicts between A.F.L. and western labour, both outside and inside the Congress.

Crowd gathered outside old City Hall, at Main Street and William Avenue, during the Winnipeg General Strike. Visible on the left are the Union Bank of Canada building and Leland Hotel.

The outside battles have been referred to. Inside the Congress, conflict flared in 1911, when the T.L.C. was so unwary as to hold its annual convention at Calgary, where western delegates turned out to be a majority of those attending. In this circumstance, a very strong resolution in favour of re-organizing Canadian unions on industrial lines was passed. The T.L.C. officers ignored the resolution, but it should be appreciated that the next battle of western delegates for (a referendum on) an industrial form of organization, at the 1918 (Québec) convention, was not a sudden development, nor more connected with western radicalism than it had ever been, though it was certainly given impetus by the feverish state of the economy and industrial relations at that time. On the other hand, it was ominous that even in these circumstances eastern unionists remained subservient to the A.F.L. The division between east and west which provoked withdrawal of the westerners and formation of the One Big Union, also spelled vulnerability for the new organization and for any western general strike.

There was one more important factor in this background—the spread of syndicalist ideas in the West. It is a factor to be handled carefully, lest either too much or too little be attributed to it.

Syndicalism was the dominant labour philosophy of the period in many places, and the conditions of development in Canadian as well as the American west made workers turn to certain aspects of it as naturally as to industrial unionism—which, among other things, syndicalism advocated. The meanness of employers, geographic isolation and, frequently, the remoteness or hostility of government, left workers squarely dependent on their own resources, and led them to look favourably on the syndicalist devices of direct action and the sympathetic strike, and on the solidarity of the working class that would make the sympathetic (general) strike effective. It would be difficult to say whether these ideas were more widespread in Canada or the United States.

It should be emphasized at the same time, however, that the Canadian ethos was markedly different from the American. In contrast to American anarchy and particularism, there was a firmly-established Canadian tradition of orderly government and concern for the general welfare—and Mackenzie King’s labour legislation on behalf of the general welfare was by no means all bad from a labour viewpoint. The national difference made itself felt in other ways. Unlike the disruptive forms of socialism that tended to develop in the United States, the labour radicalism of western Canada was typically of a pragmatic, constructive, British type. Hard syndicalist positions did creep in, as in the Calgary Convention resolution that dismissed the usefulness of participation in bourgeois politics. But, as against this, the wholehearted belief of western labour in political activity within the parliamentary system was abundantly demonstrated both before and after the General Strike. And there were constant appeals, as in the Walker Theatre meeting and the strike trails, to traditional liberties of the individual which were supposed to exist under a British constitution. In the same way, few were more than rhetorically conscious—when conscious at all—of the syndicalist myth that the general strike would bring about the collapse of capitalism and usher in social ownership of the means of production. The actual appeal of the general strike was demonstrated in 1918 and 1919—it was seen as a better way to win collective bargaining rights and wage increases—though it had very different results in the two years.

This confusion of ideology and tactics, indeed, goes to the heart of the defeat of the General strike. Contrary to what the strikers imagined, a general strike (in itself) does not bring the capitalists to their knees; it only makes them close ranks and fight like jungle beats for their class interests. The resolution of that problem in syndicalist philosophy is (sooner or later) the final conflict in which capitalism is overthrown. This logic, unappreciated by the strikers, was perfectly apparent to the analytic mind of Arthur Meighen, and to lesser minds used to abstract reasoning such as the judges and some members of the Citizens’ Committee. So great is the power of abstraction that these men could not escape the conviction that a revolutionary intent lurked somewhere. The strike-leaders were arrested and jailed, then, not for what they thought and did, but for what they would have thought and done if they had followed out the implications of their own devices. If western labour was far too militantly class-conscious from an employer’s point of view, it was not nearly class conscious enough from a syndicalist and Marxist point of view. It was this inconsistency, at bottom, that allowed so powerful a general strike to be isolated and crushed.

The strike’s opponents

While the forces raised against the Winnipeg General Strike were effective in breaking it, they were not without their own immaturities and responsibilities for driving labour into the Strike; nor did they escape retribution from them. While labour was guilty of exaggerating the possibility of change in 1919, employers were guilty of striving to retain outmoded relationships well past their time of usefulness. Typical of employers was a short term mercantile view of labour as a commodity to be bought as cheaply as possible, and priced downward to accommodate the employers’ “ability to pay,” i.e. incompetence. For workers conscious of their own worth this left no alternative except industrial struggle. Most employers, also, were reluctant to yield up an unquestioning “master and man” relationship and negotiate terms with workers collectively. The “master and man” system, rooted in history and logic on situations in which the master possessed far greater competence and responsibility than the man, was an extension of the relationship between father and dependent child. It was becoming outmoded generally by the 20th century, but was particularly inappropriate for dealing with the upstanding workers of the West, not infrequently more competent and responsible than the faltering owners and managers.

However, employers had some reason on their side. There were grounds for the complaint that unionized workers could not be depended upon to fulfill their agreements. In fact, many workers had a casual attitude towards contracts with overtones of syndicalist direct action. Entering a collective agreement with a militant industrial union might increase rather than resolve an employer’s difficulties until the workers calmed down. Once the General Strike had come there was room for genuine fear that a revolutionary spirit might develop.

Nor were employers immovable: under the stresses of 1917-1919, many of them (including the Winnipeg iron-masters whose position initiated the General Strike) expressed willingness to discuss employment conditions with “their own” employees, a development that led to the employee-representation plans and company unions of the 1920s. Few were willing, however, to consider real collective bargaining, especially with industrial unions. The impasse—employers would not deal with radical unions; unions were more radical because employers would not deal with them—was resolved by the defeat of the General Strike, which set back industrial unionism and collective bargaining for twenty years. The dubious record of that period raises the question, however, whether the employers’ solution was of benefit even to themselves.

The same is true of A.F.L. craft unions. Its strategy from the 1880s had been to seek employer favour by helping employers to put down non-craft unionism and any kind of unionism except its own. It was a strategy that worked as long as there were rival unions to put down, and western Canada kept raising them. But after 1919 the giants of the western labour movement were spent. There were no more sacrifices to deliver, and the fate of craft unionism thereafter was to be disdained by employers as an ally of little value.

The victory was a pyrrhic one as well for Winnipeg’s commercial aristocracy: the city over which it presided after 1919 was a city in decline. Like other inland centres it suffered from a drop in ocean freight rates that followed the opening of the Panama Canal, in conjunction with the rigidity of inland railway freight rates which coastal interests were careful to maintain. At the same time the wheat economy, key to Winnipeg’s earlier growth, lost its ebullience and ceased to expand significantly. The loss of young men in the war was another blow: Winnipeg’s business in the 1920s was in the hands of tired old men. But the handicap created by the crushing of the General Strike — a weak and defensive labour movement and a steady slippage of wage rates within the Canadian spectrum — may have been the most important. There is a traditional economic argument that low wages and weak unions promote investment and growth, but a wealth of experience, including Winnipeg’s, demonstrates the opposite. The more likely effect of these conditions is to sap the strength and drawing power of the local consumer market and most important, dissuades employers from making the effort to improve efficiency and to innovate. It was an effect all too visible among the capitalists of Winnipeg, notoriously unenterprising after 1919. In this sense, what the Citizens’ Committee put down turned out to be their own future.

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. Pentland taught in several one-room Manitoba schools during the 1930s and had assisted in the organization of schools among the Canadian troops in Holland at the end of World War II.

This article appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Canadian Dimension (Indigenous Resistance).


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