Due to the numerous commemorative events surrounding its centenary, many are now familiar with the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, the longest and most complete general strike in the history of the continent.
At commemorative events held in 2019, the predominant narrative of the strike was that its importance lies in the success that labour-affiliated political parties enjoyed in the decades following the strike. Workers in 1919 may have bristled at this interpretation.
While left-wing parties did benefit from the memory of the strike, to make sense of it from the lens of electoral politics can cause significant historical distortions.
The aim of the strike was not future success at the ballot box, it was to achieve collective bargaining, better wages and improved working conditions. Most importantly, workers in 1919 were intentionally shifting away from parliamentary action in order to focus on achieving their goals by organizing strikes.
Capitalism has changed very little over hundreds of years, and general strikes, now as in 1919, remain the most powerful form of anti-capitalist action. Amid ever-worsening inequality, progressives of all stripes must shift away from electoral politics and focus on organizing general strikes, as workers did more than a century ago in the streets of Winnipeg.
The General Strike was plan B
The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike was the climax of a brief sea change within the western Canadian labour movement that began in 1917 after an unsuccessful bid by labour-oriented political parties for office in the 1917 election.
A minority group of organizers believed that focusing primarily on launching general strikes could achieve both small and large scale change, all without the need for activists to create political parties or become politicians themselves. After Robert Borden’s victory in 1917, this tendency briefly became mainstream.
Historian Gerald Friesen describes one example of positive small-scale change that was brought about by striking in Winnipeg:
The CPR had hired a new employee in June 1918 who was regarded as ‘obnoxious’ … Rather than accept the man, Lodge 122 walked out, and locals in several Saskatchewan towns joined them … The strike was brief, the issue apparently small, but the victory … was sweet.
With regard to large-scale change, historians Sharon and Nolan Reilly note that in 1918, Winnipeg’s civic employees went on strike, in what was referred to as the ‘dress rehearsal’ for the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, which ended in “a clear-cut victory for the civic workers.”
This was a very recent phenomenon. As historian A. Ross McCormack describes, workers had agreed “to resort to a general strike only if political initiatives failed. These had now failed. After the 1917 general election radicals would turn increasingly to direct action as a means to gain their objectives.”
This transition away from electoral organizing to a focus on organizing general strikes was a provocative idea at the time, as it is today, and comes from a political tendency known as syndicalism.
Syndicalism: Unions as the vehicle for change
Historian Gerald Brenan writes that syndicalism grew up in France during the 1890s as a reaction against parliamentary socialism and that “the figure chiefly associated with it was an anarchist, Fernand Pelloutier.” In order to more easily understand syndicalism it is important to note these French roots, as “syndicate” is the French word for “union.” Syndicalism can therefore be understood as the process of using unions rather than political parties in order to bring about progressive social change.
Renowned anarchist Emma Goldman wrote of seeing the effect of Syndicalism on labour in France in 1900, and that she learned “of the man who more than anyone else had directed Syndicalism into definite working channels, Fernand Pelloutier.” Goldman wrote that upon her return to North America she “immediately began to promote Syndicalist ideas, especially Direct Action and the General Strike.”
Goldman promoted these ideas in Winnipeg in 1907 when she was invited to speak by the anarchist branch of the North End’s Liberty (Freiheit) Temple. Historian Paul Burrows explains that, 12 years before the Winnipeg General Strike, Goldman’s message to Winnipeggers was summarized as “strike often, strike hard and work for the general strike.” Goldman was favourably received by Winnipeggers, and, according to Burrows, if they had listened to the predominant leaders on the left in Winnipeg at the time, “there would never have been a General Strike in 1919.”
Goldman’s Winnipeg appearance would have been well received by a North End IWW local which by 1913 was composed of approximately 400 Ukrainians and Poles. Founded in 1905, the IWW—or Industrial Workers of the World—is a union that advocates for the use of syndicalist tactics around the world. McCormack writes that syndicalist propaganda “circulated in Winnipeg’s North End. The interest that it held for workers in the immigrant ghetto related in part to the IWW presence and to … the anarchist tradition among Jews and Russians.”
Encouraged by the victory of the Winnipeg’s civic employees strike in 1918, workers of the western Canadian labour movement met in Calgary in March of 1919, where “the syndicalist tendency which had been developing since the general election of 1917 was made explicit.”
Unfortunately, as strike leaders “had not developed a clear-cut syndicalist doctrine,” the corresponding failure of the strike led to “the decline of ideological tension” between syndicalism and the belief in bringing about pro-labour social change via electoral action. As a result, the latter dominated the radical movement in the post-war years, eventually becoming the basis of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which would later become the New Democratic Party.
Syndicalism over bleak alternatives
Both the flop of the 1917 election and the success of the CCF in the 1920s and onward took place in the electoral arena. What changed in the short few years after 1917 that would lead to such success? The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike of course. Governments and employers were motivated to allow reforms given that they could still remember when they thought that “the end of civil society” was upon them.
This is consistent with history elsewhere. As the United Kingdom-based Solidarity Federation (SolFed) describes:
Wary of the worldwide revolutionary wave which followed the end of the First World War, there was a cross party consensus that war weary workers would need to be given incentives not to turn their discontent, or even their guns, on the government … the welfare state was a reform needed as much by the ruling class as the workers.
While reforms can occur in response to large-scale expressions of social discontent such as the Winnipeg General Strike, Solfed describes “the paradox of reformism” and argues that “without the revolutionary or at least, militant and uncontrollable threat, the reformists lose their seat at the table and capital and the state lose any incentive to concede reforms.”
In Winnipeg today, after more than a century without a general or large-scale strike, no credible strike threat exists, and the consequential loss of incentive on the part of government and employers to concede reforms is felt across all social service sectors in the form of severe budget cuts and immense inequality in wealth.
While workers in 1917 turned to syndicalism as a back-up plan after their electoral efforts failed, today the only strategy on the left, including within the labour movement, seems to be engaging in the so-called “harm reduction” of electing the NDP again, regardless of the party’s actual legacy.
Though the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike did end in defeat, it is important to remember the strike within the context of other, successful general strikes in order to view its legacy not as proof that general strikes cannot work, but rather as an example of a significant failure of an otherwise powerful tactic.
In places with histories of successful general strikes, the case for a retrieval of syndicalist tactics may be an easier one to make. However, even in Winnipeg it is not impossible. As McCormack writes, in “1919 workers in western Canada had developed a greater degree of class consciousness than they had ever manifested in the past, or would in the future,” and that, though the strike failed, “Nonetheless the working class solidarity which had developed by early 1919 represented the greatest opportunity for significant social change ever to occur in Canada.”
In examining the ways in which the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike fell short against tactics that have allowed general strikes to succeed elsewhere throughout history, commemoration of the General Strike can become a road map informing us on how to use syndicalist tactics to bring about radical progressive social change today.
Examples exist both from the early 1900s in France, Italy and Spain, as well as contemporary examples of general or large-scale strikes in France, America, and Canada, which will be explored in greater detail in part two of this series.
Riley McMurray is a Winnipeg-based writer who leads 1919 General Strike historical tours by bicycle. Find him on Twitter.