The Winnipeg General Strike: 90 Years On

Since this year is the 90th anniversary of a pivotal event in labour history in Canada, I thought it warranted a front page article.

The Winnipeg General Strike happened in 1919. It was in the aftermath of WWI when soldiers were returning home and had trouble finding work, and many people were struggling in poverty. Immigrants, as always, were popular scapegoats. In particular, immigrants from Eastern Europe were feared in particular, due to the recent Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The ruling class of the day feared that such an event was imminent here in Canada as well, so they refused to consider the grievances the strikers raised. As a result, workers from literally all sectors of the city, even those not in unions, called for a General Strike, which took effect on May 15th. Since many of these affected workers were also responsible for essential services, the strikers themselves arranged to keep those services in place during the strike. As this was a general time of social unrest, sympathy strikes broke out in other places, such as Calgary and Brandon.

The business class of the day formed a “counter-strike,” called the Citizen’s Committee Of 1000. They refused to negotiate, and saw the strike as nothing short of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. The Canadian government eventually intervened on the side of the Citizen’s Committee. On June 21 the Northwest Mounted Police moved in (Winnipeg city police had walked off in support of their striking brothers and sisters), resulting in 30 casualties and 1 death. The strike ended on June 25th.

Despite the arrests and jailing of several labour leaders, the strike had a major impact that would be felt for decades. It gave birth to the labour movement, and as a result of their struggle the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was formed in 1933. The CCF, which would later become the NDP, fought for a better life for all Canadians regardless of wealth. The results of this struggle can be seen in such things as the Canada Pension Plan, medicare, and the right to form trade unions. And just in time for this anniversary, the musical Strike! is scheduled to play during the August Long weekend. The plan is to make this an annual event. A fine tribute to an important event in Winnipeg history.

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