Winnipeg General Strike: Unions vs Government

Canada’s third largest city, a booming prairie town, came to a standstill. All utilities and services closed down. There were no streetcars, no garbage collections, no milk or bread deliveries, no mail no telephones and no entertainment services. Water pressure was reduced to a level catering to one-story buildings. By the end of the day over 30,000 working men and women, both unionized and non-unionized had walked off their jobs and the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 had begun.[1]
On May 15, 1919 the Winnipeg General Strike erupted sending 35,000[2] workers from all types of industries into the street in order to protest the working conditions, wages, and other grievances they were being forced to endure. The workers pointed out that they were being forced to work in near poverty conditions while the owners of big business continued to live a prosperous life. War veterans joined the strikers with their grievance that the demobilization from the First World War was a failure. The veterans complained that their original jobs that they had left because of the war had been taken over by enemy immigrants. The employers called on the federal, provincial and municipal governments to put down, what the Committee of One Thousand[3] called, a ‘Bolshevik rebellion’.[4] The federal government complied with the employers’ request on Saturday June 21 by sending in the Royal North West Mounted Police Force (R.N.W.M.P.) and the military to break up a large public demonstration,[5] which became known as ‘Bloody Saturday’. The public demonstration resulted in, as Idiong Uduak notes in his article “The Young Historian: The Third Force: Returned Soldiers in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919”, “two men dead, numerous casualties, and ninety-four arrests”.[6] In order to fully understand why this tense situation erupted into such chaos, historians must look into the positions taken by the veterans and unions involved and the federal government’s reaction to the crises.
The culmination of the First World War helped to aggravate Canadian unions and put into motion the events that lead up to the outbreak of the Winnipeg General Strike. The war, overall, caused infighting between Canadians from Vancouver to St. John’s. An east versus west battle of ideologies resulted. Big businesses from Montreal and Toronto profited from government war contracts while the west saw their sons conscripted to fight overseas. The population of Winnipeg hated conscription with a passion. This was because Winnipeg “had sent the highest proportion of soldiers in Canada to war”[7], whereas, as Robert Craig Brown and Ramsay Cook point out, “…there was a growing controversy over the low level of enlistments in Quebec”.[8] The ‘Quebec factor’ angered many western Canadians because they pointed out that it was the west that was doing more than their fair share for the war effort. Western Canadians were the farmers who were supplying the food and sending a high percentage of their population overseas to fight the war. Westerners countered that Quebecers were only interested in profiting from the war via the government munitions contracts and refusing to be conscripted. Therefore, Western Canadians demanded that they now have their interest looked after since they had been such loyal British during the war. This was one reason that the Winnipeg General Strike erupted.
The issue of high unemployment would come to the forefront as the demobilization from the First World War occurred. During the war, unemployment was not a problem because a large number of men were overseas fighting in the war and 185,000 Canadians were employed in the munitions factories.[9] However, all this would change as the war veterans returned home looking to return to the jobs they held before the war. This would not be the case because, as the veterans saw the situation, the ‘aliens’ had stolen their jobs.[10] The veterans were angered that, as Uduak Idiong writes, “on their return from the war, the veterans sought out scapegoats for their problems and the ‘alien’, who held the jobs they had given up to go to war, became the object of their frustrations”.[11] The veterans responded to this frustration by calling on the federal government to deport the ‘aliens’ and confiscate their possessions that would be used to pay veterans’ pensions.[12] The veterans had the right to be angered because the federal government had failed to realize that the demobilization of such a large number of men would lead to high unemployment. Westerners feared that they were headed into a recession similar to the recession that occurred in 1913-1914.[13] The veterans were only seen as adding legitimacy to either the unions or the Committee of One Thousand’s side of the argument. The veterans were seen as being on the side of ‘morality’ because the veterans were the men overseas that were fighting, for what Canadians saw as, ‘the moral cause’. Therefore, a lack of government forethought resulted in high unemployment and a fight for the attention of the disgruntled veterans resulted.
The Committee of One Thousand attempted to attract veterans by labelling the Winnipeg Strike as a ‘Bolshevik Revolution’. The Committee knew the veterans “were most opposed to Bolshevism and revolution”[14] because of the fact that Russia was forced to pull out of the war due to the Russian Revolution, leaving the allied troops on the western front to face the brunt of the war time force. The Union organizers called upon the veterans to join the unions’ side because they promised that the unions were fighting for job security, better working conditions, and better wages through their demands for collective bargaining. The unions easily won this battle considering that, according to Uduak Idiong, “the proportion of veterans that were pro-strike…[was] as high as eighty-five percent”.[15] Therefore, the majority of veterans joined the strike movement because they were angered over the high unemployment rates and the prospect of a better future with the fight for job security, better wages and working conditions.
Working conditions were especially important to the development of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. The railway workers are the best example of the hardship that workers were forced to endure while they were employed. As Joe Cherwinski described in his article, “Early Working-Class Life on the Prairies”, the working conditions the railway workers were forced to endure:
[Railway workers] were subjected to long hours and the prairie climate. Accidents were frequent, especially in the mountains where men were killed and injured by rockfalls and the misuse of explosives. Work Camps consisted of tents, rough temporary bunkhouses or residential boxcars. Complaints of overcrowding and inadequate sanitation fell on deaf ears.[16]
In other words, railway workers were forced to work long hours in slave like conditions and live in uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions. However, wages were another issue. Cherwinski notes that wages for railway construction appeared attractive, initially.[17] However, wages would soon dwindle as “the companies deducted charges for room and board, blanket rental, transportation to and from the job site, and medical expenses”.[18] These deductions left the railway construction worker with “little left at the end of the construction season”.[19] Therefore, there is little doubt that railway workers had reason to begin to revolt against the train companies. However, railway managers could easily put down the revolts over workers’ grievances considering the isolated conditions the workers found themselves in and the police presence that was utilized to protect the progression of “the companies’ work schedules from interruption”.[20] The railway workers looked to unionize with other workers in order to create an industrial union. The resulting industrial union would force the railway owners to take notice of the grievances that their employees had or be totally shut down by an industry wide strike.
The railway workers would find allies in the miners. Miners faced hard working conditions as well. Joe Cherwinski described in his article the working conditions that miners faced:
Three out of four coal mine employees worked below ground where the work place was a cramped ‘room’ prone to cave-ins and explosions. Boys aged ten to seventeen were employed as slate pickers, greasers, coal car switchers and pick carriers. Considering the industry was continually plagued by shutdowns and that the probability of miners contracting ‘black lung’, a respiratory disease, was high, their remuneration was modest.[21]
However, miners still had to look after their families in rugged mining towns. Throughout these towns were ugly “mountains of mineral waste”[22] that accompanied “the small, uniform, company houses…and bunkhouses”.[23] The miners also had to contend with the outrageous prices they were charged by the company store “because there was nowhere else to shop”.[24] The miners knew that if they were to revolt, the mine owners could easily replace them. The miners could easily be replaced considering that miners consisted mostly of homesteaders looking for winter work. Therefore, if a revolt occurred, the miners could be easily replaced with other homesteaders who also looked for employment during the winter. The only solution for the miners seemed to be a large union that the owners of the mines would have to deal with and could not replace.
The first attempt at the unionization of the west failed. The Trades and Labour Congress (TLC) organized workers by trade and not based on industry. This type of organization forced a large number of contracts to be negotiated instead of just one that would cover a single industry.[25] Therefore, companies easily refused to bargain with unions because of the small and segmented nature that unionization based on trade presented. Companies often refused to negotiate with western trade workers because companies based in the west were significantly smaller than their eastern counterparts based in Ontario and Quebec where large businesses employed many workers of the same trade. This resulted in an ‘eastern based trade union’ organization that many western workers felt was not feasible for their needs. The ‘eastern based trade union’, for example, could not assist the railway workers in their grievances for better working conditions due to the isolated situation and the government intervention through the use of the police force. Therefore, an owner would be forced to take notice of the employees grievances if the entire industry that the company based its existence on, suddenly came to a screeching halt. The concept of threatened industrial action is the main basis for the creation of industrial unions.
Western labour leaders went to the Trades and Labour Congress’ General Meeting at Quebec City in September of 1918. Western labour leaders made several motions proposing the Canadian Labour Congress change from a union based on trades to a union based on industry. The eastern delegates easily defeated these motions.[26] The eastern delegates feared the creation of industrial based unions because the resulting industrial unions would look similar to the unions that had prevailed in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The western labour leaders would not go home without changing the composition of the western segment of the Canadian Labour Congress. J.S. Woodsworth and others proposed that western unions should act on the hatred they possessed towards easterners based on both the grievances over wartime contributions and the negligence of the eastern labour leaders to recognize the needs of western Canadian labourers.
The protest over the grievances that westerners had with the easterners would appear in “a western labour convention [that met] in Calgary in the spring of 1919”.[27] J.S. Woodsworth was perhaps the most important western leader at that meeting. As, Grace McInnis wrote in her article, “J.S. Woodswroth – Personal Recollections”, Woodsworth “regarded every human being as his neighbour and, in so far as it was possible for him to meet individuals, he treated them as equals, regardless of their colour, creed, sex or geographical location”.[28] Woodsworth’s ideology of how society should operate became the basis for the concept of the One Big Union (OBU). The ideology was that the owners should respect their workers that they relied on in order to produce company profits. Woodworth’s ideology required that industrial unions be created so that if the owner of the business or industry failed to deal with the grievances of its workers, the workers would refuse to work. The owner would have to take notice of the grievances or face losing his company. The delegates at the Calgary Conference put forward “one region-wide referendum [that] would determine whether workers should secede from the international (AFL[29]) craft unions and create their own industry-based organization, the One Big Union”.[30] Therefore, J.S. Woodsworth, because of his ideologies, would become a prominent figure in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.
Winnipeg was the target city for a general strike to occur. The grievances between the workers and the employers would come to a head when men in the building trades began “a straightforward dispute over wages…and…over collective bargaining rights in the metal trades”[31]. The workers, faced with employers who refused to budge, called on fellow union members to join them in a strike. The other workers overwhelmingly voted to strike in sympathy of the building trades. The Winnipeg General Strike had begun, shutting down the entire city of Winnipeg, and proved what the One Big Union had promised, as the entire building industry in Winnipeg ground to a halt.
The federal government took the side of business because they feared the radicalism would lead to a socialist revolution. David J. Bercuson wrote in his article, “The Winnipeg General Strike: Collective Bargaining and the One Big Union Issue”, that Acting Justice Minister Arthur Meighan and Labour Minister Senator Gidion Robertson “feared the imminent rise of radical industrial unionism combined with syndicalist principles embodied in the One Big Union”.[32] The government was also “convinced that the Winnipeg strike was in reality, a test case of OBU ideas and the experiment upon which the OBU revolution was to be based”.[33] The government, therefore, had a similar ideology as the eastern trade union leaders had at the Canadian Labour Congress’ General Meeting in Quebec City. The government, like the eastern union leaders, thought that the One Big Union would eventually lead to a socialist revolution.
Believing that the Winnipeg General Strike would be a test case for a socialist revolution, the federal government decided to act in unison with both the provincial and municipal governments. The government was determined to end the walkout. Therefore, the governments took aim at the idea of One Big Union’s sympathetic strike by fragmenting the support that the strike required to be successful. The governments began the fragmentation of the strike when it, as Frieson wrote:
told postal workers to return or be fired; the provincial government issued the same ultimatum to telephone employees; rather than trust its police, who had voted to support the strike but remained on the job at the request of the Strike Committee, the municipal government fired almost 200 and replaced them with nearly 2,000 ‘special police’ hired at $6 a day, twice the temporary discharge allowance given [to] returned soldiers.[34]
The governments started breaking down the strike movement by threatening the workers to return to work or be replaced by workers that were supportive of the governments’ position.
The federal government then went after the strike leaders. Acting Justice Minister Arthur Meighen was perhaps the most forthright when he said that “the leaders of the general strike so far as I could observe, and certainly in Winnipeg, are all revolutionists of varying degrees and types, from crazy idealists down to ordinary thieves with the bigger part, perhaps the latter type”.[35] Labour Minister Senator Gideon Robertson also added his opinion of the strike leaders by labelling them as “revolutionary forces pledged to overthrow constitutional authority”.[36] The federal government’s position was to portray the strike leaders as being crazy revolutionary idealists who wanted to rebel and overthrow the constitutional authority that the federal government possessed. Robertson acted on his beliefs by issuing a dispatch to Prime Minister Robert L. Borden stating the “intention to arrest several strike leaders…[who] have plotted to overthrow the government of the country and to establish Soviet government”.[37] Therefore, on June 17, 1919 ten union leaders were arrested. The federal government figured that without any strike leaders the ‘socialist revolution’ would cease to continue.
The federal government was wrong. On Saturday June 21, 1919 veterans called for a parade to protest against the arrests of the union leaders and “the federal government’s refusal to hear the strikers’ case”.[38] However, the municipal government had made parades and public protests illegal. Therefore, Winnipeg “Mayor Gray read the Riot Act”[39] and the members of Royal North West Mounted Police and the military charged into the crowd causing the melee that would eventually become known as ‘Bloody Saturday’.
The importance of the positions taken by the veterans and the unions involved in combination with the federal government’s reaction can assist the historian to explain what caused the General Strike of 1919 to evolve into ‘Bloody Saturday’. The tense situation erupted because the government took sides in a dispute between businesses and unions. The government should have taken an approach of conciliation toward the unions and business leaders. The process of conciliation would have defused the tense situation because the government would have encouraged the business and union leaders to begin negotiations on how to address the workers’ grievances that had built up over the years. However, the federal government had never taken the position as the party of conciliation when, as University of Ottawa Business History Professor Donald F. Davis notes, the federal government called on the military 133 times between 1867-1933 to end strikes in various Canadian cities.[40] Instead, the government chose to use force that resulted unnecessarily in two dead and ninety-four arrests.
The veterans’ position was a required action considering that the government had failed to forecast what type of infrastructure would be required to demobilize and re-integrate a large number of soldiers back into society. The veterans should be commended for taking an active approach towards having their plight noticed by Canadians. After all, many of these veterans had volunteered to join the war effort and most Canadians felt they should be rewarded for risking their lives to defend the British Empire. The least the federal government could have done was promise to provide employment and benefits for the veterans. However, the federal government failed to provide these jobs and benefits. Therefore, the veterans had the right to join the protest in order to force the federal government to take notice of their grievances.
The position of strike action that the One Big Union had taken was necessary. For too long the Trades and Labour Congress ignored the grievances that their western members and business owners had ignored the complaints of their workers. The One Big Union needed a venue to vent its anger and have its grievances heard by the Trades and Labour Congress and western business leaders. Therefore, a general strike provided this opportunity because it would force both the Trades and Labour Congress and the western business leaders to take notice and act on the union’s demands for a collective bargaining process.
A large-scale protest was required to amplify the plight of the working class and the veterans before the situation erupted into a true Soviet rebellion and a national revolution occurred. Therefore, the government was truly lucky that only Winnipeg was shut down by the strike instead of the whole country by a true Bolshevik revolution similar to that suffered by the Russians. However, historians should not forget that the conflicting positions taken by the unions, the veterans and the government resulted in the chaos that resulted in an unnecessary ‘Bloody Saturday’.
Behiels, Michael. “ The Winnipeg General Strike, 1919.” University of Ottawa. Ottawa, 28 October 1999.
Bercuson, David Jay. Confrontation at Winnipeg. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1974.
Bercuson, David J. “The Winnipeg General Strike: Collective Bargaining and the One Big Union Issue.” Canadian Historical Review. 51 (1970): 164-176.
Brown, Robert Craig, and Ramsay Cook. Canada 1896-1921: A Nation Transformed. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1974.
Cherwinski, Joe. “Early Working-Class Life on the Prairies.” The Prairie West: Historical Readings. 2nd ed. eds. R. Douglas Francis and Howard Palmer. Edmonton: Pica Pica Press, 1992.
Davis, Donald F. “Government Response to Big Business.” University of Ottawa. Ottawa, 14 November 2000.
Finkel, Alvin, and Margaret Conrad. History of the Canadian Peoples: 1867 to the Present. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Toronto: Copp Clark Ltd., 1998.
Frieson, Gerald. The Canadian Prairies: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. .
Idiong, Uduak. “The Young Historian: The Third Force: Returned Soldiers in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.” Manitoba History. Autumn 97: 15-22.
Kitzan, Chris. “Labour.” University of Ottawa. Ottawa. 8 November 2000.
MacInnis, Grace. “J.S. Woodsworth – Personal Recollections.” Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba Transactions. 3.24 (1967-1968) 17-26
Taylor, Graham D., and Peter A. Baskerville. A Concise History of Business in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1994.



 [1]Uduak Idiong. “The Young Historian: The Third Force: Returned Soldiers in the Winnipeg General Strike.” Manitoba History. Autumn 1997, 15.


[2]Robert Craig Brown and Ramsay Cook. Canada 1896-1921: A Nation Transformed. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1974), 312.


[3]The Citizens Committee of One Thousand was composed of Winnipeg’s business and professional leaders – Brown and Cook 313.


[4]Brown and Cook 313.


[5]According to Michael Behiels in his lecture, “The Winnipeg General Strike 1919”, the public demonstration was organized to try and shut down streetcar service which the City of Winnipeg had resumed by order of the federal government.


[6] Idiong 21.

[7]Idiong 16.


[8]Brown and Cook 266.


[9]Michael Behiels. “The Winnipeg General Strike 1919.” University of Ottawa. Ottawa, 28 October 1999.


[10]Idiong 16.


[11]Ibid. 16.


[12]Ibid., 19.


[13]Chris Kitzan. “Labour.” University of Ottawa. Ottawa. 8 November 2000.

[14]Idiong, 18.


[15] Ibid., 18.


[16]Joe Cherwinski. “Early Working-Class Life on the Prairies.” The Prairie West: Historical Readings. 2nd ed. eds. R. Douglas Francis and Howard Palmer. (Edmonton: Pica Pica Press, 1992), 546.


[17]Ibid. 546.


[18]Ibid., 546.

[19]Cherwinski, 546.


[20]Ibid., 546.


[21]Ibid. 549.


[22]Ibid., 549.


[23]Ibid., 549.


[24]Ibid., 549.


[25]Michael Behiels. “The Winnipeg General Strike 1919.” University of Ottawa. Ottawa, 28 October 1999.

[26]Chris Kitzan. “Labour.” University of Ottawa. Ottawa. 8 November 2000.


[27]Brown and Craig 310.


[28]Grace MacInnis. “J.S. Woodsworth – Personal Recollections.” Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba Transactions. 3.24 (1967-1968): 17.

[29]American Federation of Labour.


[30]Gerald Fieson. The Canadian Prairies: A History. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 360.


[31]Brown and Cook 312.


[32]David J. Bercuson. “The Winnipeg General Strike: Collective Bargaining and the One Big Union Issue.” Canadian Historical Review. 51 (1970): 164.


[33]Ibid., 164.

[34]Frieson 362.


[35]MacInnis 165.


[36]Ibid. 165.


[37]Brown and Cook 313.


[38]Ibid. 314.


[39]Ibid. 314.

[40]Donald F. Davis. “Government Response to Big Business.” University of Ottawa. Ottawa, 14 November 2000.