What the Winnipeg General Strike Can Teach Us about Class, Capitalism, and Greed

In 1919, 35,000 workers ground Winnipeg to a halt. We may never again see another strike like it

Strikers overturn a streetcar in Winnipeg, June 21, 1919.
Strikers overturn a streetcar in Winnipeg, June 21, 1919. Photograph courtesy of the Archives of Manitoba.

One of the last standing landmarks of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 is the Ukrainian Labour Temple in the north end of the city, at Pritchard Avenue and McGregor. The lintel over the front door reads, “Workers of the world unite.”

Listen to an audio version of this story

Inside, it looks like a theatre without seats, with a fire curtain hanging over the stage. The temple holds 1,000 people, and during the strike, according to local lore, men and women filled it from floor to balcony. The space was brand new when 35,000 workers halted the city’s factories, trains and streetcars for six weeks, starting in May 1919. The reasons were ­local and global: disputes over wages and living conditions, of course, but also, as James Naylor at Manitoba’s Brandon University says, there was the “vast unfairness of everything”—a war had just ended, one in which working people were killed in the millions while “a handful of people were becoming fantastically rich, ­honestly or dishonestly.” People had had enough. Class ­divisions in Canada had never been sharper.

Almost every other landmark from the period—from the strike headquarters to old city hall to Victoria Park, where thousands met to hear speakers—has been levelled, except some of the strikers’ houses in the north end, which haven’t changed much. The north end resists gentrification if only because developers aren’t interested in developing it: too much crime, they say, too many drugs, too many of the wrong people, unfriendly to commerce. Historically, Winnipeg’s north end has been seen as a place that gets capitalism wrong on purpose. There used to be a sign on the roof of Nepon Auto Body, visible from the Slaw Rebchuk Bridge when crossing over the CP tracks. It said, “Welcome to the North End. People before Profits.” It became a motto, a point of pride for a neighbourhood poor in opportunities. “Wherever there are broken things,” writes Métis author Katherena Vermette of the north end, where she grew up, “there are people who are struggling and fighting and succeeding every day fixing them.”

So much about the Winnipeg strike is stuck in a historical ­moment. Thirty-five thousand workers coming together? It seems like a fantasy. Now the reality is outsourcing and automation. Work by contract, remote, or part time. Eighty-four percent of private-sector jobs in Canada are non­unionized. Labour is seen as a raw material to be acquired for a competitive price (meaning it’s low wage). But history decides which ­stories persist, and the arc of our narrative is bending again, toward the ­values behind the Winnipeg General Strike.

“Class is back on the agenda,” says Naylor, who points to precarious employment and stagnant wages over the last few decades as the reasons why young workers are looking to examples like the 1919 strike for answers. “They are ­collectively nervous,” he says of his own students, “about economic threats and environ­mental threats. They see these things as ­connected, and they see the same enemy, the one percent,” as did the 35,000 workers in Winnipeg.

The legacy of the strike isn’t settled here, and it likely never will be. But what’s odd is how fresh the story feels. The rich industrial owners of the south end against the poor immigrant workers of the north end. The accusations that “alien scum” were behind the strike and that, for the sake of king and ­Canada, it had to stop. On bad days, we still argue about workers’ rights and about foreigners in our midst. On good days, student walkouts and Green New Deal activism in the US give the Winnipeg strike of 1919 new relevance.

Attached to the temple is the archives, its floor stained rust red from a leaking air conditioner. Lily Stearns, a volunteer, shows me bound newspapers going back to 1919, photographs, and shelves of translated novels and plays. Around the time of the strike, she says, the temple ­hosted a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the story of a totali­tarian leader, fresh from a military victory, getting his well-earned comeuppance.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the Great War had just ended. But, for returning soldiers, the celebrations were short lived. Winnipeg, a busy, industrial railway hub, had little to offer them: jobs were scarce, wages low, inflation high. There was anger directed at rich factory owners in the south end, who had made a fortune during the war, and at the new immigrants who had, as some of the soldiers saw it, taken their jobs. For the immigrants, which included Hungarians and Ukrainians, living conditions were desperate. So, when the building- and metal-trades workers went on strike on May 1, the local Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council rolled the dice: Were people angry enough to support a general sympathy strike in support of the tradespeople? There had been talk in the west of forming the near-­mythical One Big Union, of bringing workers of all stripes together under one banner, as a bargaining force. After all, workers had just taken over an entire country, Russia.

In Winnipeg, the council took a vote. Ninety-four unions polled their members: boilermakers, railway clerks, firemen, police, electrical workers, flour-mill workers, pipe fitters, plumbers, upholsterers, bakers, confectioners. On May 6, 11,000 workers voted for a sympathy strike. Within a week, 12,000 unionized workers had walked off the job, and then, to the shock of the strike organizers, the numbers swelled to 35,000, among them nonunionized immigrant workers who’d learned about class solidarity in the old country. Many of the returning veterans set aside their beef with the new immigrants and chose to put the question to the factory owners and city elite: Is this what we fought a war for? To have no say in our own futures? They joined the strike too. “In Germany,” one returning soldier wrote, “I fed on grass and rats. I would prefer going back to eating grass than give up the freedom for which I fought so hard.”

Why Winnipeg? General strikes had previously been discussed elsewhere in Canada and the United States. If the ­social, political, and economic tinder was dry and flammable, why not a strike in Toronto or Montreal or Halifax? In the east, the union ­leadership was more conservative: when times are desperate, hold a meeting. In Winnipeg, meanwhile, the leadership was young and brash: A. A. Heaps, J. S. Woodsworth, William Pritchard, William Ivens, Helen Armstrong, most coming from Britain, where labour activism was comparatively more radical.

The city elite decided to confront that radicalism head on. They formed what they called a Citizens’ Committee of 1,000, a group whose battle plan to end the strike was to frame it not as an exercise in industrial relations but as the seed of a global catastrophe. “If we submit to it now, we shall have to submit to it again and again,” they wrote in a May 30 newspaper ad. “Don’t be misled—KILL IT NOW.” The enemy, as always, was the Eastern European immigrant. “The idea behind the One Big Union,” wrote John Dafoe, editor of the Manitoba Free Press, “is to employ these masses of rough, uneducated foreigners, who know nothing of our customs and our civilization.”

The committee was led by A. J. Andrews, “hatless, with a wilted collar,” wrote the Toronto Star, who committed himself to “drawing up charges, directing raids, supervising ­arrests.” City council approved the hiring of a “special” police force to replace striking constables, mostly returned soldiers paid six dollars a day. They were issued wooden clubs—wagon spokes with a hole bored through the top end into which ran a piece of rope that fit over your wrist. Hank Scott, a former special constable, told the CBC fifty years later: “You went down the street and you had this confounding thing, about two feet long.” Its purpose was unambiguous and presaged the strike’s bloody conclusion.

In June, strike leaders were arrested. On the twenty-first, a parade was organized on Main Street by soldiers, in support of the arrested leaders. The City called in troops from the Fort Osborne barracks, the special constables, and the ­Royal North-West Mounted Police. At 2:30 in the afternoon, armed police and the crowds met face to face near city hall. A ­streetcar ­approached, manned by strike breakers, and the crowd ­responded, throwing bricks through the windows and tipping it off the tracks. Then, Chekhov’s rule: if a pistol ­appears in act one, it must be fired by act three. And, as is often the case in protests, only one side was armed.

“When the shooting started there was a double movement,” writes former Canadian Press reporter Fred Livesay in his autobiography. “As if reaped by a scythe, the old soldiers lay down, while the rest, men, women and children, streamed like quicksilver into the neighboring courts and alleys.” Livesay continues: “In a moment the square was quiet. Even the troops had passed on, and I stood alone . . . a dead man lay before me.” This would come to be known as Bloody Saturday. Two dead. It was the end of the Winnipeg General Strike.

A century later, it’s worth asking: What was achieved? Many of the measures that labour unions were able to take in the decades after the strike to minimize social inequality have been eroded. The business class, the forces of capitalism, the elite—however you want to characterize the modern incarnation of the Citizens’ Committee of 1,000—waged, and arguably won, the rhetorical war against labour rights. Workplace flexibility and the emancipation from the drudgery of the same soul-killing job for life: these ideas have replaced the language the union movement built up after Winnipeg. Class conflict, we’re told, is over: we are all free to pursue our dreams equally. That’s what A. J. Andrews argued in 1919, when he wasn’t busy blaming immigrants. Workers of the north end, he said, have the same chance to get ahead as the business class of Charleswood—it was a question of gumption. With this, he foreshadowed British prime minister Margaret Thatcher who, after crushing the power of the country’s trade unions, said in 1987, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

What the Winnipeg General Strike helped bring about, in other words, is the current mantra that collectivity is a waste of time, that the individual succeeds on their own merits. Nolan Reilly, a retired professor of history from the University of Winnipeg, marvels at the solidarity that held together the strikers. “But,” he adds, “I can’t imagine it happening in Winnipeg again unless the Jets win the Stanley Cup.” For one thing, union engagement is aging out. According to Statistics Canada, the unionization rate for workers aged fifty-five to sixty-four in 2012 was 36 percent, while it was only 28.4 percent for the twenty-five-to-thirty-four age group, and 14.8 percent for workers aged seventeen to twenty-four. Young workers, resigned to jobs without long-term contracts or security, may see unions as vestiges of another time. How do you organize in a gig economy ­anyway? There is no equivalent of a Ukrainian Labour Temple to bring together Uber drivers, web developers, and bike couriers.

But then the lesson of history is that, just when things seem settled, there will come the Damascene moment: a flash of something unexpected. In February, 3,000 teachers in Oakland, California, won an 11 percent salary raise after a seven-day strike. The counterargument, as usual: they should be happy to have jobs in this economy. But the teachers withdrew their labour, and it worked. When Donald Trump shut down the US government in late 2018, it lasted thirty-five days until air-traffic controllers called in sick, and the American flight-attendants union used language infrequently heard in the mainstream since 1919: it called for a general strike.

It was an off-script moment—that’s not the way it’s ­supposed to go now that labour strength and collectivity are at an ebb. But commerce sometimes forgets what happens when it backs people into a corner, as it did in 1919, when workers got their act together and shut down a city.

Tom Jokinen
Tom Jokinen has written for the Globe and Mail, the Literary Review of Canada, and The Walrus. He lives in Winnipeg.