Winnipeg General Strike

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Winnipeg General Strike

Winnipeg General Strike

Thesis Statement

Winnipeg Strike will go down in history as a magnificent example of working class solidarity and courage.

Introduction The province of Manitoba has endured a tumultuous history. It was born as a result of the Riel rebellion and its capital city, Winnipeg, was the sight of the only general strike in Canadian history. The Winnipeg General Strike, which took place shortly after the end of the Great War, brought, in the eyes of some, the specter of revolution to Canada. In the end, however, the strike was, from a labour standpoint, an abject failure, as virtually no long-term gains were made. It is difficult to comprehend how this strike, which lasted from May-June 1919 and began with between twenty-four and thirty thousand workers walking off the job (only 12,000 of whom were unionized), could end in failure but, when the events of the strike are examined in detail, it becomes apparent that the strike leaders themselves were, ultimately, responsible for their lack of success as they continually took steps which undermined their ability to force a resolution on their own terms.

Roots of the strike

The Canadian Pacific Railway did more than bring immigrants and industry to Manitoba, it also brought trade unionism to the province. The huge CPR yards in central Winnipeg employed over 2,000 men by the late 1880s. Many of these skilled trades workers had come from England and Scotland where they been active in a revived British labour movement. Not long after their arrival in Manitoba they formed unions of their own. Soon there were unions for machinists, conductors, brakemen, and engineers. The Canadian National Railway's decision to build a rail yard in Transcona ensured that community would have a strong trade-union tradition. A boomtown such as Winnipeg attracted carpenters, plumbers, painters and other construction workers, each of whom soon set up their own unions.

Figure 1: The Winnipeg General Strike - 1919

There were no labour laws requiring employers to negotiate with unions - or to prevent an employer from firing someone simply for belonging to a union. Most unions simply posted their rates and working conditions—if an employer refused to meet them, the union would go on strike. In other cases, workers did not form a union until after an employer had cut wages and benefits. Many employers took a very hard line with unions. (Ref1, Ref2) The owners of the Vulcan Iron Works, for example, vowed they would never meet or negotiate with a union committee. In 1906 streetcar employees went on strike when two union officers were fired—a move that sparked a violent and bitter strike.

Some union leaders did not believe women workers could be unionized, but working women in Winnipeg began forming their own unions in the late nineteenth century. Winnipeg's competitive garment trade was hit with numerous labour disputes. In 1893, 75 male and female tailors, all members of the Journeyman Tailors' Union, struck to protest a pay cut. The strike was defeated when their employers brought in ...