Wages and working conditions lead to Winnipeg General Strike

Baseball players receive three strikes before they?re out. In Winnipeg they were not as fortunate.

Unlike their baseball brethren, workers in Winnipeg only received one strike before they were out . . . of work.

For several weeks in 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike brought the Manitoba capital to a standstill. From postal workers to bankers, bakers and even the police, more than 30,000 people stopped working during that time.

Following the end of the First World War, Canadian soldiers returned home to cheers and supportive crowds. Like the rest of the country, they also faced unemployment and inflation.

Although many companies enjoyed financial advantages supporting the war effort, the benefits did not generally flow down to employees. In addition to working conditions, wages were also considered substandard.

Workers who managed to avoid unemployment pushed for increased salaries to offset the impact of wartime inflation. Combined with the success of the Russian Revolution a couple of years earlier and increasing labour unrest, talked turned to collective action.

When management refused to negotiate with workers attempting to unionize in the building and metal industries in Winnipeg, a strike ensued. In support of these workers, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council ? the umbrella organization for local labour in the city ? called for a general strike on May 15, 1919.

With a population of around 200,000 people, the withdrawal of services by more than 30,000 workers shut the city down. Factories, stores and transportation were all impacted. In a display of solidarity, public and private sector employees joined together in support.

Business owners and politicians were passionate in their opposition to the strike. They believed workers were seeking to undermine social and political values in Canada.

In response, the Citizens? Committee of 1000 was created by some of the most influential manufacturers, bankers and politicians in Winnipeg.

As testament to its influence, the committee forced city council to dismiss most of the city?s 200 police officers, who were believed to be sympathetic to the strike. A force of special constables was recruited, which included citizens and some soldiers returning from war.

The federal and provincial governments also joined in opposition. With fears the strike would spread to other centres, the federal government intervened. Among the measures taken was granting officials new powers to deport people. The number of Royal North West Mounted Police officers in the city was also increased, while members of the military were put on alert.

Tensions escalated with the arrest of several strike leaders on June 17, 1919. Defying a ban on parades and protest marches, the pro-labour movement took to the streets four days later.

When the intensity of the protests increased and the crowds failed to disperse, the mayor read the Riot Act, which gave authorities the power to use force to put down a disturbance threatening the peace of a community.

Armed with wooden clubs, the mounted police moved to clear the streets. Shots were also reportedly fired. In the aftermath of what became known as Bloody Saturday, reports on the number casualties varied from 30 to more than 100. Depending on the source, the death toll also varied between one and two. In what became a pivotal moment in labour history, the strike was called off days later. Many workers returned to work without a pay increase or better working conditions. Others were not as fortunate, as some employers would not take back striking workers.