10) "THE UPSURGE OF LABOR SWEPT THE WEST LIKE A PRAIRIE FIRE"

 

(This account of the events of 1919 is from "All My Life", the autobiography of A.E. Smith, a prominent Methodist minister who gave up his career during the Winnipeg General Strike to stand with the working class, joining the Communist Party of Canada and becoming leader of the Canadian Labor Defence League during the "Dirty Thirties.")

 

On May 1, 1919, the Winnipeg Strike broke out. The great post-war upsurge of labor had begun in western Canada. It swept the west like a prairie fire...

 

On Thursday morning, May 1, a convention was held by the Building Trades Council at the Industrial Bureau in Winnipeg. There were over 1200 workers in the trade gathered there that day. The situation was fully reviewed before this meeting. It was shown that the council was asking for an increased wage of 20 cents per hour. Since 1914 the cost of living had been increased 75 to 80 percent. In the same period the increase in wages in the building trades amounted to only 18 per cent. The average work period in the industry was 32 weeks which, with a 44-hour week and a 65-cent-an-hour rate, gave the worker an income of about $915 in the year. A family budget, providing only bare essentials, would total well over $1500. The Builders' Exchange admitted the demands of the workers to be "reasonable". Yet they said, "we cannot pay the increase."

 

This was a class decision, not a mere local attitude of the Builders' Exchange. They said: "The bankers refuse to do business on the new basis." This was categorically stated at that time as the reason why the increased scale could not be accepted.

 

I was struck by the nation-wide, class-against-class issue involved in what, at first, seemed to be a small wage question. The Tory Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, had signed documents at the peace conference in France proclaiming labour's right to collective bargaining and the eight-hour day. But all the evidence showed that the government in Ottawa was blocking labour's demands in Winnipeg in an effort to discourage the rising movement across the country.

 

Metal workers in three large firms - including the Vulcan Iron Works - met the same refusal as the building trades. The Metal Trades Council had negotiated for over a year to secure: 1) the nine-hour day (they were working ten hours), 2) higher wages, 3) union recognition. In the railway shops the metal workers had already won these demands under the so-called McAdoo Award in the United States, which was extended in Canada.

 

By 1119 to 74, the Building Trades Convention in Winnipeg voted to strike.... On May 15 the call for the sympathetic strike was issued from the strike committee in Winnipeg... Over 25,000 workers walked out in Winnipeg. Over 100,000 workers altogether in western Canada answered the call.

 

Winnipeg was literally tied up. Ninety-five local unions came out a hundred percent strong. The municipal employees came out with the firemen of Winnipeg and St. Boniface. The city police voted for the strike in the ratio of 149 to 11. The postal workers came out and suffered much for their loyalty. Cooks and waiters came out on strike. The telephone operators closed down the works. The printing pressmen came out and for several days Winnipeg newspapers were shut down.

 

The mighty power of the working class was immediately evident. This was not a revolutionary struggle for power. As I look back now I know that the lreadership from the beginning was itself afraid of the great power of the strike. There was no working class party with a conscious understanding of this power and what should be done. The strike leaders in Winnipeg told the workers to stay home. They tried to keep the struggle on a purely economic plane. And in the end they called off the strike without consulting the workers. Yet objectively here was revealed more clearly than by any other event in Canadian labor history the elemental factors of working class power.

 

The police and firemen remained on duty by decision of the strike committee. Water supply was maintained at only sufficient pressure for domestic use. The distribution of milk and bread was under the committee's supervision. By agreement with city council, each wagon carried the famous card, "Permitted by authority of the Strike Committee." All companies with rigs on the streets had to come to the Labour Temple to secure these cards.

 

Veterans just back from Flanders were represented on the strike committee. On the date of the call for the general strike a meeting of the veterans was held in the Board of Trade Building. The main resolution of that meeting, coming from the executive, was against the strike. It was rejected and a resolution endorsing the strike was made from the floor and adopted by the meeting. Soldiers in barracks, not yet discharged, were ordered on strike duty by their officers.. They refused to obey.

 

Under conditions of a nation-wide political crisis the Winnipeg Strike Committee would have become an organ of truly democratic power.

 

The angry employers organized the "Citizens Committee of 1000". This was the special concentration of authority set up to fight the strike.

 

On Thursday, May 15, at 12 noon, the city council of Winnipeg held a special meeting. Mayor Gray presented a letter from the strike committee asking him to bring about a settlement of the strike. He had met the representatives of the metal trades employers on Wednesday. He had urged a settlement. Their reply was that they had been requested by the "Citizens Committee of 1000" not to open any negotiations with the strikers. They were acceding to that request.

 

One of the aldermen asked the question: "Then the Citizens Committee is standing in the way of a settlement?" It was not denied...

 

On Jun 17 in the early morning hours 500 special constables and fifty Royal North West Mounted Police were mobilized for city-wide raids. Ten men were arrested on special warrants. Their homes were ransacked and they were pulled out of bed. Eight of the leaders were charged with seditious conspiracy. They were: William Ivens, founder of the Winnipeg Labour Church, George Armstrong, well-known Socialist Party speaker and member of the strike committee, R.E. Bray, chairman of the returned soldiers, Aldermen A.A. Heaps and John Queen of Winnipeg's Ward Five, R.B. Russell, Secretary of District Two of the Machinists' Union, which included all machinists in Canada, R.J. Johns, also of the Machinists Union, and W.A. Pritchard, Socialist Party speaker and representative of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council. On the third day after their arrest they were brought before a board of inquiry meeting at Stony Mountain penitentiary so that they might have a secret hearing and be deported under the amended Immigration Act. That this was not carried out was solely to the storm of protest that arose across the whole of Canada. Months later, they appeared in court.

 

Their trial was a travesty on justice. They were sentenced to twelve months hard labor and, I believe, Russell was singled out and sentenced to two years. Five foreign born workers, arrested with the others, were released under pressure of public opinion.

 

(The above article is from the May 1-15, 2019, issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading socialist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)