Winnipeg General Strike of 1919

Royal North West Mounted Police operations in Winnipeg General Strike, 1919
Royal North West Mounted Police operations in Winnipeg General Strike, 1919.

Canadian Government / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

For six weeks in the summer of 1919 the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba was crippled by a massive and dramatic general strike. Frustrated by unemployment, inflation, poor working conditions and regional disparities after World War I, workers from both the private and public sectors joined forces to shut down or drastically reduce most services. The workers were orderly and peaceful, but the reaction from the employers, city council and the federal government was aggressive.

The strike ended in "Bloody Saturday" when the Royal North-West Mounted Police attacked a gathering of strike supporters. Two strikers were killed, 30 wounded and many arrested. Workers won little in the strike, and it was another 20 years before collective bargaining was recognized in Canada.

Causes of Winnipeg General Strike

  • The immediate reasons for the building trades and metal workers going on strike were for better wages and working conditions, for recognition of their unions and for the principle of collective bargaining.
  • The broad sweep of the strike, which involved many non-unionized workers, was partly due to frustrations from World War I. Years of sacrifices during the war and high expectations for its aftermath were met with high unemployment, an industrial downturn, and inflation.
  • The tight labor market had led to an increase in unions.
  • The success of the Russian Revolution in 1917 had led not only to an increase in socialist and labor ideas but also a fear of revolution on the part of those in authority.

Beginning of Winnipeg General Strike

  • On May 1, 1919, after months of labor negotiations building workers in Winnipeg, Manitoba went on strike.
  • On May 2, metalworkers went on strike when the employers of the main metalwork factories in Winnipeg refused to negotiate with their union.
  • The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (WTLC), the umbrella organization for local labor, called a general strike in sympathy on May 15. About 30,000 workers, both unionized and non-unionized, left their jobs.
  • The Winnipeg general strike was coordinated by the Central Strike Committee with delegates from the unions affiliated with the WTLC. The strike was orderly, with workers avoiding providing any excuse to provoke military force. Essential services were maintained.
  • The Citizens Committee of 1000, made up of manufacturers, bankers, and politicians, provided organized opposition to the strike.

The Strike Heats Up

  • The Citizens Committee ignored the strikers' demands and with the assistance of local newspapers accused the strikers of "Bolshevism," of being "enemy aliens" and of undermining "British values."
  • On May 22, the federal Minister of Labour, Senator Gideon Robertson, and the federal minister of the interior and acting minister of justice Arthur Meighen met with the Citizens Committee. They refused to meet with the Central Strike Committee.
  • Within the week, federal government employees, provincial government employees, and municipal workers were ordered to return to work. An amendment to the Immigration Act was rushed through Parliament to allow the deportation of British-born strike leaders and the definition of sedition in the Criminal Code was expanded.
  • On May 30, the Winnipeg police refused to sign a no-strike pledge. They were fired and an 1800-man force of "Specials" was hired to tame the strike. They were supplied with horses and baseball bats.
  • On June 17, the strike leaders were arrested in late-night raids.
  • The city council outlawed the regular demonstration marches, both pro and anti-strike, by veterans.

Bloody Saturday

  • On June 21, which came to be known as Bloody Saturday, strikers pushed over and set fire to a streetcar. The Royal North-West Mounted Police attacked the crowd of strike supporters gathered outside City Hall, killing two and injuring 30. The Specials followed the crowd as it dispersed through the streets, beating protesters with baseball bats and wagon spokes. The army also patrolled the streets with machine guns.
  • Authorities shut down the strikers' paper, the Western Labour News, and arrested its editors.
  • On June 26, afraid of more violence, the strike leaders called off the strike.

Results of Winnipeg General Strike

  • The metalworkers went back to work without a pay increase.
  • Some workers were jailed, some were deported, and thousands lost their jobs.
  • Seven strike leaders were convicted of a conspiracy to overthrow the government and jailed for up to two years.
  • In the 1920 Manitoba provincial election, 11 labor candidates won seats. Four of them were strike leaders.
  • It was another 20 years before collective bargaining was recognized in Canada.
  • Winnipeg's economy went into a decline.
  • Winnipeg remained divided between the Tory south end and the working class north.
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Your Citation
Munroe, Susan. "Winnipeg General Strike of 1919." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, Munroe, Susan. (2021, July 29). Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Retrieved from Munroe, Susan. "Winnipeg General Strike of 1919." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).