The Winnipeg General Strike of May and June 1919 stands as perhaps the signal moment of working class resistance and open class conflict in the industrial Canadian context. It remains a still resonant example of working class militance, organization, resolve, solidarity, and vision. It stands too as an unmistakeable symbol of the violence, repression, and racism at the core of the Canadian state. The Winnipeg General Strike offers a clear reminder of the state connection with and willingness to act in support of capital, and to do so using all means in its monopoly of violence. It also shows the racism of the Canadian state and its willingness to divide and conquer workers on the basis of ethnic background and/or national origin. Finally it shows the readiness of the state, and its major cultural symbol (the RCMP in its earlier incarnation as the Northwest Mounted Police), to kill. Labor historian Edward Seymour describes the reaction to the strike by government authorities at all levels as simply “vicious” (1976, 19).
Class Rule in Winnipeg
Labor historian David Bercuson suggests that business in Winnipeg was anti-union from the start, with unions viewed as an impediment to the climate in which business and investment could grow and prosper in the emerging industrial center (1975, 1–2). While this was certainly true of virtually all other cities, Bercuson argues that what was somewhat unique in Winnipeg was the extent to which the city was run by business associations and the particular costs of trade with national and international markets given the city’s isolation and distance and the associated higher transportation costs compared with say Toronto or Montreal. This great distance from both supply sources and markets impelled an obsession with keeping costs (labor particularly) unsustainably low (Bercuson 1975, 2).
In addition to these factors, Bercuson adds another, more curious one. This, he says, was the history of Social Darwinism prevalent among the ruling elite in Winnipeg. He notes that many of Winnipeg’s industrial and political leaders were nouveaux riches who had humble beginnings but had made it rich in the growing boom town. They took their success as a sign of personal strength, even superiority, and saw this as a sign that they were natural, and legitimate, leaders. The self-made man could not sympathize with those who, because of personal weakness, needed to organize collectively with others (Bercuson 1975, 2).
Winnipeg had experienced many, often bitter, strikes in the first decades of the twentieth century. Workers sought recognition of unions and collective agreements while bosses were largely successful in keeping unions out of workplaces. Throughout, local government dominated by businesspeople, invariably sided with employers and owners.
The War Economy and Class Struggle
Economic pressures and political dissatisfaction contributed to growing tensions between labor and management by 1918, the last year of the war. While workers were making the sacrifices of the war, employees did not want to share any of the benefits of economic gains within the war economy.
Bercuson suggests that inflation during the war period played, in his view, the most important part in stoking industrial conflict over the war years and in the period immediately following the end of the war (1975, 4). Inflation meant that those workers outside of the war industries and munitions manufacturing especially who could not achieve significant wage gains were faced with declining standards of living and rising costs (Bercuson 1975, 4). In Winnipeg, few workers worked in the arms industries so most were faced with declining living standards throughout the war years and beyond.
At the same time, labor shortages among skilled workers in particular meant that conditions for union organizing were favorable. This was also fueled by general anger among workers over conscription, the compulsory military service program initiated by Prime Minister Robert Borden in 1917. Indeed the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC) came to advocate a national general strike against conscription in 1917 (Bercuson 1975, 5). While the planned general strike did not come off, it planted the notion of the tactic of mass opposition to government and capital in the general intellect of workers across the country.
This was a period before full legal standing and recognition for unions and employers could routinely seek and receive court injunctions against picketing during strikes. This allowed bosses to bring in scabs and continue production contributing mightily to the regular defeat of strikes. In Winnipeg in 1917 alone, three strikes had been defeated in this very manner (Bercuson 1975, 6).
The 1918 “General Strike”
In April 1918, strikes of three unions of civic employees generated discussions of sympathy strikes of all civic workers (Bercuson 1975, 6). When the unions reached a tentative agreement with a committee including the mayor and members of council, the city council, through Alderman F.O. Fowler sought to add an amendment that city employees take a no strike pledge for the future. The “Fowler Amendment” looked to take away city workers’ right to strike and was supported by the Winnipeg Board of Trade and the Free Press. It was vehemently opposed by the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (Bercuson 1975, 6).
In response to the Fowler Amendment, city firefighters stopped work the very next day. Ten days later, 13 trades, amounting to 7000 workers, had joined in the work stoppage. Water, fire, light and power, telephone, railway maintenance, and public transportation were impacted (Bercuson 1975, 7).
The Board of Trade futilely tried to keep operations running by supplying scabs. Desperate, and facing growing momentum for workers and a rising movement the city government turned to a new private grouping to negotiate with the unions. This Citizens’ Committee of One Hundred came to an agreement with the workers that was almost the same as the initial one of May 13, 1918. This new agreement was accepted by a somewhat chastened city council and the strike ended on May 24. According to Bercuson the “workers’ victory was almost complete” (1975, 7).
The conclusions of this 1918 general strike were unmistakeable. The general strike had won the day in a context in which unions acting alone were always losing. It was only this combined and coordinated power that had allowed the workers to win, let alone to win so convincingly. It was well recognized that each union acting on its own would have been defeated (Bercuson 1975, 7). Another outcome was to radicalize workers who now saw greater possibilities for gains and were not as willing to accept less. The employers had the government and courts on their side and could use them. Yet workers united in a general strike could defeat even that combined force of elites.
This was further reinforced when a hoped for general strike in support of the Metal Trades Council in July of 1918 did not materialize and the metal workers were defeated. And this even as the Metal Trades Council had achieved a combination of unions in the industry. The civic workers had gained support of workers in all industries.
In recognition of this fact, in December 1918 the Trades ad Labour Council passed a motion that gave it the power to call out on strike every union member in the city based on a straight majority of all the city’s union members (Bercuson 1975, 8). This mechanism would come into effect only a few months later.
A Radical Period and the Rise of the One Big Union
The end of the war brought new and renewed hopes that the sacrifices made by so many would be rewarded with a new social foundation of justice and improved social equality. Yet the hopes of most were soon dashed by governments that sought a return to the pre-war status quo. This led to growing discontent and resentment. Not only among industrial workers but among a cross section of Canadian residents, including returning veterans who felt cheated and lied to.
Another factor of inestimable significance in this context was the revolutionary wave sweeping Europe in the post-war period. Revolutions in Russia in 1917 and Germany and Hungary in 1918 suggested that real social change was no pipe dream and could be had for those willing to fight for it. There was no need simply to wait or be patient. Waiting was now seen as a chump’s game, a boss’s dream.
At a Western Labour Conference held in Calgary on March 16, 1919, participants moved for secession from the conservative, craft dominated TLC. They called for a new national labor body organized on industrial lines, rather than by each craft within an industry. The new grouping would be called the OBU, the One Big Union. In structure and approach it resembled syndicalist organizing as in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The OBU was an explicitly radical formation, not anarchist, supportive of the Bolshevik revolution and influenced by Marxism.
They sought a referendum to see if Canadian workers supported a national general strike beginning on June 1 in demand of the 30 hour work week (Bercuson 1975, 12). The OBU was formally launched during the first week of June at a founding convention in Calgary. At that point the Winnipeg General Strike was into its third week. The OBU provided the nightmare figure for government and employers in Winnipeg even though it had played no direct part in the strike to that point.
The Winnipeg General Strike
The Winnipeg General Strike was founded in conflicts in the metal and building trades during April and May of 1919. Lack of progress in making gains in wages, for the buildings trades, and union recognition, for the metals trade, led to a call for a general strike vote under the Trades Council motion of December 1918. Facing a stalemate the Building Trades Council called for a strike of their members for May 1, Mayday, 1919.
The Metal Trades Council, a grouping of craft unions representing workers in contract shops, auto repair, etc. had waged and lost nasty strikes in 1906, 1917, and 1918 (Bercuson 1975, 14). In 1919 they again pressed their attempt for higher wages and the 44 hour work week but were rebuffed by contract shop owners who felt every reason to be confident they could win against yet another union effort. The contractors had benefitted from use of injunctions and had deployed professional strikebreaking firms against the metal workers in the past (Bercuson 1975, 14). The recalcitrant metal works companies were Darwin Bridge, Vulcan Ironworks, and the Manitoba Bridge Company. The MTC sought a nine hour work day and full recognition for unions. On May 2, 1919, the metal workers responded to employers’ intransigence, especially that of the big employers, with a third strike in three years. They sought a shorter work week, wage parity with workers in the railway shops, and union recognition (Bercuson 1975, 15).
At this point the broader union movement in the city was ready for action in defense of their interests. Three trades were on or facing strike action. Others had recently concluded nasty negotiations and were left angered by the process. During the weekly Trade Council meeting of May 6, it was reported that a visiting worker of German origin, attending metal trades shops on behalf of his local, had been arrested. Upon release he spoke to the meeting of government backing employers (Bercuson 1975, 16). The Trades Council meeting decided to poll every union member in the city on their support for a general strike with a decision to be taken at the meeting of May 13. The results of the voting would show more than 11,000 workers in support of the general strike while only a tiny number of 500 were opposed (Bercuson 1975, 17). Thursday, May 15 at 11 AM was decided upon as the start time for the strike.
A Strike Committee was formed that would include three delegates from each of the unions represented on the Trades Council. They would act as the representative body for future negotiations during the strike.
The situation in the metal trades was dire as employers refused even the slightest hint of compromise. Efforts by Premier Tobias Norris and Mayor Charles Frederick Gray to avoid the strike were unsuccessful. A last ditch effort of May 14 by Gray, Norris, and the provincial attorney-general also failed.
At 11 AM on May 15, 1919, Winnipeg was on strike. The response to the call was near total. Within the first day more than 22,000 workers were out on strike (Bercuson 1975, 17–18). Participation by workers was unanimous in 94 of 96 unions involved in the strike (Bercuson 1975, 18). As Bercuson illustrates:
“Firemen left their stations, telephones were shut down, the city’s electrical workers left turbines and transmission equipment unattended; telegraphers and others responsible for keeping a modern city in touch with the world refused to work. At the waterworks a skeleton staff remained behind at the request of the Trades Council to provide a meagre thirty pounds pressure, sufficient for single-story dwellings. Commercial establishments of every sort, from moving-picture houses to restaurants were closed.” (1975, 18)
In British Columbia 60,000 workers walked out in sympathy strikes. Alberta railway shop workers walked out. Support was also strong in Ontario with 15,000 workers going on strike (Seymour 1976, 19).
To understand the participation of workers requires appreciation of the decades of bitter struggle preceding it and the sense among workers that there was no alternative option. This was a context of open class war and bitter hostility between labor and capital. Yet only one side was ready and prepared to use force.
Most strikers did not see themselves as a revolutionary force. For their part the strike leaders took a cautious approach, refusing even to condone peaceful pickets (Bercuson 1975, 20). To allow for distribution of essentials like milk and food the Strike Committee took the advice of J.W. Carruthers, owner of the Crescent Creamery Company, and issued cards to delivery workers informing the public that those doing bread and milk deliveries were not scabs (Bercuson 1975, 20–21). The Strike Committee issued cards stating: “Permitted by authority of Strike Committee” (Bercuson 1975, 21). For local government this was portentous, raising the prospect of workers taking over and managing effectively public services.
The mayor did not want civilians realizing that necessities of life could be provided by a structure outside of the government or its authority. Government did not want to allow the appearance that city administration could be taken over by city workers, who knew how to do the work and did it well, with no need for the government as a middle manager. In an error of strategy the Strike Committee succumbed to a vote of council on May 20 and complied by removing the cards the following day.
Prime Minister Borden, insistent in sending a strong anti-communist message and securing the Canadian state some recognition as a reliable emerging imperialist convoy, would not accept even a settlement that gave the appearance of some success for the striking workers. He would only allow total defeat for the strike or a capitulationist settlement that made clear the workers had been forced to swallow employer demands (Bercuson 1975, 22). Indeed the federal government would play an active and central role in the defeat of the strike. Commissioner A.B. Perry and the Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP) would be a major player in those government actions against the strike.
Concerned that the regular police were not reliably anti-workers, anti-strike forces led by Brigadier-General H.D.B. Ketchen, commanding officer for the Manitoba military district proposed formation of an alternative force of “special police” to replace or add to the regular force (Bercuson 1975, 22). The city at the behest of Ketchen and Citizens’ Committee recruited the special police drawing primarily from anti-strike veterans and middle strata students. The “specials” were actually paid $6 per day, a wage that was higher than that paid to regular police, showing the hypocrisy and political character of the government and employers alike. It also showed the real lack of concern with legitimacy and the ease with which elites jettison such pretensions when their class interests are up against the wall. When the newly recruited special force was around 2000 members, most of the regular force, nearly 240 officers, was fired. From June 10, Winnipeg was under control pf thousands of men who were openly hostile to the strikers and the strike and who were entirely incompetent and untrained. The specials constituted a gang, a thug force, on city payroll. They immediately set about using physical violence to break up even small public meetings of strikers.
The connection of the police to the military and the engagement in social war by government were unmistakeable. A militia composed largely of volunteers was organized with about 5000 volunteers (Seymour 1976, 17). Ketchen coordinated activities of the NWMP and set up a training program for the newly recruited militia. Former officers were brought in to command the militia. The willingness of the federal government to use lethal force against civilians was clear. Ottawa secretly shipped machine guns to Winnipeg under cover of “regimental baggage” among the freight of the demobilizing 27th Battalion (Bercuson 1975, 23). Ketchen also had an armored vehicle made available for forces in the city. An armored car fitted with three machine guns and holding six sharp shooters was ready and available at Fort Osborne Barracks (Bercuson 1975, 23). The NWMP were issued four machine guns mounted on trucks (Bercuson 1975, 23). They had 60 mounted forces ready for quick deployment. Two mobile militia troops with a motorized machine gun section with two guns apiece, mobilized infantry escorts and a company of motorized infantry were also available (Bercuson 1975, 24). Ketchen had at least 800 troop forces available in addition to the specials and other militia members.
There Are No Neutral’s There: State and Capital United against Workers in Winnipeg
Opposition to the strike consisted of the powerful alliance of employers and government. They were supported by Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, an anti-union, anti-strike grouping positioned as the voice of “neutral” residents but which was anything but. The Citizens’ Committee was based on the Citizens’ Committee of One Hundred and included members of the Board of Trade, the Manufacturers’ Association, and the Winnipeg bar (Bercuson 1975, 18). Notable members included elites such as H.B. Lyall, an official with Manitoba Bridge and Board of Trade member; A.L. Crossin, a broker with Oldfield, Kirby, and Gardner, an insurance and loan firm, who was also a member of the Board of Trade; J.E. Botterell a senior partner in Baird and Botterell, a grain and stock brokerage, who was also with the Board of Trade; and Isaac Pitblado, a senior partner of the law firm, Pitblado, Hoskin, and Company, that handled the personal business affairs of the federal Minister of the Interior, Arthur Meighen (Bercuson 1975, 18–19). The Chair of the Committee was A.K. Godfrey, an executive with the Canadian elevator company who was the president of the Board of Trade in 1917 and 1918.
The Committee supported the employers against the workers and provided thousands of volunteers to scab on the strikers (Bercuson 1975, 18). They also waged an ideological battle against the strikers, branding the union leaders as Bolsheviks. In the words of one striker: “The man who goes out to fight for his master is a brave Briton. The man who comes home to fight for his Mrs. is a bloomin Bolshevik” (quoted in Seymour 1976, 21). With access to secret government conferences they also advised the contract shop owners over the course of the strike (Bercuson 1975, 18).
The Winnipeg General Strike made clear in unquestionable terms the role of the state as an active, forceful supporter of capital rather than a neutral arbitrator. Rather than being disinterested players in disputes, as much criminology and legal studies of the liberal democratic state insist, the state acted in an interested manner on behalf of capital. They actively and consistently took sides. Both the federal and provincial governments immediately intervened on behalf of employers. Striking workers faced the combined efforts and forces of employers and governments. This meant that they faced the legal, political, and military force of the state acting on behalf of the employers they sought to gain concessions from.
Gideon Robertson launched an ideological campaign against the OBU blaming it for trying to foment revolution. He also set a deadline for a forced return to work of post-office workers. Postal workers were ordered back to work under conditions that they sign a pledge not to strike in the future. As the deadline passed the majority of postal workers in Winnipeg were fired and replaced with scab volunteers (Bercuson 1975, 19). The federal government fired 190 postal workers in Winnipeg when they refused to sign the anti-strike pledge. This mechanism of ultimatum and imposed deadline became the preferred means for treating all government employees. It was used against railway mail clerks, provincial telephone employees, firefighters, clerks, and waterworks workers at the city level. Most refused the ultimatums and were fired.
The federal government under Borden was unified in their opposition to the strike and in their commitment to defeat the workers on behalf of capital and the national (bourgeois) interest. They condemned the strike as a revolution. As in other cases like On to Ottawa two decades later the Prime Minister and cabinet expressed a fear that workers would overturn the established (exploitative) order, and pose a real alternative to existing structures of authority. Minister of the Interior, and future Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen saw in Winnipeg the possibility of a single union in Canada with the power to call a single general strike. This was clearly a sign of the immense power of labor if it ever organized jointly and in a united manner.
And working class unity was key. In virtually every lengthy strike there is an attempt by employers and/or government to split the membership. Often this involves targeting some members as militants and blaming them for intransigence. This often happens through efforts to make a minor offer that might satisfy some conservative demands, gaining some member support, while ignoring or overlooking other significant demands. So-called radicals are then posed as being unreasonable or asking for demands that cannot be granted at the expense of the discomfort of other members who have to endure an unnecessarily long strike.
Four weeks into the general strike Senator Robinson made a move to divide strikers and isolate radicals on the strike committee. On June 16 he secured an agreement from the contract shop employers to recognize craft unions in their workplaces. This did not include recognition of the Metal Trades Council. Robertson published this agreement in the newspapers to move public opinion against the strikers. At the same time the Senator ordered the arrests of Strike Committee radicals under dubious circumstances. Unfortunately moderates on the committee fell into Robertson’s trap and began negotiations to end the strike under the June 16 offer conditions (Bercuson 1975, 25).
The Violence of Law: Pernicious Legal Action then and Now
At this point one of the shameful episodes in Canadian state history unfolded. Legislation was introduced in the House of Commons to amend the Immigration Act to allow for the deportation of British subjects not born in Canada. On June 6 the federal government had, in only one hour of discussion, passed amendments to the Immigration Act to allow easier arrest and deportation of so-called “enemy aliens.” In another attempt at divide and conquer the government sought to split workers on the basis of ethnicity, heritage, or national origin. The legislation passed three readings without debate in 20 minutes. It was granted approval by Senate and given Royal Assent in under an hour, which was the quickest passage of legislation in the history of Canadian parliament (Seymour 1976, 20).
Amendments were also made to the Criminal Code section on sedition. The infamous Section 98 was passed which made it a crime to belong to an association that had as a purpose the change of government, industry, or economy through use of force or through advocacy or defense of the use of force (Seymour 1976, 20). Note that this could punish someone simply for defending the use of direct action or armed struggle. The offense was punishable by a maximum sentence of twenty years. One could be imprisoned for up to 20 years simply for printing, importing, distributing, or selling any material that either advocated or defended the use of force (Seymour 1976, 20). The Section 98 was an explicitly anti-communist amendment aimed at criminalizing working class struggle, peoples’ resistance, and anti-capitalism.
Anyone targeted in this way could be subjected to seizure of any property belonging to or even suspected of belonging to such an association. The property could be seized without warrant and forfeited to the Crown if it had simply been shown that a person had attended meeting of such a group, distributed its literature, or spoken publicly in support of it in some way (Seymour 1976, 20). Notably there was a reverse onus in play, counter to legal standards in liberal democracies, such that an accused had to prove they had not acted in defense of such a group rather than, as is regular legal practice, the state carrying the burden of proof.
Significantly, and of great note, these measures are precisely the same as have been restored since 2001 in Liberal and Conservative federal government Anti-Terror Acts. This should be troubling to the contemporary reader.
In the early morning of June 18 several strike leaders and supporters were arrested including some under authority of the newly amended Immigration Act and taken to Stony Mountain penitentiary where they were held while the government worked to deport those it could. The arrested included R.B. Russell, secretary of the MTC, George Armstrong, a streetcar motor person, William Ivens, editor of the Western Labour News and a key spokesperson for labor, A.A. Heaps, a labor representative on Winnipeg Municipal Council, and John Queen, alderperson for Winnipeg’s Ward V (Seymour 1976, 20). The arrests provoked outrage nationally. The MTC in Toronto called for a general strike to release the strike leaders. Miners in Cape Breton wired Ottawa to say: “We pledge ourselves to do all we can to bring about a general strike all over Canada (quoted in Seymour 1976, 20). Meighen sought their immediate deportation. Others, including A.J. Andrews, were concerned this would turn public opinion against the government and it was decided the men would be released on bail if they agreed to participate no longer in the strike (Bercuson 1975, 25).
Not What They Fought For: Veterans Support the Strike
By this point, however, the flow of events was beyond the grasp of the Strike Committee and other forces were taking center stage. Among them were thousands of World War One veterans who, disillusioned by the lack of improvement in working and social conditions, which they believed they had fought for, after the war, were solidly in support of the strike and its aims. Returned veterans rejected a Citizens’ Committee request to oppose the general strike and the strikers. Quite the contrary, a mass rally of 10,000 ex-soldiers demonstrated at the provincial legislature to demand an immediate settlement to the strike, legislation to protect collective bargaining, and withdrawal of ultimatums to striking public sector workers (Seymour 1976, 19).
As the general strike went on these veterans groupings became more and more vocal and militant (Bercuson 1975, 25). They began organizing lively public demonstrations of support for the general strike. Starting at the end of May they undertook mass parades throughout the streets of downtown Winnipeg, often marching to the legislature, City Hall, or the Headquarters of the Citizens’ Committees (Bercuson 1975, 25). This was an open show of strength, solidarity, and resolve on behalf of the strike and in opposition to the forces of the government, business, and reaction. They also held loud rallies and assemblies in Victoria Park hosting speakers from the Strike Committee and others in support of the Strike (Bercuson 1975, 25).
In response to this reactionary veterans organized counter-demonstrations against the strike. The Mayor came to issue bans on parades on multiple occasions during the strike, bans which more negatively impacted strikers given the size and strength of the pro-strike veterans’ groupings.
In response to the arrests of radical strike leaders and the threats of deportation, and the restarting of street cars, the strike supporting veterans decided on June 20, in a mass rally outside City Hall, to hold a protest the following day.
The next morning, Robertson, Gray, and NWMP Commissioner A.B. Perry met with delegates of the veterans groups to try to avert the demonstration. They could not or would not agree to meet the veterans’ demands of removing the street cars from the streets, settling the strike within four hours, and speaking with the Citizens Committee to convey this (Bercuson 1975, 25). For his part Andrews threatened the veterans with resorting to “other measures” to stop the parade, a clear implication of possible force and violence by police (Bercuson 1975, 26).
As mass crowds gathered across from City Hall in preparation for the march, Acting Police Chief Newton informed Mayor Gray that the force of specials was not prepared to deal with a crowd of that size. Newton agreed with Gray’s assessment that the NWMP be called in and Gray was off to the Mounties’ headquarters to ask Commissioner Perry to intervene. Perry was more than happy to oblige and directed 54 mounted officers and 36 in trucks to take the streets.
By the 2:30 PM parade start time several hundred people had already taken to the streets in an attempt to stop the street cars that had foolishly been driven into the area (which could only be taken as a provocation). Two cars were stopped near City Hall with one taken off its wires and its windows broken
It was at this point that the NWMP arrived on scene and charged the crowd. On multiple runs through the assembled gathering they swung batons on veterans and strikers. The police were met on the second charge with rocks and bottles from the crowd. On a third charge the Mounties brandished cocked revolvers (Bercuson 1975, 27). At 2:35 PM Mayor Gray entered a parapet at City Hall and gave formal reading of the Riot Act. He gave the assembled protesters 30 minutes to leave the streets or face arrests. Before he could even return back inside City Hall he heard the NWMP officers fire into the crowd of civilians.
The order to shoot was given by NWMP Inspector Mead who, perhaps in a moment of panic, had determined to put down the crowd following the second mounted charge. The first shots were fired only moments after Gray had given protesters half an hour to disperse and the shooting by police continued over a terrifying period of several minutes
In the volleys of shots striker Mike Sokowolski was killed instantly, shot in the heart. On the whole around 100 people were injured in the police assault. Striker Mike Schezerbanowicz, shot in the legs, would later die of gangrene resulting from his injuries as inflicted by police gunfire.
Police and the City tried in the aftermath of the police assault to blame protesters for firing a shot but it has been determined that no shots came from the crowd, the only shots came from police. The RNWMP officer in command provided the following account of the assault: “About 120 bullets in all were fired into the crowd of men, women, and children. They were not marching around the streets but standing in front of the City Hall. Many were running away when we fired on them” (quoted in Seymour 1976, 20).
Indeed the police claim of initial fire from their targets is a common and ongoing ploy used to justify shooting and killing civilians. It is an excuse that is used falsely in cases right up to the present day. Not a single NWMP officer was hit by any gunfire. Even Inspector Mead acknowledged that he gave the order to fire out of a desperate desire to disperse the crowd, not because he was responding to any shots fired by anyone in the crowd.
As fearful members of the crowd attempted to disperse they were set upon by NWMP officers and specials who took advantage of the situation to brutalize fleeing marchers and take out their animosity toward strikers and the strike. As if this were not enough the state piled on further. General Ketchen released the militia who arrived in the city’s downtown within minutes thanks to auxiliary transport provided by the Citizens’ Committee (Bercuson 1975, 27). The militia brought the militarized machine gun section supported by cavalry. More than 80 marchers were trapped by police and arrested.
By evening the NWMP, militia, and specials had secured several blocks of the downtown area and kept the scene clear until the next day.
After Bloody Saturday Winnipeg was placed under military control. Four days after Bloody Saturday the Strike Committee called off the general strike, effective June 26. After six weeks, the largest General Strike in North America at that time, the strikers had gained none of their demands. Thousands of workers were blacklisted after the strike. Union meetings were banned in Winnipeg (Seymour 1976, 21).
The violent alliance of state and capital had proven too much to overcome, even as the strikers could have won the day had capital not been able to rely on the force of the state.
And this is the key lesson. While many talk of the separation of state and market, the capitalist “free market” or invisible hand of the market, in Canada as elsewhere there has never been a capitalist market without the sustaining power of the armed monopoly of the state. And no such market could even exist without it.
The failure of the strikers was in failing to move to a dual power situation in which they would maintain and provide essential services on the basis of their control of labor power and knowledge and capacity of the services in question, outside of government or business. Furthermore, they underestimated or misunderstood the role of government, at all levels, in violently buttressing capital and the state’s willingness to deploy lethal force to maintain capitalist social order. The strikers never seriously considered the necessity of armed defense of the strike and left the military field to police alone. This despite the great support they held among veterans.
The Winnipeg General Strike posed a real material alternative to established state capitalist order. This frightened business and government both. Unfortunately the general strike requires that workers, as those who produce and deliver goods and services, assume some of the roles of economic and social service provision. In doing this in a spirit of solidarity rather than social service or charity, they can show a better way of social organizing and justice. They can also build relationships of solidarity with other civilians that social service and charity providers cannot. This is a basis of mutual aid as the organizing principle for social relations.
As David Bercuson suggests: “The rapid increase of labour’s power in Winnipeg was a shock to the cozy arrangements and alliances that had existed between capital and government for at least four decades” (1975, 29). Unfortunately the strikers failed to understand or assess the role of the state, taking a fatally liberal approach that the state would serve merely as honest brokers or reasonable arbitrators.
As Bercuson notes: “The leaders of the strike urged their followers to hold to a non-violent course so they could avoid open confrontation with the government and its police and military forces. They did not realize that this confrontation actually began at eleven A.M. the morning of May 15” (1975, 29). This was social war but it was only being waged fully by one side, that of capital and its allies in state.
Historian Irving Abella suggests that decades of trauma for the labor movement in Canada followed from the suppression of the Winnipeg General Strike (1975, xii). While the movement had high hopes and solid prospects prior to Winnipeg, the actions of the state and capital left the movement in disarray and started a process of declin
While union membership union membership and organization had expanded quickly during the war, after the state violence in Winnipeg, membership declined dramatically throughout the 1920s with organizations paralyzed and leadership divided against itself (Abella 1975, xii). This decline would not be reversed until the years of the Second World War when labor again made significant gains. And the decline was impelled by the force of the state and the use of police to attack, and kill, working people simply organizing to improve their lives.
Abella, Irving. 1975. “Introduction.” In On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Canada 1919–1949, Irving Abella (ed.). Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, xi–xv
Bercuson, David. 1975. “The Winnipeg General Strike.” In On Strike: Six Key Labour Struggles in Canada 1919–1949, Irving Abella (ed.). Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 1–32
Seymour, Edward E. 1976. An Illustrated History of Canadian Labour 1800-1974. Canadian Labour Congress: Ottawa