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Prairie History No. 1
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No. 1

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TimeLinks: Central Strike Commitee

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Click to enlargeOn 13 May 1919, members of the Trades and Labour Council voted overwhelmingly to call for a general sympathetic strike in support of workers in the Building Trades Council and the Metal Trades Council, who were engaged in separate but simultaneous strikes. When more than 12,000 unionized workers and countless non-unionized ones dropped their tools and walked off the job on 15 May 1919, the City of Winnipeg was in disarray. The strikers took control of the telephone and telegraph services, and the presses stopped at all three daily newspapers, including the Manitoba Free Press.

The leaders of what came to be known as the Winnipeg General Strike recognized that the action rendered the social and economic élites unable to govern. Although the police had promised to keep order, they too had voted overwhelmingly to strike and had been fired en masse by City Council. To fill this void, the Strike Committee, which represented all of the unions affiliated with the Trades and Labour Council, became the de facto governing body of the city.

The Committee struggled to keep the lines of communication open as a means of ensuring order. Daily mass meetings were held in Victoria Park in the city’s downtown to communicate the latest developments to the strikers. The Western Labour News, the weekly newspaper of the Trades and Labour Council, published daily Strike Bulletins with the assistance of the city’s printers, who were given special permission to donate their labour.

Several days into the strike, with more than a third of all Winnipeggers off the job, it fell to the Strike Committee to act more and more as a governing body. Recognizing that the withdrawal of services was causing hardship for many of the poor families, the Committee began authorizing operation permits to essential services like milk delivery wagons. The appearance of permit cards in corner-store windows and on the side of delivery carts reading “Permitted By Authority of the Strike Committee” infuriated the traditional élites, who saw these signs as a clear indication that a revolution was underway and that the strike committee had usurped constitutional authority and that the city was in the grip of a revolution.

In general, the Strike Committee was successful in keeping order, a fact which can be attributed to the efficacy of communications and to the moderation of the workers. There were a few episodes of conflict, but often these turned out to have been provoked by the actions of the anti-strike Citizens’ Committee of 1000 or by one of the angry veterans’ groups that paraded daily during the Strike, some in support and some opposed.

One month into the strike, neither side having given ground, eight members of the Strike Committee, A. A. Heaps, William Ivens, John Queen, R. B. Russell, R. J. Johns, George Armstrong, R. E. Bray and William Pritchard were among the ten men arrested and charged with seditious conspiracy. All of these men were prominent British-Canadian working class leaders and played significant roles on the Strike Committee. Four others were also arrested. None of these was a prominent leader of the strike, but all were from non-British ethnic communities. It is clear that the arrest of these men was an attempt on the part of the élites to deflect attention from the fact that the majority of the strikers and their leaders were of British-Canadian origin and blame the strike on “alien” conspirators and Bolshevik Revolutionaries.

Page revised: 2 November 2009

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