Manitoba History: Brandon, 1919: Labour and Industrial Relations in the Wheat City in the Year of the General Strike

by Tom Mitchell
Brandon University

Manitoba History, Number 17, Spring 1989

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In the spring of 1919, Winnipeg was the epicenter of a national labour protest which shook Canadian society. Sympathetic strikes erupted in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Vancouver, and a number of smaller communities in western Canada. The longest and most cohesive sympathetic strike occurred in Brandon. [1]

Brandon’s Sympathetic Strike began on 20 May 1919, and persisted until the end of June. It was preceded in late April by a dramatic and successful civic employees’ strike, and followed at the end of June by an ill-conceived and futile general strike. As in Winnipeg, the Brandon strike represented a struggle between two community coalitions: one included the Brandon business community, the Brandon Sun, the Law and Order League, and the City Council allied with provincial and federal authorities; the other, the strikers and their supporters, the Brandon Trades and Labour Council, the Strike Committee, and the Peoples’ Church organized during the strike. While returned soldiers were prominent among the strikers, Brandon’s Great War Veterans’ Association, like its counterpart in Winnipeg, sought to play the role of mediator in the city’s labour crisis.

The Brandon Sympathetic Strike was the climactic event in a period of surging labour militancy dating from the reconstitution of the Brandon Trades and Labour Council in 1917. It was informed by the conviction that only through labour solidarity and direct action could labour’s legitimate aspirations for union recognition and improved economic conditions be achieved, and was fueled by economic grievances accumulated during the Great War. The failure of the strike left Brandon’s labour movement resigned to the futility of the general strike weapon in the face of the power of the state, yet unrepentant in the defence of the principles of organized labour. In the wake of the strikes, Brandon’s working class sought to advance the cause of labour through direct participation in the City’s political life.

Brandon’s most dramatic period of growth occurred in the years between 1900 and the Great War. In these years, the city’s population grew from 5,620 to 13,839. [2] Brandon was an important service, transportation, and trading centre of a growing hinterland. [3] It was also a centre of industrial activity. The number of manufacturing establishments in Brandon employing five or more individuals more than doubled from 1900 to 1910. In 1900, twelve such establishments involving a capital investment of $595,662 employed a work force of 287 and paid $92,959 per annum in wages, while producing goods valued at $541,327. By 1910, there were twenty-nine manufacturing establishments involving five or more individuals. Collectively, they represented a capital investment of $3,012,115, employed a work force of 830, and paid $571,970 per annum in wages, while producing goods valued at $2,330,430. [4]

As Brandon grew in size and complexity, the existence of distinct social classes was increasingly evident in the city’s residential patterns, its clubs and associations, and its political life. In the years before 1914, the city’s working class not only grew numerically, it became ethnically diverse. In 1901, 83 percent of the city’s population was British; in 1911, the percentage had declined to 74 percent. While those of British lineage declined, those of Austro-Hungarian backgrounds grew from two percent in 1901 to nine percent in 1911. [5] These new non-British immigrants constituted a distinct group of unskilled and unorganized working class Brandonites isolated in their north end “ghetto.” [6]

Brandon’s organized labour movement dates from the turn of the century. As in other communities in western Canada, skilled British and Canadian workmen in the railway unions formed the basis of its development. [7] In 1906, when the Brandon Trades and Labour Council was formed following the visit to Brandon of W. R. Trotter, a Canadian Trades and Labour Congress organizer, the city had thirteen locals. [8] These included locals of railway workers, sheet metal workers, plumbers and steam fitters, brick layers, carpenters and joiners, printers, cigar makers, and barbers. By 1912, the year which marked the peak of pre-war labour organization, there were twenty-four locals in the city. [9]

In the years prior to the Great War, a growing militancy began to characterize the city’s organized labour movement, climaxing in a series of strikes in 1912 involving the city’s building trades. In March 1912, carpenters employed on the construction of the new Prince Edward Hotel struck because of a dispute regarding the make-up of time sheets. [10] In April, the city’s building trades labourers were organized, and in August, the newly organized building labourers went on strike for higher wages at the site of the new Asylum for the Insane. They were immediately joined by those employed in the construction of St. Matthew’s Anglican Cathedral. During a meeting on 16 August 1912, “a very militant spirit was displayed by the men, and when a general strike of all labourers in the city was called, there was not one dissenting voice.” [11]

“Maintenance of Way” Union Local, Labour Day parade float, September 1913.
The float won first prize in the parade.
Source: Daly House Museum

Notably, a number of men in attendance at the meeting belonged to what the Brandon Sun termed the “foreign element.” [12] By 19 August 1912, all 175 building labourers in the city, involving twenty firms, were on strike, and on August 20 over 100 of the strikers paraded through the city to the various work sites which had been struck. On 22 August, the strike ended with a victory for labour. All the principal concerns of the strikers, including “wages, union recognition, and the barring of victimization” were achieved. [13]

As in other communities in western Canada, the depression which preceded the Great War damaged organized labour and inflicted severe hardship on working people in Brandon. It created high unemployment among the city’s two most important groups of organized labour—the railway trades and construction workers. Unemployment and losses in wages combined with the disappearance of men into the armed forces following August 1914, weakened the organized labour movement in the city.

Union locals disappeared. The Trades and Labour Council was abandoned. Organized labour became quiescent. In February 1915, when the Brandon Builder’s Exchange, an association of building contractors formed in 1913, announced a twenty percent cut in hourly wages for all building trades, no objection from organized labour was made. [14]

However, in early 1917, spiraling wartime inflation and the prospect of conscription combined to revive organized labour and to bring about the reconstitution of the Bran-don Trades and Labour Council. The reconstituted Council stood for a “... square deal for all classes and no railroading.” [15] The Council immediately became involved in the debate concerning the question of fuel.

By the late 1916, the price of fuel had risen to record levels, owing to a shortage of coal and to congestion in transportation arteries. The price of wood rose with the scarcity of coal. In January 1917, City Council had approved a by-law for the regulation of the sale of wood in the city. The by-law angered the city’s fuel dealers who attempted to have the by-law amended. [16] The debate on the fuel by-law prompted labour’s advocate on the Council, Alderman J. A. G. Grantham, to introduce a motion calling for the creation of a municipal coal and wood yard. While Grantham’s motion was defeated, the fuel debate elicited a strong reaction from Brandon’s working class community. [17]

In May 1917, the CPR locals in the city passed a motion informing City Council of their support for the fuel by-law, noting that

... we are prepared to assist in any way possible towards its enforcement, and ... we are prepared to take drastic action, if necessary, to bring about more equitable dealing with regard to fuel or other commodities. [18]

At the end of May, the Trades Council sponsored a mass meeting in support of the creation of a municipal fuel depot. The response of City Council was to establish a committee to study the cost of living in the city. In early June, the Trades and Labour Council organized a second mass meeting, which demanded that the City go into the fuel business and not wait for a report from the cost of living committee. [19]

Labour’s preoccupation with the price of fuel reflected growing anxiety about the rising cost of living. Since the outbreak of the Great War the average cost, in sixty cities, of a group of basic needs including staple foods, starch, coal, wood, coal oil, and shelter had increased from $7.95 per week in December 1914, to $10.11 in December 1916, and would rise to $11.81 by October 1917, and $13.54 in November 1918. [20] The Labour Gazette explained that the principal reason for the dramatic rise in the cost of living was “... the enormous increase in the demand for goods of nearly every variety as contrasted with the decrease in the production of many necessaries of living was “... the enormous increase in the demand for good of nearly every variety as contrasted with the decrease in the production of many necessaries of life.” [21]

For those organized workers who were able to secure increases in wages, the worst effects of the rise in the cost of living were ameliorated. However in 1917 only letter carriers, mail clerks, telegraph operators, and CNR trainmen and maintenance of way employees in Brandon received wage increases. In 1918, CPR shop workers, engineers and firemen, maintenance of way employees, and trainmen, as well as Dominion Express employees and Provincial Telephone workers, received wage increases. [22] Not surprisingly, Brandon’s labour militants of 1919 were drawn primarily from those groups of workers including civic employees, carpenters, teamsters, bakers, brewery workers, and railway employees who had not achieved wage increases during the war. Some had suffered wage reductions, which were exacerbated by the sharp rise in the cost of living. The ability of the reconstituted Trades and Labour Council to gain affiliates, to reactivate union locals, and to organize new groups of workers was facilitated by the impact of the rising cost of living on the lives of individual workers and their families, and the determination of Brandon’s working people to address their worsening economic condition.

By 1918, it was clear that the city’s labour movement had been revitalized. Twenty-five union locals, an increase of seven from 1916, were active in the city. [23] These included the new Civic Employees’ Federal Labour Union No. 69, which would be involved in a dramatically successful strikein April 1919, and locals of teamsters, sanitarium workers, steam and operating engineers, carpenters and joiners, all of which would be involved in the Sympathetic Strike of May and June 1919. The Civic Employees’ Union was an industrial union, including all civic employees. The rapid growth of industrial unions in the spring of 1919 included those formed by retail clerks, brewery workers, railway clerks, and federal government employees. [24]

The popularity of industrial unions signaled a growing militancy and solidarity among the city’s working class. This militancy was certainly not unique. In March 1919, the Calgary Conference of western labour, arguably the “... most radical convention ever held in western Canada,” was convened at a time when the western Canadian labour movement was deeply agitated following the divisive Trades and Labour Congress of 1918 and a series of federal government actions which had the effect of antagonizing organized labour. [25] The conference enthusiastically endorsed the principles of militant industrial unionism and labour solidarity. On 1 April 1919, the Brandon Trades and Labour Council embraced these principles, following the report of the three Brandon delegates to the conference, and made a twenty-five dollar donation to the committee charged with organizing the One Big Union in Manitoba. [26] Fred Baker, who was to play a central role in the labour confrontation in Brandon in 1919, had been named to this organizing committee for Manitoba. [27]

Brandon’s organized labour movement had an immediate opportunity to test the utility of militant industrial unionism and labour solidarity in the struggle for union recognition, the right of collective bargaining, and better wages. In February, 1919, the recently established Civic Employees’ Union was refused recognition by City Council. [28] This refusal and Council’s subsequent attack on the Union’s leadership precipitated a strike of civic employees which quickly threatened to become a general strike.

The confrontation between Council and the Civic Employees’ Union was exacerbated by Council’s wartime record of undermining the standard of living of civic employees through refusing wage increases during a period of rapid inflation. Council had also threatened the job security of civic employees through arbitrary and ill-conceived proposals to reduce staff through the amalgamation of civic departments. In January 1915, $7,000 in civic salary costs were eliminated when Council cut the wages of the City’s police and fire departments by five percent and laid off staff. In August 1916, Council refused increases in pay to staff other than those making less than $100 per month; individuals in this latter group were given a seven percent increase in pay. In March, 1917, Council refused any increases in salary, and proposed to reduce salary costs by amalgamating the police and fire departments and diminishing the combined staff by ten. After three months of deliberation and debate, the proposal was dropped, the idea having provoked opposition from the City’s business community and threats of resignation from members of the City’s police department. In 1918, Council’s approach to the matter of civic salary costs included proposals to discharge staff in some departments and to lower the salaries of others. The civic employees had had enough. In response to the City’s continuing assault on their standard of living and job security, civic employees formed local 69 of the Civic Employees’ Federal Union. [29]

In February 1919, the civic employees sought recognition of their union and the right to bargain collectively. Following Council’s refusal of both, the Union applied to the federal government for a Board of Conciliation. Under the Industrial Disputes Act, designed primarily to resolve disputes associated with utilities, railroads, and coal mines, a conciliation board could be established if a union and the municipal corporation were in agreement with its creation. [30] But the City was not interested. Its response to the impending crisis was to forestall the efforts of the Union to achieve recognition by granting pay increases to civic employees, by making the increases retroactive to the first of the year, and by organizing a meeting of the civic department heads to discuss “... matters of a general interest to the city and rate-payers.” [31]

In the spring of 1917 and 1918, City Council had eliminated pressure for salary increases from civic employees by threatening lay-offs through the reorganization of departments. This strategy was used again in 1919. On 4 April 1919, H. C. L. Broadhurst, President of the Civic Employees’ Union, appeared before Council and presented a schedule of wages which the Union hoped to discuss with the City. Broadhurst urged Council to reconsider its refusal to recognize the Union and to agree to collective bargaining with the civic employees. [32] On 23 April 1919, City Council responded to Broadhurst’s ideas when it adopted a report from its finance committee, which recommended that various duties in the civic administration be reorganized to accommodate a reduction in staff. Two employees were discharged: H. C. L. Broadhurst, and the secretary of the Civic Union, Robert Lessells. City Treasurer C. F. Sykes had refused to follow instructions from the finance committee and provide written recommendations calling for staff reductions. Clearly, the Finance Committee’s recommendations constituted an arbitrary action designed to intimidate the civic employees. [33]

The reaction of the Union to Council’s action was immediate. At a meeting held Wednesday evening, 23 April, the Union voted unanimously to strike unless City Council agreed to the creation of a board of conciliation. When Council refused, the civic employees went out on strike at 11:00 a.m., Thursday, 24 April 1919. The Brandon Sun explained that the strike was caused by the city’s refusal to “... accept the ultimatum tendered by the Union.” [34]

In an unprecedented step, The Brandon Trades and Labour Council participated in the direction of the strike. Moreover, the prospect of a rapid mobilization of other union locals in the support of the strike was a distinct possibility. On 25 April, this possibility became a reality when teamsters in the city, numbering around one hundred and unionized since 1918, joined the civic employees’ strike. [35] During the weekend the railway shop workers and stationary engineers in the city took strike votes and were prepared to join the strike if the Civic Union’s demands were not met. It was rumored that the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council was prepared to initiate a sympathetic strike if a rapid resolution of the Brandon strike was not achieved. [36]

Fear that the strike would spread further, and the desire for a quick resolution to the crisis, led the Brandon Board of Trade and Civics to name a committee to initiate mediation efforts between the strikers and the City. [37] A similar intervention had helped to resolve the Winnipeg civic strike in 1918. [38] On Saturday evening, April 26, the City capitulated, agreeing to all of the Civic Employees’ demands. The intervention of the Board of Trade and Civics (which evolved into the Chamber of Commerce) and of E. McGrath, Secretary of the Provincial Bureau of Labour, combined with the solidarity of the strikers, had determined the outcome. [39]

The dramatic and decisive success of the Civic employees’ strike confirmed the wisdom of labour’s growing commitment to radical labour tactics. Accordingly, a mass meeting of labour, “... the biggest gathering of labour ever held in the city,” was held the evening of Monday, 28 April 1919, at the City Hall, [40] to inaugurate a general reorganization of labour in the city. As the Brandon Sun explained

The general idea ... was that all the labour here should get into one big union, which would take in all classes of labourers and so unify the whole that they would have a great strength. [41]

On 14 May 1919, when the Board of Arbitration, created at the end of the Civic Union strike, released its report recommending wage increases consistent with the Winnipeg wage schedule, the victory of the civic employees was complete and Brandon’s labour movement had compelling evidence that industrial unionism and radical labour tactics would disarm the opponents of labour. [42]

The settlement proposed by the Arbitration Board was never implemented. On the same day that the proposed wage schedule was published in the Brandon Sun, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council called a General Strike in Winnipeg, effective Thursday, 15 May. [43] On Friday, 16 May, George Ayers, President of the Brandon Trades and Labour Council, wired W. Robinson at the Winnipeg Labour Temple, requesting instructions for what action Brandon should take in conjunction with the Winnipeg strike. [44] On 20 May 1919, the Western Labour News reported that “Brandon had voted ... to stand by the Winnipeg strikers and would walk out in their support.” [45]

In joining the Winnipeg General Strike, Brandon workers, in particular the city’s civic employees, were gambling their recent gains on the success of the general strike. Failure would almost certainly mean the loss of income and job security. Thus the decision of the Brandon workers to join the Winnipeg battle reflected both the confidence engendered by the success of the civic employees’ strike, and the militancy of those workers who were still to achieve union recognition, the right to collective bargaining, or wage increases. The decision also reflected the commitment of individuals such as Fred Baker and George Ayers, who had assumed leading positions in Brandon’s labour movement following the reconstitution of the Trades and Labour Council in the spring of 1917, to the principles of labour solidarity that had been enunciated at the Calgary Conference of Western Labour and embraced by the Brandon Trades and Labour Council.

The Brandon Sympathetic Strike began 20 May, when the city’s telephone operators as well as the Canadian National Railways’ shop men, bridge and building gangs, track repairmen and car men went out. These workers, totaling approximately 100, were joined on 21 May by 125 Canadian Pacific Railway roundhouse workers and car men, and on Friday, 23 May, by 100 city teamsters, 30 carpenters, and 22 bakers. The teamsters’ decision to strike was undoubtedly influenced by the refusal of employers in the city to enter into collective bargaining with the teamsters. On Saturday evening, 24 May, 17 men employed at the electric power plant, which provided the city with power, walked out, leaving the city in darkness. The men returned to work on Monday, 26 May, at the request of the Strike Committee. By Saturday, 24 May, the Civic Employees’ Union had joined the strike. At the request of the Strike Committee, the police, the staff of the waterworks pumping station, and school janitors remained at work. On Tuesday, 27 May, 22 men employed at the Brandon and Empire Brewing companies walked out, and were joined by more brewery and some cereal workers two days later. By that date, approximately 450 workers from a broad range of industries were out in sympathy with the Winnipeg General Strike. The great majority would remain out until the end of June and the collapse of the Winnipeg strike. [46]

In a series of Strike Bulletins, the cause of the strikers was set out. The first, issued 21 May, explained that

The General Strike ... [was] a new venture. To strike alone has failed; all workers must stand together or success in securing better conditions will fail. [47]

While the immediate objective of the strike was to win the right of collective bargaining for workers in Winnipeg metal trades, the Brandon strikers understood that success would advance the cause of labour in Brandon at a time when many Brandon workers were intent on achieving wage increases following four years of spiraling war-time inflation. The Brandon Sympathetic Strike was also fueled by contractual disputes created by the participation of workers in the Sympathetic Strike.

Labour’s opponents in Brandon believed that the strike was more ominous in character. To City Council, the Brandon Sun, and the Law and Order League, an organization patterned after the Winnipeg Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, the strikes in Winnipeg and Brandon were, as Professor Pentland has explained, “... the culmination of a revolutionary conspiracy intended to overthrow established institutions and install a soviet system in Canada.” [48] Whatever was required to destroy the strike would be employed, for the opponents of the strike “... were engaged, not in dealing with an industrial dispute, but in putting down a revolution.” [49] Predictably, the Brandon Sun editorialized early in the strike that

... the evil motive which prompted the sympathetic strike in Winnipeg, and in this city too, was a deep laid plot for Revolution ... [50]

In responding to charges that the Strike Committee had revolutionary intentions, the Committee established by the Trades and Labour Council to co-ordinate the strike asserted that as far as it was concerned, the Mayor of Bran-don was chief magistrate of the municipality and had “... full responsibility for maintaining good order during this crisis.” [51] Further, the strikers were advised to

avoid any semblance of disorder; refrain from loud talk or heated argument upon the streets; beware the stranger who manifests an eagerness to debate; keep away from crowds, which might likely contain members of labour, and generally let us make our impact upon society, for the cause we love, by doing nothing that will give the master class the occasion they so much seek: of covering the labour movement with stigma by accusing us of breaking their sacred law. [52]

Further indication of the non-revolutionary intent of the strikers was evident in the efforts made by the Strike Committee to maintain essential services. As noted above, a variety of civic employees including police and firemen were left on duty during the strike. In the case of the city’s teamsters, the Strike Committee issued cards permitting them to work “by authority of the Strike Committee. [53] Moreover, the Strike Committee sought to co-operate with civic authorities in dealing with potential disorder. On 21 May, City Council refused the Strike Committee’s invitation to discuss ways and means to maintain law and order, and declined to review the Strike Committee’s intentions with regard to the working of essential industries. [54]

The most vigorous opponent of the strike in Brandon was the Law and Order League which was created at the outset of the strike with the objective of “maintaining in operation all public utilities operated by the city, especially the waterworks, fire brigade and police duties.” [55] The membership of the League, estimated at three hundred in late May, was not publicized; as in Winnipeg, an effort was made to maintain the anonymity of the members of the League. Nevertheless, early in June, the Trades and Labour Council initiated a boycott of the business establishments operated by League members. [56]

Though the Brandon Police force remained on duty during the strike, City Council lacked confidence in the loyalty of the force. At the request of Council, a special detachment of the North West Mounted Police was located in the city. [57] Under the command of Inspector F. H. French, the detachment was responsible for monitoring the Brandon situation, maintaining order, and reporting developments to the Commissioner’s Office in Regina. [58] The Council also passed a motion authorizing the appointment of special constables to assist in the maintenance of law and order. Under its constitution, the Law and Order League required that each of its members agree to act as a special constable at the request of the Mayor or other “... duly constituted authority.” [59] The issue of law and order was a central concern of Brandon’s Great War Veteran’s Association. As in Winnipeg, the Brandon Association accepted the Strike Committee’s invitation to attend meetings of the strikers in order to witness the proceedings. The Veteran’s request to City Council that it co-operate with the Strike Committee in maintaining law and order was rejected. Mayor McDiarmid explained that it was not possible to work with a body which had delegated to itself “... powers which it does not constitutionally possess, powers which ... pertain to the elected Council of the City of Brandon.” [60]

Following the initial confident days of the Sympathetic Strike, the initiative shifted to labour’s opponents. On Monday, May 26, City Council passed a resolution giving civic employees until 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to return to work. Those workers who failed to return to their duties would be replaced permanently “... by others loyal to the city.” [61] On 2 June 1919, Council was advised by the city’s solicitor that the action of civic employees in joining the sympathetic strike relieved the City of any obligation to implement the agreement proposed by the Arbitration Board at the end of the civic employees’ strike in April. Civic employees now had a local battle on their hands to regain what they had won in April. The City’s teamsters, who had been on duty at the request of the Strike Committee, walked out upon Council’s refusal to pay the schedule of wages proposed by the Board, which was to take effect 1 June 1919. [62]

When Council began reviewing applications for vacant civic positions on 5 June 1919, it was agreed that new employees, including any striking employees who chose to return, would be required to renounce participation in sympathetic strikes. It was also decided that irrespective of the experience of employees taken back, seniority would be ignored and all “... appointees [would] commence duties as junior members of the staff, subject to promotion on proven merit.” [63] As in the case of the civic employees, the provincial telephone operators were also given notice that their positions would be filled if they didn’t return to work. Failing an immediate return to work, the only hope civic employees and telephone operators had of regaining their positions was through the success of the Sympathetic Strike. [64]

The Royal North West Mounted Police detachment, C troop at Brandon, 1919-20.

The Strike Committee fought back by attacking labour’s opponents, and organizing a series of parades and rallies. In a series of Strike Bulletins, the workers were portrayed as victims of a “... master class, which has long opposed and held in contempt the efforts of the workers to establish unions.” [65] The Brandon Sun was characterized as the “... servant of the master class dedicated ... to keeping the people in darkness and bondage ...” City Council’s requirement that returning civic employees renounce participation in sympathetic strikes was attacked as “... another trick of the master class to keep an infamous and tyrannical hold upon the workers.” [66]

Beginning in early June, the Committee organized a series of parades and rallies. On Friday, 6 June 1919, over three hundred and fifty strikers took part in a parade headed by thirty-six returned soldiers. The NWM Police estimated that at least fifty-five percent of the participants in the parade on 6 June 1919, were of the “foreign element.” [67] When the parade ended at Stanley Park, a number of speakers addressed the crowd. Henry Bartholomew, a returned soldier characterized by French as “... one of the ablest labour men in western Canada,” congratulated the workers on the solidarity evident in Brandon and urged that “... labour must form one big union ... otherwise, they would always be kept down as they had in the past.” [68]

Evidence that the labour solidarity which Bartholomew referred to included “foreign” workers is cited in the NWM Police report mentioned above. This development was significant in the evolution of the city’s working class. Prior to 1914, Brandon’s “foreign” working class had remained largely outside the city’s organized labour movement. From 1914-18, the isolation of the city’s central and eastern European population was exacerbated by the hysteria generated by the Great War. In Brandon, an Alien Detention center, which contained nearly one thousand “enemy aliens” at the end of 1915, gave Brandon’s “alien” population a unique sense of isolation. [69] It took the resurgence of organized labour and the dramatic events in the spring of 1919 to force a reassessment by Brandon’s English-speaking working class of its relations with the city’s “alien” working class. While evidence suggests that animosity towards “alien” workingmen continued to exist among segments of the working class, it is clear that a significant portion of the participants in the Sympathetic Strike were of “foreign origin.”

One other development which had the effect of creating greater working class solidarity in the city was the creation, in early June 1919, of a labour church, the People’s Church, under the leadership of Rev. A. E. Smith. [70] Smith had been very active in supporting the strikers. He recalled in his autobiography, All My Life, that he

was very close to the Strike Committee and was consulted by them at every turn ... I helped prepare the Strike Bulletins. I spoke at the great open air meetings called by the Strike Committee in the City parks. I marched at the front of the strike parades. My church was open to the strikers who, on one occasion, marched in as a body. [71]

Smith soon found himself in conflict with his congregation. His resignation was demanded and received. The Peoples’ Church was organized at a meeting held at the Starland Theatre on 8 June 1919.

Beatrice Brigden, a founding member of the Church, explained that the Sympathetic Strike was “... the occasion, not the cause to be sure, for the organization of such a church.” [72] The idea of creating the Peoples’ Church had originated with the organizing committee of the Peoples’ Forum which, through the winter of 1918-1919, had sponsored addresses by Smith, William Ivens, Salem Bland and others. [73] The Peoples’ Church began with more than two hundred adherents. Its capacity to transcend ethnic and religious differences among the city’s working class was evident in a description by Brigden of an early meeting of the congregation:

in one sweep of the eye, I saw three men—one who had served time for attempting to murder his wife,—second, an influential Jew,—third, an Austrian Greek Catholic who bears the nickname of “King of the Austrians” on the flats, he holds the key to every Austrian home—and all three men were eager and susceptible. [74]

While the Sympathetic Strike and the struggle to maintain solidarity had the effect of diminishing ethnic divisions within Brandon’s working class population, it also helped to integrate women into the city’s organized labour movement. In March 1919, the Brandon Trades and Labour Council had refused to accept women delegates named to the Council by the newly organized Sanitarium workers union, but women telephone operators and civic employees were prominent participants in the Sympathetic Strike. [75] Women participated in the parades and rallies of strikers and were active in the Peoples’ Church. Two noted members of Manitoba’s labour political movement, Beatrice Brigden and Edith Cove, dated their involvement in the province’s labour movement to the Brandon labour crisis of 1919. [76]

Beginning in late June, the rapid succession of events in Winnipeg shaped the outcome of the Sympathetic Strike in Brandon. The arrest of the Winnipeg Strike leaders on 16 June for seditious conspiracy provoked the passing of a resolution at a rally in Brandon on the evening of 17 June, calling for their immediate release. [77] W. A. Pritchard, who had addressed a rally in Brandon on 16 June, and Henry Bartholomew, were expected to speak at the rally, but didn’t appear. They were attempting to avoid arrest. Pritchard was subsequently arrested in Calgary and charged with seditious conspiracy. On June 19, another rally was held during which Fred Baker called on the railway running trades to join the strike:

there was only one link left now in the men to go out on strike and that is the running trades. ..if you don’t come out on strike ... [you] will have something to answer for. [78]

But it was too late. Regardless of the action of the running trades, the Brandon strike was soon to collapse. By Wednesday, 25 June, the Winnipeg General Strike was over. In Brandon, a meeting of the Strike Committee was convened at the Fraternal Hall. Following H. C. L. Broadhurst’s report that the City refused to reinstate striking civic employees “without prejudice,” or withdraw the requirement that civic employees renounce sympathetic strikes, the Strike Committee announced that a general strike of unions affiliated with the Trades and Labour Council would begin Thursday, 26 June. [79] The decision to call the strike was taken only after it was agreed that no local would be bound by the decision to strike. [80] Surprisingly, the Strike Committee believed that the direction for strike activity in western Canada could be shifted from Winnipeg to Brandon. Acting on this assumption, the Brandon Strike Committee wired Regina, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon, and Calgary asking that a general strike be called in each of these centers. [81] The Brandon Committee’s call for a General Strike was a failure. The only workers to respond were the firemen and coal handlers at the Brandon pumping station.

By Monday, 30 June 1919, most of the striking workers other than the civic employees had returned to work. None of the striking telephone operators were taken back, as their positions had been filled during the strike. The Canadian National Railways took all of the strikers back, including Fred Baker. All but three of the Canadian Pacific Railway employees were able to return to their positions. Teamsters in the city also returned to their pre-strike positions. [82] On Monday evening, the Northwest Mounted Police, accompanied by the Brandon Chief of Police, raided the homes of Fred Baker, Thomas Hanwell, and W. R. Thornton. Hanwell was the Treasurer of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen; Thornton owned the Record Office where the Strike Bulletins were published. The Fraternal Hall and the Record Office were also explored and a variety of materials seized. [83]

The striking civic employees sought a meeting with City Council. The delegation which met with City Council on Monday afternoon, 30 June, did not include H. C. L. Broadhurst. The City would not withdraw the requirement that civic employees renounce sympathetic strikes; nor could the Civic Employees’ Union affiliate with any organization which could call it out on strike. Council’s abolition of seniority announced during the strike would not be rescinded. The capitulation of the civic employees was complete. Following a brief review of the City’s position, the vast majority of the striking civic employees signed application forms, requesting employment by the City. [84] H. C. L. Broadhurst did not apply for his former position, and on Tuesday, 2 July, he resigned as President of the Civic Employees Federal Union. [85]

In the spring of 1919, the Brandon labour movement experimented with new forms of labour organization and new strategies of industrial action. The success of the civic employees’ strike, and the growing commitment of the western Canadian labour movement to direct action through the general strike, carried the Brandon labour movement forward with unprecedented militancy. The Sympathetic Strike in Brandon was the climactic event in a period of increasing labour aggressiveness dating from the reconstitution of the Trades and Labour Council in the spring of 1917. Launched in sympathy with Winnipeg in the defence of the principles of organized labour, the central purpose of the Strike was the defense of labour’s right to union recognition and collective bargaining. The complete absence of revolutionary intent on the part of labour was evident in the repeated efforts of the Strike Commit-tee to ensure social order and the maintenance of essential services. Nevertheless, to the Brandon Sun, the Law and Order league, and the majority of City Council, the strike was part of an evil conspiracy to overthrow constitutional authority. Negotiation with the disloyal was impossible: active civic opposition and the coercive power of the state were required to obliterate the strike. In the end, the state prevailed decisively.

The collapse of the June strikes left organized labour in a state of turmoil and division. During the fall and winter of 1919-1920, the proponents of the One Big Union struggled with the advocates of the Trades and Labour Congress and the international craft unions for control of Brandon’s organized labour movement. In November 1919, a motion calling for the affiliation of the Brandon Trades and Labour Council with the One Big Union was referred to the Council’s affiliated locals. Though some organized workers in Brandon chose to affiliate with the O.B.U., by 1921 control over the Trades and Labour Council had been asserted by individuals loyal to the Trades and Labour Congress. While a small local of the One Big Union existed until 1923, the events of 1919 rendered the city’s organized labour movement wary in its approach to industrial conflict. The defense of working people in Brandon shifted to the political arena. In the aftermath of the strikes, Brandon’s labour community sought to foster working class solidarity and political action through the People’s Church, the Brandon Defence League, the Dominion Labour Party, the Trades and Labour Council, and in the spring of 1920, the Brandon Labour Party. The labour crisis of 1919 was an important event both in shaping the evolution of Brandon’s organized labour movement and in galvanizing the commitment of the city’s working people to direct participation in Brandon’s political life.


The author would like to acknowledge useful suggestions made on an earlier draft of this paper by Errol Black and Joe Dolecki of the Economics Department, Brandon University.

1. Gregory S. Kealey, “1919: The Canadian Labour Protest,” Labour/Le Travail, (Spring, 1984), p. 29.

2. Census of Canada, 1911, Vol. 3.

3. See Alan Artibise, Prairie Urban Development, 1870-1930 (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association Booklets, 1981), p. 18, for a discussion of the development and role of urban centers in western Canada prior to the Great War.

4. Census of Canada, 1911, Vol. 3.

5. Ibid.

6. Brandon Weekly Sun, 5 June 1902, p. 3. See also John Everitt, Marion Westenberger and Christoph Stadel, “The Historical Development of Brandon’s Social Areas, 1881-1914,” Alberta Geographer, No. 21 (1985), pp. 79-85.

7. Labour Gazette, Vol. II (1901-1902), p. 412.

8. The Voice, 27 July 1906; Harold A. Logan, The History of Trade-Union Organization in Canada (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1918), p. 174.

9. These included the International Brotherhood Maintenance of Ways Employees, No. 197; Bricklayers, Masons, and Plasterers’ International Union, No. 2; Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners; Cigarmakers’ International Union, No. 378; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers No. 441; International Hod Carriers, Building and Common Labourers’ Union, No. 69; Federated Association of Letter Carriers, No. 21; Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, No. 484; Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, No. 788; Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers’ International Alliance, No. 421; International Association of Machinists, No. 574; American Federation of Musicians, No. 501; United Association of Journeymen Plumbers, Gas Fitters, Steam Fitters’ Helpers of United States and Canada, No. 258; Plasterers’ International Association of United States and Canada, No. 127; Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America, No. 660; Brotherhood of Railway Carmen of American, No. 528; Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees, No. 37; Order of Rail-way Conductors, No. 464; Order of Railway Conductors, No. 605; Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, No. 394; Brotherhood of Rail-way Carmen, No. 339; International Typographical Union, No. 700. Labour Organizations in Canada, 1912, p. 85.

10. Labour Gazette, Vol. XIl (1911-1912), p. 993.

11. Brandon Weekly Sun, 18 April 1912, 22 August 1912, 29 August 1912.

12. Ibid., 22 August 1912.

13. Ibid., 29 August 1912.

14. Brandon Daily Sun, 11 February 1915; Brandon Weekly Sun, 18 February 1915.

15. Brandon Daily Sun, 12 April 1917. See also The Voice, 4 May 1917, for discussion of the demise and reconstitution of the Brandon Trades and Labour Council.

16. Brandon Daily Sun, 12 February 1917, 20 February 1917, 21 February 1917, 17 March 1917.

17. Ibid., 3 April 1917.

18. Ibid., 3 May 1917.

19. The Voice, 15 June 1917.

20. The Labour Gazette, Vol. XVII, 1917, pp. 992-993; The Labour Gazette, Vol. XVIII, 1918, p. 1012.

21. The Labour Gazette, Vol. XVII, 1917, p. 714.

22. Ibid., Vol. XVII, 1917, p. xiii-xiv; Ibid., Vol. XVIII, 1918, p. xiii-xv.

23. Labour Organizations in Canada, 1918, p. 161.

24. The Confederate, 16 May 1919.

25. A. Ross McCormack, Reformers, Rebels and Revolutionaries: The Western Canadian Radical Movement, 1899-1919 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), p. 69.

26. The Confederate, 14 March 1919; Ibid., 4 April 1919.

27. PAM, One Big Union Papers, C. A. Page to R. B. Russell, 5 April 1919. At the Calgary Conference, Fred Baker was named to the Manitoba Committee charged with promoting the One Big Union. See Norman Penner, Winnipeg 1919: The Strikers’ Own History of the General Strike (Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 1975) p. 30. Baker had come to Brandon in 1913 to work in the car repair shops of the Canadian Northern Railway. In 1917 and 1918, Baker served as President of the reconstituted Trades and Labour Council. In 1919, Baker was perhaps the most militant of Brandon’s labour leadership. Henderson’s Directory (1913-1919), Brandon.

28. Brandon Daily Sun, 18 February 1919.

29. Brandon Weekly Sun, 27 January 1915; Brandon Daily Sun, 22 July 1916, 31 July 1916, 5 August 1916, 8 August 1916, 9 August 1916, 11 August 1916, 5 March 1917, 11 April 1917, 14 April 1917, 17 April 1917, 8 May 1917, 17 May 1917, 1 June 1917, 9 February 1918, 13 February 1918.

30. Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: The Rise and Reconstitution of Canadian Labour, 1800-1980 (Toronto: Butterworth and Co., 1983), p. 143.

31. Brandon Daily Sun, 18 March 1919.

32. H. C. L. Broadhurst came to Canada from the Channel Islands, Britain, and took up farming in the Miniota district. In 1913, he came to Brandon, working first as a reporter on the Brandon Sun, and subsequently as an accountant in a Brandon business. He joined the City’s tax collection department in 1917. Broadhurst was initially associated with the Conservative Party. His experience as President of the Civic Employees’ Union changed his perspective. In the municipal election of 1920, he ran unsuccessfully for the School Board as a Dominion Labour Party candidate endorsed by the Trades and Labour Council. In a letter to the electorate, Broadhurst described himself as “... a worker with a worker’s outlook ...” The Confederate, 19 November 1920. See obituary of Lillian Broadhurst, Brandon Sun, 13 January 1966; Henderson’s Directory (1913-1919), Brandon.

33. Brandon Daily Sun, 23 April 1919, 30 April 1919.

34. Ibid., 24 April 1919.

35. Ibid., 26 April 1919.

36. Ibid., 26 April 1919; Manitoba Free Press, 28 April 1919.

37. Brandon Daily Sun, 26 April 1919. The committee included Rev. J. G. Miller, a Presbyterian minister; W. C. Hughes, real estate manager; P. A. Kennedy, a druggist; H. W. Rankin, a grocer. Henderson’s Directory, 1919, Brandon.

38. D. C. Masters, The Winnipeg General Strike, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950), p. 14.

39. Brandon Daily Sun, 28 April 1919; Manitoba Free Press, 29 April 1919.

40. Brandon Daily Sun, 29 April 1919.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid., 14 May 1919.

43. Ibid.

44. Western Labour News, 21 May 1919. George Artimus Ayers was a Scottish immigrant who came to Brandon in 1911 to work as a section foreman on the Canadian Northern. Like Fred Baker, Ayers became active in the Trades and Labour Council in 1917. He served as President of the Council during the tumultuous events of 1919.

In the spring of 1920, Ayers was selected to lead A. E. Smith’s successful election campaign committee, and was elected President of the Brandon local of the Dominion Labour Party in July 1920. Henderson’s Directory (1911-1920), Brandon; obituary of George Artimus Ayers, Brandon Sun, 11 September 1965; obituary of Mrs. G. A. Ayers, Brandon Sun, 2 January 1958. The Confederate, July 1920.

45. Western Labour News, 20 May 1919.

46. Brandon Daily Sun, 20 May 1919, 21 May 1919, 23 May 1919, 26 May 1919. The Montreal Gazette, 30 May 1919.

47. PAM, Salton Collection, MG7, F8, Box 1, Brandon Trades and Labour Council, Strike Bulletin No. 1, 21 May 1919.

48. H. C. Pentland, “Fifty Years After,” Canadian Dimension, July 1969, p. 14.

49. Ibid.

50. Brandon Daily Sun, 26 May 1919.

51. Salton Collection, Box 1, Brandon Trades and Labour Council, Strike Bulletin No. 3, 23 May 1919.

52. Ibid.

53. PAC, Sympathetic Strike Brandon, June 1919, RG27, Vol. 313, file 150. Inspector F. H. French, (R.N.W.M.P.) to Commissioner, 25 May 1919.

54. Ibid.

55. Brandon Daily Sun, 27 May 1919.

56. PAC, Sympathetic Strike Brandon, June 1919. RG27, Vol. 313, file 150, Inspt. F. H. French, R.N.W.M.P. (Brandon) to Commissioner, 25 May 1919.

57. PAC, Police Assistant to Brandon, Manitoba during civil strike, 1919. RG18, Vol. 578, File 347, 1919. A.R. McDiarmid to Inspector F. H. French R.N.W.M.P. (Brandon), 9 September 1919.

58. Ibid.

59. Brandon Daily Sun, 6 June 1919.

60. Ibid., 28 May 1919.

61. Ibid., 27 May 1919.

62. Ibid., 3 June 1919.

63. Ibid., 5 June 1919.

64. Brandon Daily Sun, 26 May 1919, 3 June 1919.

65. Salton Collection, Box 1, Brandon Trades and Labour Council, Strike Bulletin No. 1, 21 May 1919.

66. Salton Collection, Box 1, Strike Bulletin No. 3, 23 May 1919; Strike Bulletin No. 5, 31 May 1919.

67. Sympathetic Brandon, June 1919, Constable J. T. McGregor R.N.W.M.P. (Brandon), to Inspt. F. H. French, R.N.W.M.P. (Brandon), 7 June 1919.

68. Brandon Daily Sun, 13 February 1915, 15 May 1915, 7 June 1915.

69. Sympathetic Brandon, June 1919, Inspt. F. H. French, R.N.W.M.P. (Brandon) to the Commissioner, 28 June 1919; Corpl. D. Edward and Corpl. C. Saul R.N.W.M.P. (Brandon) to Inspt. F. H. French R.N.W.M.P. (Brandon), 7 June 1919. Brandon Daily Sun, 7 June 1919. H. W. Bartholomew, a native of the United Kingdom, quickly emerged as a leading figure in the strike leadership. Bartholomew, while not holding any official position in the Brandon labour movement, was clearly influential in labour councils and as a platform speaker. He was also a determined advocate of the One Big Union. In the spring of 1920, Bartholomew unsuccessfully sought the nomination to run in the provincial election as a Brandon Labour Party candidate. He moved to Winnipeg and became active in the Socialist Party of Canada. In 1922, he joined the Workers’ Party of Canada and remained an active Communist until his death in 1931. Bartholomew’s initial participation in the strike was reported in the Brandon Daily Sun, June 6, 1919. See Ivan Avakamovic, The Communist Party: A History (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974), p. 24; Ian Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks: The Early Years of the Columnist Party of Canada (Montreal: Vanguard Publications, 1981), p. 97.

70. L. Clark, Brandon’s Politics and Politicians (Brandon: Brandon Sun, 1981) p. 95. The Rev. A. E. Smith had a lengthy career as a clergyman in the Methodist Church. In 1912, he became Minister of First Methodist Church in Brandon, one of the wealthiest churches in the city. As an active supporter of church union, Smith was chosen President of the Manitoba Conference in 1916 and 1917. Smith was the first clerical delegate to the Brandon Trades and Labour Council. He recalled his career in his autobiography All My Life (Toronto: Progress Books, 1949). In his article on Smith, “From Clergyman to Communist: The Radicalization of Albert Edward Smith,” Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Winter, 1978-79), J. Petryshyn ignores the central importance to Smith’s radicalization of his involvement in the Brandon labour movement, and the Brandon labour strife of 1919.

71. Smith, All My Life, p. 48.

72. PAM, Brigden Collection, MG14, C14, Beatrice Brigden to Dr. T. A. Moore, 26 July 1919.

73. Ibid.

74. Ibid.

75. Minutes of Sanatorium Attendants’ Federal Union No. 27, 27 March 1919; 7 April 1919; 20 April 1919, in author’s possession.

76. Winnipeg Tribune, 13 August 1969.

77. Brandon Daily Sun, 18 June 1919.

78. Ibid., 20 June 1919. See also Penner, Winnipeg, 1919, p. 158, for the subsequent arrest of Pritchard in Calgary.

79. Brandon Daily Sun, 26 June 1919. See also Sympathetic Brandon, June 1919, Inspt. F. H. French R.N.W.M.P. (Brandon) to the Commissioner, 28 June 1919.

80. Sympathetic Brandon, June 1919, Inspt. F. H. French R.N.W.M.P. (Brandon) to the Commissioner, 27 June 1919.

81. Sympathetic Brandon, Inspt. F. H. French (R.N.W.M.P.), to the Commissioner, 27 June 1919.

82. Brandon Daily Sun, 2 July 1919.

83. Ibid.

84. Brandon Daily Sun, 26 June 1919. See also Sympathetic Brandon, June 1919, Inspt. F. H. French R.N.W.M.P. (Brandon) to the Commissioner, 2 July 1919.

85. Sympathetic Brandon, June 1919, Inspt. F. H. French R.N.W.M.P. (Brandon) to the Commissioner, 3 July 1919.

Page revised: 9 November 2011