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The Winnipeg General Strike The Winnipeg General Strike is a fascinating episode in history. Did the workers really want to overthrow the government and create a Soviet-style revolution? You be the judge. Why Winnipeg? Business elite had run the city since its foundation and had no intention of relinquishing control to labour groups (socialists) Leading men (James Ashdown, Thomas Deacon) were parochial. They came to Manitoba from Ontario and were not worldly or sophisticated in their outlook. They were self-made men, lacking a liberal education, who had gained their wealth by exploiting the environment and their employees Labour elite was very sophisticated and could rely on a conscious working class solidarity made up of recent immigrants from the British Isles familiar with the strategies of modern unionism Of Winnipeg's 200,000 citizens, 27,000 were recent immigrants from central and eastern Europe, classified as "enemy aliens" and distrusted by native-born Class segregation was almost total. Working class Winnipeg lived in the north end; middle class lived in Crescentwood south of Portage Avenue The provincial government was the most progressive in Canada. It had been the first to grant women the vote. Manitoba had the most progressive labour legislation. Winnipeg was the home of social democracy and of J.S. Woodsworth. In 1918 Winnipeg experienced a brief general strike in which tactics and organization had been developed Why 1919? Great War was over and mood was it was time to share the fruits of victory; workers felt they had been asked to sacrifice long enough; wages had not kept pace with inflation; most workers knew of citizens who had grown wealthy off the war many returning veterans were jobless and did not receive social assistance; most were sympathetic to the strikers Spanish influenza killed hundreds in Winnipeg in 1919 and that put public in an edgy mood Canada had sent 5000 troops to the USSR to try to restore the tsar and overthrow the Soviet regime there was bitterness over the conscription issue; most workers were aware of the death of Albert "Ginger" Goodwin, a vice president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, shot as a draft-dodger (Ginger had gone into hiding when he learned he'd been called up under the Military Service Act Goals of the Strikers a) replace capitalism with producerism (return profits to producers rather than capitalists) b) replace craft-based unionism with industrial unionism by creating the "One Big Union" c) establish a strike committee to ensure the continued functioning of essential services during the strike d) send messages of support and a representative to the Third International in Moscow; express sympathy for the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and Spartacus Revolution in Germany e) state belief that the interests of all workers were identical and the true enemy was capitalism f) accept a dictatorship of the proletariat Concerns of the Committee of One Thousand (headquartered in the Winnipeg Board of Trade Building and made up of employers, businessmen and professional people) a) general strike is work of foreigners; only 5% of labour leaders were Canadian-born (55% English born, 25% Scottish-born, 10% Welsh-born, 5% Irish-born; 1 non- British labour leader) b) One Big Union was too political; it reminded everyone of Bolshevism and was thought to be forerunner of a communist state c) One Big Union forced all workers to go out on strike if a majority over-all supported it; individual unions who did d) not support the strike had to go out despite their opposition e) normal routines are disrupted; Winnipeg is being held hostage to the 30,000 strikers for six weeks f) milk was being delivered "by authority of the strike committee"; it seemed clear the strikers were acting as an ad hoc government of Winnipeg to replace established elected officials g) Postal services, newspapers, telephones, telegraphs, delivery services were struck; Winnipeg found itself isolated from the outside world. Were strikes occurring all over Canada? h) uncollected garbage could result in contamination; public health could be jeopardized i) law and order are the basis of Canadian society; the strike must be ended before the grievances of the strikers will be addressed; one does not negotiate with a terrorist j) this isn't really a strike; it is an incipient revolution directed from Moscow Concerns of the Government in Ottawa a) Did we win the war to make the world safe for democracy just to pave the way for a communist revolution in Canada? b) Should private enterprise not be protected at every cost to ensure our continued freedom? c) When can civil liberties be suspended in the interest of law and order? d) Who represents the legitimate government of Winnipeg, the Strike Committee or the Committee of One Thousand? e) Is the strike a matter of federal jurisdiction? does the disruption to federal services like the post office require federal involvement? f) What could be the consequences of inaction? Various Interpretations of the Winnipeg General Strike: It was a conspiracy to seize power by revolutionary means! This interpretation was advanced by the opponents of the strike who wrote in their paper: "the so- called general strike is in reality revolution or a daring attempt to overthrow the present industrial and governmental system." It was a major battle that labour had to wage to gain its union rights - the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the establishment of a living wage. This was the view the strikers themselves advanced as they set up their Defence Committee to free the jailed strike leaders after 1919. The Robson Commission set up to investigate the General Strike reported that the fundamental cause of the strike was inequality and that the central aim was not revolution but the right to bargain collectively. The Robson Commission did find, however, that radical Socialists in Winnipeg might have sought something more if the established government appeared weak. [After all, the Bolsheviks in Russia were only able to seize power because the established agencies of law and order were crumbling in 1917 Legacy of the Strike: The Royal North West Mounted Police was reorganized as the RCMP. This was designed to increase governmental authority against revolutionary activities. The strike committee took its struggle to the political arena in Winnipeg where municipal politics took on the tone of class warfare. The business interests never lost control of the Winnipeg City Council for the next 25 years. The Progressive Party capitalized on worker and farmer discontent built up during the 1917 - 1921 period to burst upon the national landscape. In the 1921 general election, the Conservatives went down to defeat. The Liberals under Mackenzie King formed the government, relying on the solid support of Quebec (65 of the total 115 Liberal seats were from Quebec). The Progressives got 64 seats, the Conservatives just 50. 39 of the Progressive seats came from the West; the Conservatives won only 8 western ridings. The West as a political force had arrived upon the scene. The two-party system which had been developed by Central and Eastern Canada was broken for ever.
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