ON THE MAP
Charting the locations and events of the Winnipeg General Strike 100 years later
The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike
The strike shut down Winnipeg for six weeks. On May 15, 1919, unionized iron and steel workers walked off the job for better wages, reduced hours and the right to collective bargaining. Non-union workers joined in a sympathy strike. Of the city’s population of 175,000, some 30,000 workers walked out, including firefighters, streetcar drivers, newspaper pressmen, telephone and telegraph operators and postal carriers. Strikers debated what essential goods and services required workers to stay on the job — milk, bread, ice, police, waterworks, elevator operators in hospitals, and movie theatres (to keep idle workers from rioting). Businessmen and employers argued that the strike was an attempt to overthrow the government under the foreign influence of the Bolsheviks, who had seized Russia just two years before. Immigrants were vilified.
Initially, the strikers must have felt euphoria and pride mixed with a fear of what might happen. But as weeks dragged on without a paycheque, feeding the kids would have become harder: about half of the city’s families were involved. On June 21, the strike climaxed in a violent confrontation between Mounties, on horseback wielding bats, and workers, who started throwing stones at the police force. Two strikers were shot dead. The walkout ended four days later. The Lewis machine guns shipped in by the military at the strike’s onset were paraded through the streets, but were never used.
The largest strike in Canada, the 1919 strike was shaped by Winnipeg’s geography, defined broadly as a conflict between the working-class North End and the elites in the south (this map of modern Winnipeg depicts key locations and events in the strike). Heavy industries were located beside railway lines for ease of shipping, with workers’ neighbourhoods clustered within walking distance of the foundries, factories and yards. There, crammed into narrow houses, immigrants spoke German, Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian and English. Wealthy car-owning families, meanwhile, built houses away from the centre of business downtown, where most strike activity took place. In the short-term, workers achieved little by the strike, but it propelled labour as a political movement in Canada: three strike leaders ran for and were elected to the Manitoba Legislature while still in jail.