Chart­ing the lo­ca­tions and events of the Winnipeg Gen­eral Strike 100 years later

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - BY SU­SAN PETERS

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.

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