For the week of Monday May 10, 1999
On May 15, 1919, more than 27 000 Winnipeg workers walked out of their jobs in a controversy which pitted labour against their bosses and the government. Still the largest work stoppage Canada has ever seen, the Winnipeg General Strike helped give labour a voice.
At the turn of the century working conditions were very poor. Unemployment Insurance and Worker's Compensation programs did not exist. Even women and children worked long hours in filthy and dangerous factories. The idea of workers' rights was not yet accepted. During the First World War wages fell behind the rapidly increasing cost of living. When wartime production declined a depression followed. Many returning soldiers could not find work. Canadians, expecting a better life after the hardships of war, were outraged.
Winnipeg General Strike "Riot",
June 21, 1919
© Provincial Archives of Manitoba / Foote (N2762)
Winnipeg's economic boom in the late 1800s, and a huge increase in population due to westward expansion, made it ripe for a strike. The frustrated building and metal trades struck for higher wages and collective bargaining rights, and the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council voted to launch a massive sympathetic strike. Supportive strikes occurred in Vancouver, Toronto and other Canadian cities, attracting international attention. The Winnipeg General Strike lasted six weeks and brought the city's business life to a stand-still.
Winnipeg employers allied with the government and formed the "Committee of 1000." They accused strikers of working for the Communist Russian Bolsheviks. The strike leaders tried to avoid violence. However, a demonstration occurred on June 21 following the arrest of eight strike leaders. The crowd became rowdy, pulling a streetcar off its tracks and setting it on fire. Armed militia and Mounted Police intervened causing casualties and even death. This event, known as "Bloody Saturday," broke the strike. Armed troops patrolled Winnipeg streets. The leaders were tried, and workers forced back to their jobs.
Great War Veterans Association
Parade, June 4, 1919
© Provincial Archives of Manitoba /
Winnipeg General Strike 4 (N12295)
Although the strike failed in many of its short-term goals, it hastened the development of the trade union movement and labour involvement in political parties. Thus, the Winnipeg General Strike was recognized by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1979, and a plaque has been erected in the city.