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The Winnipeg General Strike.

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The Winnipeg General Strike The province of Manitoba has endured a tumultuous history. It was born as a result of the Riel rebellion and its capital city, Winnipeg, was the sight of the only general strike in Canadian history. The Winnipeg General Strike, which took place shortly after the end of the Great War, brought, in the eyes of some, the specter of revolution to Canada. In the end, however, the strike was, from a labour standpoint, an abject failure, as virtually no long-term gains were made.1 It is difficult to comprehend how this strike, which lasted from May-June 1919 and began with between twenty-four and thirty thousand workers walking off the job (only 12,000 of whom were unionized)2, could end in failure but, when the events of the strike are examined in detail, it becomes apparent that the strike leaders themselves were, ultimately, responsible for their lack of success as they continually took steps which undermined their ability to force a resolution on their own terms. Labour unrest had been rampant in Winnipeg for many years and, although trade unions had made some modest gains, it was the employers, backed by government and the courts, who usually emerged victorious from the numerous work stoppages which took place. Employers, in fact, relied on the courts as a means of settling labour disputes to such a degree that Winnipeg became known, in colloquial terms, as 'Injunction City.'3 The result was that a climate of conflict and mistrust existed between employers and employees which was difficult to overcome. Although employers, no doubt, believed they were protecting their interests by using court orders to defeat the various unions during work stoppages they were, in actuality, setting the stage for more serious labour disputes in the future. In addition to labour unrest Winnipeg was also experiencing a 2 growth in class consciousness and division while the city was rapidly becoming a hotbed of militant unionism. ...read more.


An agreement was reached with proprietors which would guarantee delivery of supplies on the condition that establishments were kept open.32 Keeping restaurants open could serve no useful purpose and was, in fact, detrimental to the strikers cause. That the strike committee still chose to keep these businesses open is another example of how their determination to avoid a complete societal breakdown undermined their efforts during the strike. Many restaurants did continue functioning for a time but, eventually, even those which had initially remained open were closed. When these closings occurred many strikers claimed that it was an effort to starve workers into submission.33 This claim was untrue, however, and it is difficult to understand how the strikers could have made such allegations against 10 establishments which had done their best, under difficult circumstances, to continue operating. Their belief that the closure of restaurants was designed to starve them into submission clearly demonstrates the divisions which existed within the city but the strikers who made these claims obviously failed to comprehend that these businesses closed due to difficulties in obtaining adequate supplies. Another attempt to avoid societal breakdown which actually harmed the striker's cause resulted from the decision to permit the oil and gas companies to supply all farmers, police, Doctors, officers of health, ambulances, and fire trucks with adequate fuel to meet their needs.34 Although this decision was, obviously, taken for humanitarian reasons it could not fail to further undermine the striker's efforts. When this decision was compounded with earlier decisions to permit such activities as milk and bread delivery it becomes clear that the efforts of the strikers would no longer be sufficient to shut down the city but would, rather, become simply an inconvenience in people's lives. The postal service was effectively shut down as mail could neither be sorted nor delivered and, as a result, many of the city's postal stations were forced to close. ...read more.


The actions of the R.N.W.M.P. have been hotly debated since the tragedy occurred but it is clear that they acted inappropriately as the crowd was a peaceful one and there was no reason for them to charge in on horseback. There was even less reason to start shooting at unarmed citizens. Although the authorities tried to claim that shots had been fired and that the police were simply returning fire there is insufficient evidence 18 to support this charge. As a result it must be conceded that, although the events of 21 June broke the back of the strike and led directly to its conclusion, these actions on the part of the R.N.W.M.P. were unprovoked and should, therefore, be considered illegal. Having examined the events of the Winnipeg General Strike it is obvious that the strike committee, although they were in the unenviable position of having to balance their goals with the needs of the citizens of Winnipeg, made several crucial mistakes which, ultimately, caused the strike to fail. Had they not endeavoured to restore essential services they ran the risk of alienating those citizens who supported them in their quest for better wages and union recognition but, nevertheless, this was a risk which should have been taken for it is entirely likely that, at least during the early days of the strike, public opinion would have remained on the striker's side thus enabling them to force a resolution on their own terms. As it turned out the restoration of essential services caused the strike to drag out as the authorities felt no desperate need to settle with the strikers. As the strike wore on it became less and less likely that the strikers would be successful in their endeavours and this can be directly attributed to the strike committee's decisions to permit essential services to function, albeit in a reduced capacity. In the end, then, it must be acknowledged that, although their cause was just, the strikers, or at least their leaders, must shoulder the blame for their lack of success. ...read more.

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