The Strike that Terrified All Canada
The Winnipeg general strike splashed blood and bitterness across the changing face of Canada and thousands feared its final goal was anarchy. The nation jailed its leaders, but later gave them high honors in labor and in politics
THIRTY-TUREE years ago, long before most people had ever heard of Joseph Stalin, thousands of Canadians were fear-stricken for six uneasy weeks in the belief that Bolsheviks, boring from within, had captured their third largest city of Winnipeg and were preparing to take over the whole country.
“The Great Dream of the Winnipeg Soviet,” as the Winnipeg Free Press called it, centred in a unique general sympathetic strike in 1919 when almost the whole working force of Winnipeg quit work on two days’ notice, paralyzing industries and stirring labor unrest across Canada. The Manitoba capital became an armed camp with two opposing forces: on one side were the strikers allied with thousands of ex-servicemen and sympathizers; on the other were the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand, the “Citizens’ Army,” special police (volunteers) and “loyalist soldiers” equipped with a grab bag of weapons ranging from baseball bats to machine guns.
The strikers conflicted with their own parent union body and three governments—city, provincial and federal but managed to lay down an internal siege of Winnipeg that was peaceful and disciplined until unexpectedly mixed with the explosive ferment of home-coming soldiers. Then came the crackdown on strike leaders, the Market Square riot of June 21 with two killed and scores injured, and the long dramatic court trials.
Left behind was a legacy of bitterness, still felt in Winnipeg, and a debatable question: was the strike part of a Communist plot to takeover Canada for the world revolution, as the court established, or just a mass walkout to dramatize grievances?
Ten men were accused of being involved in the Red plot. A brilliant, motley group they included two Winnipeg aldermen, John Queen and A. A. Heaps; two clergymen, J. S. Woodsworth and William Ivens; an MLA, Fred Dixon; two machinists, R. B. Russell and R. J. Johns; a carpenter, George Armstrong; a butcher, R. E. Bray; and a building tradesman, William Pritchard.
Seven of them were convicted and sent to prison for terms ranging from six months to two years. All, however, emerged within a year to the enthusiastic hosannas of thousands and led remarkable careers. John Queen later became mayor of Winnipeg for seven terms, and was also an MLA. J. S. Woodsworth, who was charged with seditious libel, became Winnipeg North Centre’s MP from then until his death and first national leader of the CCF, his political fortune greatly enhanced by the strike. Most of the others attained political office or prominence in the labor movement.
Whether the ten accused conspired with revolutionary intent or not they were stars in one of the oddest political-economic dramas ever enacted in Canada. The strike itself was only the climax; a score of grievances, postwar nerves and dreams of a better world were in the background. In 1918-19
Canadian workers faced an upsurge in prices with deep anxiety; union statistics showed the cost of living had gone up seventy-five percent in the war years while in the building trades, for example, wages rose only eighteen percent. With war plants closing and servicemen returning home, unemployment grew. Workers tried to make their unions more secure as a safeguard, but were frustrated by the refusal of many employers to concede the principle of collective bargaining. As westerners they were further nettled by what they believed was a smug dominant attitude on the part of their own union leaders in eastern Canada.
Politically they deplored continued wartime restrictions on free speech and those with left-wing tendencies were further embittered by the fact that a number of pacifist and socialist friends of labor who had been interned for their pacifist views during the war had not yet been released. This yeasty situation was made the more potent by visions of a workers’ paradise stirred by the Russian revolution, then only a year old. Many radical labor leaders believed capitalism was doomed and the day of proletarian power was at hand. And they were incensed at the Canadian government for sending troops to counter the revolution in its Russian birthplace.
This insecurity and discontent flared into strike after strike in the four western provinces during 1918 and 1919. On three separate occasions the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council voted in favor of a general strike, narrowly averted each time when the workers and their employers came to terms. “If necessary, a general strike of the whole Dominion would be called,” declared the council’s weekly organ, the Winnipeg Labor News, as the words “general strike” became like a drumbeat in the ears of western workers.
Riding herd on this discontent, and swept along with it, were the small group of socialist-labor leaders. They called two political meetings and two labor conventions, later cited in court as evidence of conspiracy. The first of these was held in Winnipeg’s big ornate Walker Theatre three days before Christmas 1918 under sponsorship of the Socialist Party of Canada. Six of the ten indicted men played prominent roles there: Queen, Johns, Russell, Dixon, Armstrong and Ivens.
Hundreds thronged the galleries to hear or speak on the resolutions demanding, among other things, the release of wartime political prisoners, the withdrawal of troops from Russia and the lifting of restrictions on free speech. In the audience, too, was Sgt. F. E. Langdale, Winnipeg Military Intelligence, rapidly taking down such statements as Russell’s, “Capitalism has come to a point where she is defunct and must disappear.”
A similar meeting followed in Jan. 1919 at the Majestic Theatre where speakers castigated Press, pulpit and government. Its mood was expressed by the Western Labor News’ editorial: “When the workers take control they will form a Dictatorship
which will give the same order to the owners of the world that Lenin gave to the capitalists of Russia: obey or starve !”
The flood level of western radicalism was reached at the Western Labor Conference, better known as the Calgary Convention, the last big labor rally to be held before the Winnipeg general strike. Numbering two hundred and thirty-nine delegates when the roll was called in Paget Hall, it was probably the largest gathering of western labor ever held up to that time. Out of its soaring oratory came the long-dreamed-of One Big Union, bringing Russell, Johns, Pritchard, Armstrong and their like-minded colleagues to the height of their power.
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
They had worked hard to make the OBU dream a reality ever since Sept. 1918, when a Quebec convention of the Trades and Labor Council rejected resolutions put forward by Russell. These resolutions demanded the TLC change its structure from craft unionism to industrial unionism. Now, six months later, the rejected westerners were in control at Calgary and proceeded to set up a new union structure, the OBU.
It was to be a gigantic economic alliance of all workers in Canada, organized according to locality rather than trade, with some provision for bringing workers of individual industries together. Stemming from British industrial union ideas, the OBU
took Karl Marx’s theory of the class struggle as its basic tenet. And it believed the general strike was the best weapon for working-class action. The delegates decided to ask all western unions to vote yes or no on joining the OBU. They also decided to hold a vote on a general strike to begin on June 1 if the six-hour day and other demands were not met.
Most delegates went home in a mood of triumph. On May 23 the OBU’s first secretary, V. R. Midgley, announced that the vote for the One Big Union had gone overwhelmingly in its favor. But already the question of a strike had become academic. Winnipeg had jumped the gun. A general strike had clamped the city in an economic
vise a week before and reverberations were being heard from coast to coast.
It was a sympathy walkout to back up two strikes then in progress, one by building-trades workers and the other by metal workers who were seeking collective bargaining and higher pay. The metal workers wanted their Metal Trades Council recognized as bargaining agency. They also wanted workers in the contract shops (independent firms which filled contracts) paid as much as machinists working for the railways. They appealed to the Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council which called for a general strike vote among all unions. The result was eleven Continued on page 39
The Strike That Terrified All Canada
Continued from page 17
thousand for, five hundred against.
The mass exodus from work began two days later. At 11 a.m. on May 15, Winnipeg’s clerks, culinary workers, teamsters, electricians, bakers, printers, caretakers, carpenters, postal ! workers, plumbers, cooks, tailors, blacksmiths and others streamed out of office, shop and factory. Some caught the last streetcars to run for forty days. Gas stations and restaurants closed up; elevators stopped running. Four hundred of the post office’s four hundred and fifty employees struck. About one hundred and sixty firemen in Winnipeg and neighboring St. Boniface also quit. The police force voted almost unanimously for the walkout, but stayed on the job at the urging of the strike committee. Striking waterworks employees left behind a maintenance crew with orders to keep water pressure down to thirty pounds, the secondstory level.
In less than two hours almost all the workers of Winnipeg were on strike and the whole productive and distributive machinery of the city was at a standstill. Winnipeggers couldn’t receive or mail letters, make phone calls, send telegrams, express parcels or ship by freight. So complete was the postoffice breakdownlasting ten days— that postmaster P. C. McIntyre wired Ottawa to stop sending all but firstclass mail. Parcels were piling up like a nonstop Christmas rush.
The Trades Council had called out its entire membership of 12,000 and was startled to find from 24,000 to 30,000 on strike within three days. These extra thousands, many of whom had never belonged to a union in their lives, simply came out on their own private protest, as though infected by a contagious strike fever. When strike leaders got to their headquarters, the four-story Labor Temple, they found their own elevator operators had quit work.
Hundreds of grocery stores closed down and wholesalers dispensed goods directly to the public. Some people walked miles into the country to find food; such exercise, some doctors reported, was doing certain of their more puffy patients a lot of good.
The most sensational stoppage was milk and bread, leading to bitter charges that unions were trying to starve infants and invalids. 'The strike committee ordered the milk and bread wagons back on the job on the second day. Striking firemen, also bitterly assailed by people who visualized themselves at the mercy of fires, offered to provide an emergency crew, but angered city officials spurned their offer.
Having paralyzed the city, the strikers found they had to govern it whether they wanted to or not and control of Winnipeg passed from City Hall to Room 'Ten of the Labor Temple. Five men — socialist Russell, social democrat Queen, and straight - line trade unionists James Winning, H. Veitch and J. L. McBride—were in charge for the first week; they were immediately dubbed the Red Five by the newspapers. After that the full strike machinery took over, an inner committee of fifteen answering to an outer committee of three hundred, representing all unions involved.
Winnipeg newspapers lashed out at the strikers with lurid charges. STRIKE COMMITTEE GOVERNS CITY, the Winnipeg Tribune cried in a red-ink banner line, adding: “To
all practical purposes Winnipeg is now
under the Soviet System of Government.” A day later the Tribune and its two competitors the Free Press and the Telegram, disappeared from the streets as stereotypers and pressmen walked out. But the Free Press broke through the news blockade on May 22 with a message to the outside world, beamed from a wireless station it had set up on the roof. Its dispatch, picked up by the University of North Dakota, near Grand Forks, reported that essential services were being maintained and “all reports of violence in Winnipeg unfounded.”
Meeting twice daily in the hot weeks of May and June the big strike committee held tumultuous sessions on the fourth floor of the Labor Temple, while down on the first floor in partitionedoff rooms the inner committee grappled with ever-mounting problems. One of the knottiest was getting bread and milk wagons back to work: compa-
nies were afraid to send their wagons through strike-bound streets and, drivers didn’t want to be called scabs. So the Strike Committee issued “permission” placards, twelve by sixteen inches, which read: “Permitted by Authority of the Strike Committee.” This weighed heavily against the strike leaders in court later when the prosecution charged that the committee had thus taken licensing authority into its hands, usurping governmental functions.
Holding the strikers in line was another formidable problem. Through the daily Strike Bulletin editor William Ivens blithely urged workers to “just eat, sleep, play, love, laugh and look at the sun.” Parades were taboo but meetings were held in public parks and on Sunday the strikers massed into Ivens’ open-air Labor Church in Victoria Park. There the ex-minister, jovial and fluent, kept up a verbal fire to bolster morale, assisted by Winning, Russell and others. In spite of warnings, however, crowds gathered ominously on downtown streets.
Meanwhile organized opposition, loomed. The Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand took shape under the chairmanship of A. K. Godfrey, a grain and lumber merchant; its headquarters was the barnlike Board of Trade building on Main Street. It was composed mostly of professional and businessmen, sincerely convinced that Winnipeg was faced with no mere strike but a plot to “establish Bolshevism and the rule of the Soviet here and then to extend it over the Dominion.”
By May 24 the three Winnipeg dailies managed to get back into circulation. The late J. W. Dafoe, editor of the Free Press, thenceforth laid down a steady drumfire against the general strike. The Strike Bulletin and the Citizen, published by the Committee of One Thousand, took pot shots at each other in print. And the Tribune dryly observed that “Winnipeg now has two state capitals.”
But the Citizen “capital” slowly wrested control of affairs away from the Strike Committee and power slipped from the Labor Temple to the Board of Trade Building as many middleclass citizens, whose activities had never been more vigorous than opening and shutting a file drawer, began riding fire trucks or pounding sidewalks laden with mail. A volunteer force of three hundred and fifty firemen took over the deserted depots; others staffed the waterworks department and water pressure was raised to normal, much to the relief of those who lived above the second story. When one volunteer mailman left a load of letters at the Labor Temple the Strike Committee angrily told postmaster McIntyre it didn’t want its mail.
Meanwhile Mayor Charles Gray and
Premier T. C. Norris tried to get the three leading iron companies—Vulcan Iron Works, Dominion Bridge, and Manitoba Bridge and Iron Works—to compromise on a settlement (their agreement would set the pattern for smaller shops). But they refused to negotiate until the strike was called off. In Ottawa Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden pledged his government to maintain law and order. He dispatched Labor Minister Gideon Robertson to Winnipeg, who got seventy-five postal workers back on the job by threatening permanent loss of their jobs, and recruited new employees.
Minister of Justice Arthur Meighen ordered a squadron of North West Mounted Police, then returning from overseas, to demobilize at Winnipeg and take orders from Commissioner A. B. Perry. General H. B. Ketchen, commanding officer in the Winnipeg district, called out four units of militia and increased ranks with volunteers hastily trained in schoolyards. He looked for help, too, from the 27th Battalion, also returning from overseas, and twenty Lewis guns were placed on board the troop train in boxes marked “Regimental Baggage.”
The Wealthy Were Alarmed
Across Canada other workers were caught up in the general-strike fever. In Toronto a mass walkout started May 30. It spluttered out in four days, but not before stalwart Torontonians had organized an antistrike Committee of Ten Thousand. Other walkouts took place in Edmonton, Calgary, Port Arthur, Fort William, Brandon, Prince Albert, Regina and Saskatoon. Vancouver workers went out for a month in sympathy with Winnipeg strikers, tied up the waterfront, most communications, logging, breweries, packing houses, sugar refineries and other plants.
Back in Winnipeg, the supercharged atmosphere flared with new activity as restless returned veterans picked sides. The rank and file of three organizations —Great War Veterans, Army and Navy Veterans and Imperial Veterans of Canada—defied their leaders’ wishes and voted full sympathy with the strike. They organized parades through the city and three times marched onto the floor of the Legislative Buildings. There they cheered a lone labor member, Fred Dixon, and booed Premier Norris, demanding that collective bargaining be recognized.
Numbering up to ten thousand, the pro-strike parades carried flags and marched to the skirl of bagpipes and the roll of drums. They were led by ex-serviceman R. E. Bray, socialist and former Methodist lay preacher, and followed by crowds of citizens. Storming City Hall, they booed Mayor Gray and cheered labor aldermen Heaps and Queen. On June 5 a parade of four thousand swung down Wellington Crescent, thoroughly alarming wealthier citizens by singing war songs and pointing at the big homes, saying, “That’s the one I’m going to’ have.” Many home owners made preparations to move into barracks and churches.
The air grew tenser when a young lawyer and returned soldier, Capt. F. G. Thompson, organized the Returned Soldiers’ Loyalist Association which pledged itself to end the food blockade. Marching to City Hall behind a huge placard, “We Will Maintain Constituted Authority, Law and Order, Down With the High Cost of Living, To Hell With the Alien Enemy, God Save the King,” the antistrike soldiers cheered the mayor. Seven hundred of them then signed up as special police.
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Continued from page 40
With two parades, one for and one against the strike, shuttling back and forth in the city, many citizens became frankly confused. “Which bunch is this?” asked one bystander as a parade swung down Osborne Street. Some of the soldiers got in the wrong parade by mistake. One day in the first week of June the vanguard of the Loyalist parade caught up with the rear of the pro-strike parade and fighting broke out. But police quelled a possible war between the former brothers in-arms by arresting fifteen men.
Events moved swiftly toward a climax after June 3 when the Strike Committee, irritated by the lack of government action to support their demands, took the drastic step of once again cutting off all bread and milk supplies and services for vital industries. Volunteers had to truck bread, milk and ice to ten public schools where citizens trudged for blocks to pick up their daily needs.
“The situation is now absolutely serious,” declared Mayor Gray on June (i. The same day an aroused Dominion parliament amended the Immigration Act, making it possible to deport any Canadian citizen convicted of sedition provided the offender was born outside Canada. Rumors of a crackdown on strike leaders spread through the city.
Into the fray at this point came two well-known clergymen: J. S. Woods-
worth and the Rev. Canon Scott, popular senior chaplain of the First Division in France. Scott made several fruitless attempts to mediate in the strike; Woodsworth, then a longshoreman in Vancouver, threw himself wholeheartedly on the side of the workers.
Bitterness deepened on June 9 when the city council abruptly dismissed all but fifteen of its 140-man police force after each had stated his refusal to sign a no-strike pledge. A force of special police were duly sworn in and when two of them appeared on the corner of Portage and Main the following day a minor riot broke out. Target of a jeering mob that stretched three blocks along Main Street, they were rescued by a detachment of special mounted police who galloped into the crowd, cracking heads with their homemade clubs. Strikers retaliated with a fusillade of flying stones and bottles, kicked the horses’ feet and dragged riders down to the pavement. One missile hit Sgt.-Maj. V. G. Coppings, VC, and broke two of his ribs. Before the crowd dispersed five hours later twelve more police were hurt, scores of citizens injured and five persons under arrest.
The expected crackdown on strike leaders came a week later when the strike showed signs of weakening (metal-trades employers had offered a modified form of collective bargaining). Fifty mounted police and five hundred special policemen in the early hours of the morning descended on the homes of ten leaders, roused them out of bed and lodged them in the Rupert Street jail. Arrested were Russell, Queen, Heaps, Ivens, Armstrong and Bray, along with four less prominent leaders. A fifth, Sam Blumenberg, escaped to the United States. Richard Johns was picked up in Montreal where he was on a speaking tour and William Pritchard was taken from a westbound train in Calgary. J. S. Woodsworth was arrested a few days later. Police also raided the Labor Temple, Ukrainian Temple and Liberty Hall, seizing truckloads of literature.
At police headquarters, carpenter Armstrong was placed in a cell he himself had built. Half an hour later the ten men arrested in the earlymorning raid were driven to Stony Continued on page 44
Continued from page 42 Mountain Penitentiary near Winnipeg. They were charged with conspiracy “to excite divers liege subjects of the King, to resist laws ...” and with the publication of “false and libellous statements.” Press reports said they would be deported within seventy-six hours under authority of the newly amended Immigration Act (all the accused except Armstrong were born in Britain).
Protest meetings immediately mushroomed all over Winnipeg while scores of unions in other parts of Canada demanded a country-wide strike and warned Ottawa against deporting the leaders. Even Toronto’s Globe cautioned against “a plan to railroad the strike leaders out of the country.” (Meighen had wired special prosecutor A. J. Andrews, KC, on June 17, “I feel rapid deportation is the best course . . .”) Many believe it was this general outcry that stayed the hand of the government and that attempts to deport the strike leaders would have convulsed the whole country in a grand-scale labor uprising.
A few days later all the strike leaders, except four with non - Anglo - Saxon names, were released on bail on condition they would not take part in the strike again.
They kept the promise; but public indignation had already lighted the fuse that touched off a human powder keg twelve hours later, flaming into Winnipeg’s Market Square riot of June 21 which came to be known as Bloody Saturday.
About noon that day thousands of returned men marched on the red-brick Royal Alexandra Hotel and sent a delegation in to meet Labor Minister Robertson, Mayor Gray, A. J. Andrews and Commissioner Perry. Urged to call off their parading, the soldiers remained defiant, while all along Main Street swelling crowds shouted for action. Streetcars had just reappeared on the streets and one of the cars stalled in the milling crowd. Someone pulled off the trolley, others rushed inside, drove out the motorman and passengers, tore up the cushions and smashed the windows.
Then suddenly, above the din, the clatter of hoofbeats sounded on the hard asphalt of Main Street and redand-khaki waves of Mounties appeared from the direction of Portage Avenue. Riding fanwise from curb to curb they forced the mob back to the walls of buildings. From near the Royal Alexandra Hotel a second contingent of Mounties arrived; they galloped into the crowd around City Hall, swinging sticks, but were slowed to a walk in the churning mass of strikers, soldiers and citizens. One Mountie went down and his horse ran wild; a second fell, bleeding about the head; and others retreated back to Portage Avenue amid a shower of tin cans, stones and chunks of concrete, with two riderless horses.
Amid the wild confusion Mayor Gray emerged on the steps of City Hall and read the Riot Act. But his voice was lost in bedlam as the Mounties pressed forward again. Each transferred his club to his left hand and drew a revolver with his right. Riding into the square they fired a volley. A bystander gasped, “My God, they’re shooting to kill!” as everyone plunged for shelter.
Suddenly the stalled streetcar in front of City Hall burst into flames. A woman had applied a match to the seat cushions. When the crowd tried to upset the burning car police fired a second volley. Mike Sokolowiski, standing in front of the Manitoba Hotel, dropped dead with a bullet in his heart. Then a third burst came from the police revolvers as the Moun-
ties broke loose from the angry mob hemming them in and rode toward Portage Avenue under a rain of missiles. Scores of injured were now lying in the streets.
For the second time the Mounties regrouped but now they were reinforced by the special police on foot who formed a curb-to-curb cordon, swinging sawed-off baseball bats. Driven back, the crowd broke and ran. About two hundred rushed into a lane near City Hall (later called Hell’s Alley) and were cornered as the specials entered from both ends. The specials attacked with revolvers and clubs while the crowd struck back with cast-iron pipes and bricks. Two policemen were hurled from a roof. It was the shortest but hottest encounter of the day (“Had trench action beaten,” said one striker ) and produced twenty-seven casualties in ten minutes before military ambulances and Red Cross workers cleared the lane.
Order had been pretty well restored when a stream of cars bearing soldiers with fixed bayonets and trucks with machine guns arrived. By six o’clock Main Street was deserted, the onceriotous road silent except for the steady tread of soldier patrols. Martial law had not been declared but the city was virtually under the military until midnight. Ninety-one persons were in jail; thirty were in hospital, including six Mounted Police officers, and Steve Schezerbanowes, shot in both legs, who later died from gangrene. The Winnipeg General Strike was over.
And a Common Nuisance
Officially the strike stopped the Wednesday after Bloody Saturday, June 25, although some diehards refused to go back to work even then.
The court trials that followed were as impassioned as the strike itself. The crown claimed that eight of the strike leaders — Russell, Queen, Heaps, Pritchard, Ivens, Bray, Johns and Dixon—had a common design aimed at introducing a Soviet form of government into Canada, undermining the constitution, stirring up class hatred, calling an unlawful general strike with threats of other strikes, attempting to usurp governmental powers, organizing an unlawful association of workmen of Canada (the One Big Union) and being a common nuisance. This conspiracy, it said, was nurtured and developed at the Walker and Majestic theatre meetings, at the Calgary convention where the OBU was born, at meetings of the Winnipeg Labor Council, at various other assemblies, in the labor papers, in private letters and finally through the Winnipeg general strike.
Russell, whom the court elected to try separate from the other seven, came to trial in November. After twentythree days of actual sitting at day and night sessions of the Manitoba Court of King’s Bench he was sentenced to two years in the penitentiary.
Six of the others were tried as a group in stormy sittings from Jan. 22
(See page 42)
1, John Barrymore as Don Juan; 2, Anna Neagle as the Queen in Victoria the Great; 3, Greta Garbo as Queen Christina; 4, Lionel Barrymore as Rasputin in Rasputin and the Empress; 5, Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz; 6, Alec Guinness as Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets; 7, Raymond Massey as Cardinal Richelieu in Under the Red Robe.
to April 7, 1920. Queen, Heaps, Pritchard and Ivens, as able as any set of lawyers in the field of oratory, defended themselves. Heaps spoke for almost a full day in his address to the jury and came away scot-free on all charges. Ivens spoke with ministerial fury for fourteen hours; Pritchard’s speech went 1.0 two hundred and sixteen printed pages and Queen’s self-defense, studded with sarcastic thrusts, kept the court on edge for hours. Johns and Bray were defended by counsel. Bray was convicted on one charge only: that
of being a “common nuisance” and was sentenced to six months’ jail; the other five were found guilty of all seven counts and got a year at the prison farm. In a third trial in January and February Dixon came before Mr. Justice Galt on a charge of seditious libel. A jury spent forty hours behind locked doors then freed him. A similar charge against J. S. Woodsworth was then dropped. Among the future CCF leader’s alleged libels was a passage he had quoted from Isaiah: “Woe unto
them that decree unrighteous decrees and that write grievousness which they have prescribed . . .” (X, 1).
Through all the trials an unseen presence seemed to loom in the courtroom as the real villain of the piece. This was the One Big Union. The conspirators’ dream of power centred in the OBU, the prosecution implied: this was the link between the socialists, this radical union ideal that inflamed the minds of men and used the general strike as its weapon.
Today, thirty-three years after this most turbulent chapter in the annals of Canadian labor, one question continues to stir argument in Manitoba: was the Winnipeg strike a simple bid for higher wages and union recognition, or was it part of a grand conspiracy by a few men to take over the country?
Against the prosecution’s mountainous evidence (seven hundred and three exhibits against Russell alone) the defense stoutly insisted there had been no conspiracy as the accused were not members of the same political parties and often quarreled among themselves; that the strike was simply a strike for collective bargaining and higher pay.
Perhaps the coolest analysis ever made was that of Dr. D. C. Masters, history professor at Bishop’s University, formerly of United College, Winnipeg. In his book, The Winnipeg General Strike, published by the University of Toronto Press in 1950, he pointed out: all the accused repre-
sented left-wing labor thought on the British pattern, not in the Russian revolutionary tradition; that they were the forerunners of the CCF, not the Communist Party; talked loosely about soviets hut were opposed to terrorism, and none became Communists in later years; that if the general strike had revolutionary aims there would be more evidence of preparation, whereas the Strike Committee exercised only fumbling efforts, strove to keep the workers off the streets and did not arm them. The radicals were not the decisive agents in bringing on the strike; it was the result of “a wave
of feeling on the part of all elements in the Winnipeg labor world, radicals and conservatives alike,” Masters said.
As for the OBU, he wrote: “In a
way the OBU was a conspiracy to secure control of the country” but its preamble urged nothing more drastic than education of the workers toward the day when goods would be made for use, not for profit. Further, Russell and Armstrong were the only two active in both the OBU and the strike.
Masters’ final opinion, looking at the strike as a whole, was that while there were extreme and radical elements in it, “There was no seditious conspiracy and the strike was what it purported to be, an effort to secure the principle of collective bargaining.”
Whatever doubts remain on that score there could be no denying some of the very real results of the strike. It gave a cloak of martyrdom to the leaders and to the western labor movement as a whole, contributing to the rise of the Independent Labor Party, the CCF and Social Credit on the prairies; and it drove home one hard lesson, present thereafter in labor disputes across the country: the grudging acknowledgment by both labor and capital that each side was determined and tough, neither could dominate, both must seek compromise. There has never been another general strike in Canada since the great Winnipeg walkout.
By the spring of 1921 the strike leaders were all free men again. They entered a new world where hopes for Utopia were shelved for piecemeal improvement of conditions. They were received by thousands as heroic labor statesmen and hoisted into high office. Queen was elected mayor of Winnipeg for seven terms and he also became a member of the Manitoba legislature; be died in 1946. Woodsworth was elected federal member for Winnipeg North Centre in 1921; only death in 1942 dislodged him from that seat and meanwhile he became first national leader of the CCF in 1932. Heaps joined Woodsworth in the House of Commons from 1925 to 1940 and is now a Montreal businessman. Ivens was also elected to the Manitoba legislature and is now a CCF organizer in Winnipeg.
Armstrong is retired in California. Pritchard became reeve of Burnaby, B.C., and was for a time chairman of the Union of B. C. Municipalities; he is now retired on the west coast. Bray worked for the OBU for a time and now grows gladioli commercially in Vancouver. Dixon is dead; he was re-elected to the Manitoba legislature after his prison term and retired in 1923. Johns became a teacher at St. John’s High School, then director of technical education for Manitoba and is now director of Winnipeg’s large new vocational school.
And Bob Russell, singled out as the top conspirator, stayed with the doomed ideal of the One Big Union. Today a man of sixty-three, his ruddy Scots features deeply grained, he moves about a small second-floor office in Winnipeg where the ghostlike visage of Karl Marx stares out of a faded picture frame on one wall to a group of cheery red-coated English squires on the other. The ghost of the OBU seems to move with him. Its great promise had faded by 1922 as unions rejected the regional organization plan, although a few diehard unions have remained faithful these thirty - three years. Russell is their organizer.
New generations of Winnipeggers hurrying along Portage and Main have scant knowledge of the general strike that once shook their city; older folk remember it with a nostalgic shudder. ★