JR'S Free Thought Pages
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Bloody Saturday and the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919

By JR, May 2019   


                                                                     Pissed Off Wage Slave Workers

A century ago the quintessential rich man’s war and horrific slaughter of the First World War was promptly followed by a massive angry bottom up eruption of resentment, rage, social turmoil and revolutionary fervour.1919 was the year of the Winnipeg General Strike, the largest in Canadian history and similar to most labour disputes of the era. This one was a particularly violent affair, as strikers were beaten, brutalized and murdered by cops, hired hooligans, NWMP and the military. This was one of literally hundreds of mass uprisings throughout the world at the time. [1] In Germany it resulted in a full blown revolution that was ultimately crushed by not only reactionary elites but the prevailing Social Democratic government that sold out to the monarchical, aristocratic and big business classes that were responsible for the First World War.

These conditions, coupled with the still fresh memories of the events of Russia in 1917, the successes of the One Big Union (OBU) idea championed by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union in the United States, particularly the general strike in Seattle that had occurred in February of 1919. The Seattle strike had acted as a stimulant and example for many workers that created a massive confrontation between labour and capital that would come to a head with a general strike.

In March of 1919, labour leaders responded to the calls of workers with a meeting in Calgary, to discuss the formation of a One Big Union to win improvements in wages and conditions, as well as union recognition, which many workers didn't have. Due to Canada's virtually nonexistent labour laws of the time, union recognition could only be officially recognised if an employer voluntarily decided to recognise the union, or through strike action by workers.

The immediate catalyst to the general strike was a conflict between the unions of building and metal workers, who had grouped together respectively under the Building and Metals Trades Councils and their employers at the Winnipeg Builder's Exchange. The worker's representatives of the Building Trades Council demanded higher wages and improved conditions. However, their employers refused to recognise the union and would not even enter into negotiations, so a strike was launched on May 1.

With employers still refusing to enter negotiations with the union the next day, workers from the three leading metal works factories in Winnipeg joined the builders on strike. On May 6, the Building and Metal Trades Councils asked the much larger Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (WTLC) for assistance with the strike and its members were balloted as to whether to strike in support of the striking builders and metalworkers. The results of the ballot were released on May 13, with members of the WTLC voting overwhelmingly for a general strike. The results surprised even the leaders of the WTLC, who expected solid support for the strike from the traditionally strong unions of railwaymen, foundry workers and factory workers, but found very strong support from other sectors, such as the fire fighters, cooks and waiters, tailors and even some dissenters in the local police union.

The general strike was called on the 15th and a Central Strike Committee, comprised of elected members of unions affiliated to the WTLC, was set up to oversee the action and to make sure essential services still operated. Approximately between 30,000 and 35,000 workers were on strike on the May 15th, with union members being joined by thousands of non-union workers.

A counter-strike committee of conservative, business factions and other reactionary forces in the city known as the Citizen's Committee of 1000 was almost immediately set up, which was essentially led by a group of Winnipeg's wealthiest industrialists, lawyers, bankers, church leaders and politicians. Rather unsurprisingly, the Citizen's Committee, together with local newspapers (most of whose employees were on strike) launched a campaign against the strike in an attempt to discredit the actions of the workers, blaming the strike on "Bolsheviks", "alien scum" and "dirty bohunks". Newspapers ran cartoons showing bomb throwing hook-nosed Jews and the New York Times ran a hyperbolic headline of "Bolshevism Invades Canada".


                                                         Red Scare Propaganda

There was of course no evidence to suggest that European workers had been in any way involved in leading the Winnipeg strike. The Citizen's Committee also dismissed most of the city's police force and installed their own militia since the Committee could not rely on the police force as the majority of police officers were striking.  As word of the strike spread, workers in other towns and cities across Canada declared themselves in solidarity with the Winnipeg strike and many strikes were announced in Brandon, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Regina, Victoria, Vancouver, New Westminster and up to 20 other towns across Canada. But the racist crypto-fascist state police called the North West Mounted Police (NWMP - now the infamous corrupt bungling still racist and misogynist RCMP) were waiting in the wings with deadly force.

To protest the arrest of the strike leaders, thousands of workers converged on Market Square in downtown Winnipeg on June 21 whereupon they were read the Riot Act by the mayor, who then called on the North West Mounted Police to disperse the strikers. As the mounted police charged, the crowds scattered into alleyways and side streets off the square, where they were met by "special police" who had been deputised by the city during the strike. Armed with baseball bats and other weaponry provided by local retailers, the special police fought with strikers. During the ensuing chaos 30 strikers were injured, and two were killed, the day becoming known as “Bloody Saturday”.

With troops occupying streets the combined force of local government and the employers forced the strike to end on the 25th of June, six of the arrested strike leaders were released soon after. The remaining arrested men were convicted of "conspiracy to overthrow the government" and faced jail terms of six months to two years. Labour militancy continued to act as a strong force in Canada throughout the early 1920 and 30s, especially in the coalmines of Alberta and Nova Scotia where a series of confrontations broke out well into the 1930s. The labour movement eventually succumbed to the damage of anti-union campaigning, employers and government using the phoney Red Scare to discredit the unions, and many factory employers setting up shop committees, from where they could strictly monitor the activities of their employees.

For six weeks during the summer of 1919, the working class of Winnipeg withdrew their labour from their employers and participated in the largest strike action in Canadian labour history, with support in the form of strikes and protests occurring across the whole of Canada, involving hundreds of thousands of workers. Although defeated and demoralised, the strikers of Winnipeg who, instead of asking of their employers what was rightfully theirs, took strike action and demanded it, were instrumental in laying the foundations for the improvements in conditions, wages and union recognition rights which occurred in Canada over the next fifty years.

Winnipeg had witnessed a general strike the previous year, which had ended with a few paltry gains for workers. Unemployment was very high; wages were low and socio-economic conditions abysmal. Soldiers returning from Europe after World War I were met with the fact that while they had been risking their lives in the trenches for the colonial powers such as the British Empire, companies at home had been making large profits from war contracts. But in any war ask yourself, cui bono? It is never the working g classes and poor who fight, are maimed and die in these barbaric conflicts. With the exception of a few high ranking officers who are rarely in harm’s way, the ‘fortunate sons” of the wealthy classes rarely fight in these mass slaughters. [2]


                                                                       Thugs with bats in business suits

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 on what is now called “Bloody Saturday” was also the baptism of radicalism for a young teen by the name of Tommy Douglas who, along with his good friend Mark Talnicoff watched in shock from the top of a building as the peaceful demonstrations of the mean streets of Winnipeg turn into a disgraceful bloody assault on striking demonstrators. The attacks were led by the RCMP (then the NWMP), local business hired goon squads and invariably, as is the case today, stood as serve and protect representatives of the wealthy capitalist classes against workers.

One is also reminded of the 1931 coal miners' strike at Estevan Saskatchewan, witnessed by the 27 year old Tommy Douglas who was at the time pastor of a Baptist church in Weyburn while working on a graduate degree at the University of Chicago. He had decided to drive north in his jalopy to Estevan with donations he was able to gather from his parishioners. The wages of the coal miners had been driven down by the Great Depression to $1.60 a day, their working conditions were grueling and unsafe and their living conditions poverty stricken and dreadful in the company town. When Douglas arrived the miners were holding up placards and peacefully demonstrating while marching down the main street of town. What Douglas witnessed next was a contingent of RCMP officers charging the strikers on horseback with automatic weapons who then proceeded to open fire on the defenseless men. Several were killed and others injured. Of course no one was held accountable for the murders and none of this was ever taught in our top down sanitized high school history courses.

Douglas was shocked by what he witnessed in a country that he perceived to be democratic and just. As is the case today, it wasn’t democratic or just back then and, despite social justice gains made following the Second World War, it has regressed to that former state of gross economic inequality and injustice today. Appalling incidents of cruelty and injustice such as these were instrumental in his thoughts about leaving the church and entering politics. Canadians ought to be thankful that he made that decision because without this great Canadian we would very likely not have our government run universal health care, old age security or the Canada Pension Plan. These were all policies of the CCF/NDP long before they were introduced by a federal minority liberal government in the 1960s that was being persistently prodded by people like Douglas. Incidentally, the RCMP accumulated an 1100 page dossier on Douglas (who died in 1986) that his descendants are apparently still attempting to have released. Douglas was frequently referred to as “Tommy the Commie” by his right wing conservative and liberal political enemies (of which there were many) despite the fact that the CCF (later the NDP) social democrats and the Communist Party of Canada were bitter enemies. Social democratic parties never promoted revolution, only campaigning to nationalize certain sectors of the capitalist economy such as utilities, health care and banks. Their agenda was not to overturn the capitalist system but rather a reformist one, to put a human mask on the ugly rapacious uncaring monster of corporate capitalism.

Reform, as anyone with a few brain cells functioning can surely understand today, has not worked. In the past four decades of reactionary and now proto-fascist governments under tyrants like Donald Trump, most of the reforms and progressive advancements by socialists and social democrats in the form of government programs and taxing the rich have been removed or are in the process of being totally dismantled. It’s been a corporate oligarchic coup of what threadbare democracy we once enjoyed. We have reached the point at which eight multi-billionaires now have more wealth than half the world’s population. This disgraceful state of affairs did not happen by accident but rather has been the outcome of deliberate aforementioned far right wing reactionary policies, a counter-revolutionary assault that began in the mid to late 1970s and early 1980s with creeping corporate fascism led by extreme right wing politicos such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Canada’s Lyin’ Brian (Bag Man) Mulroney. Any advancement of the working classes that had been conceded grudgingly by the power elites and capitalist masters of mankind and was the direct result of decades of threats from below in the form of strikes, social unrest, dissent, anti-war and anti-racist demonstrations and violent confrontations on picket lines. It’s a history that has been either purposively omitted or whitewashed from our high school history courses. Even in the few elective history courses I opted at University included no labor history or any bottom up accounts whatsoever. Nothing has changed and the universities have been corporatized and reduced to anti-intellectual glorified training schools for the corporate world in the mind numbing banalities of marketing and business administration.

Revolution was certainly in the air during the Great Depression in Canada as Canada’s power elites were trembling in their jack boots. I highly recommend Pierre Berton’s excellent and disturbing history of the Great Depression in Canada. As unions were purged of their radical elements decades ago and have slowly disappeared or simply sold out, we are rapidly losing ground and heading for an economic, ecological and social abyss. Labor and other battles from below of the past century and a half will need to be fought all over again by the younger generations. If not they will have no future.

We need to wake up from our technologically induced mind destroying distractions and states of creeping solipsism. This is especially urgent for our young people who are facing grim futures if they don’t become politicized soon. If history has taught anything it is that power corrupts and it is never relinquished without a challenge. The corporatist sock puppet politicians of the so-called “democratic” states in the West will, as has always been the case, deploy surveillance, police, military, laws written to serve themselves, prisons and accompanying violence to protect multi-generational wealth and the predatory capitalist class of the 1% that finances their elections as against the masses of the 99%. So, be prepared to fight back with the same. There is strength in numbers but first we need to wake up to what is happening. Lose your cell phone, face book account and the idiocy of twitter blurbs.

The corrupt insatiable unredeemable global corporatist oligarchy must be destroyed. This hydra headed monster (and Donald Trump is merely one grotesque manifestation) simply cannot be reformed - as the events of the multi-trillion dollar 2008-09 bailouts of financial criminals made patently clear. It’s too late to reform a kamikaze capitalist global economic oligarchy. The planetary parasites are back in business with a vengeance. These greedy psychopathic corporate ghouls and their sock puppets in government (the current “masters of mankind”, as Adam Smith once aptly described them) will be meeting in their annual decadent Davos Switzerland extravaganzas planning out their private futures to plunder what’s left, making plans for how to divide up the spoils among themselves that still remain on our dying planet.



{1] Although labour history was never discussed, or even mentioned, in our air brushed conservative high school history classes that consistently praised the virtues of authoritarians and tyrants, many Canadians, from their own investigations, may be familiar with Canada's biggest ever strike, the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. [For an excellent account, read When the State Trembled: How A.J. Andrews and the Citizens' Committee Broke the Winnipeg General Strike] A few new books have been published to commemorate the famous Winnipeg Strike such as 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg Strike .It’s now out of print, but Norman Penner’s Winnipeg 1919: The Strikers' own History of the Winnipeg General Strike (1973) is a classic bottom up account of the right wing big business led oppression, propaganda, predictable Red Scares and violence.

[2] Despite this obvious fact, the Canadian Legion could consistently be counted on to crack skulls of their working class comrades, like the police, employed primarily, as they are today, as hired goons and gangsters for wealth, power and big business.





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