The seeds of the May-June 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, one of the most important political and social upheavals in the history of Winnipeg and Canada, were sown many years earlier; ironically, immediately after striking workers had won concessions. Reverends Joseph Sparling, the principal of Wesley College, and William Patrick, the principal of Manitoba College, successfully arbitrated a dispute between the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company (WERC) and its striking motormen and conductors. Due to their efforts, “the greatest and most exciting strike in the history of Winnipeg ... (ended) on Saturday afternoon (April 7, 1906),” reported the Morning Telegram, “much to the relief of the directors of the street railway company, the men concerned in the dispute, and, by no means least of all, to the satisfaction of the public in general. It was a weary nine days for all concerned.”
Fred Fay, the Detroit, Michigan, representative sent to Winnipeg to oversee the strike action by the Amalgamation of Steel and Electric Railway Employees’ of America, told the media: “There is now no city in our jurisdiction in which there is any trouble of any kind between men and employees.” But another streetcar strike, which was more bitter than Winnipeg’s, erupted in November 1906 in Hamilton. As in Winnipeg, the strikers gained a great deal of public sympathy, strikebreakers were enlisted by the company and intense rioting raged on the streets.
Hamilton Mayor S.D. Biggar read out the Riot Act and then mounted militia followed by foot troops imported from Toronto charged demonstrators, injuring about 200 people, 50 severely — a harbinger of the charge by the Royal North West Mounted Police (now RCMP) into the crowds gathered on Main Street during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. The Hamilton strike ended when the company agreed to union recognition, but not a requested wage hike.
An editorial in the Free Press on April 9 said the Winnipeg streetcar strike should not have been required for the company to come to an agreement with its employees. It chastised the WERC for not having been willing to go to arbitration and thus avoid the strike. The editorial continued by noting the main feature of the strike was “the manifest sympathy of the general public with the men, and the manner in which the men, by their orderly, law-abiding behavior, were careful not to forfeit that sympathy. That this general public sympathy was due to the refusal of the Company to arbitrate is unquestionable.”
The group which learned the most from the 1906 streetcar strike was the business elite, which retrenched to prevent any further worker inroads. After the workers’ partial victory in the streetcar strike, other means to combat workers’ demands were developed. Less than a month after the streetcar operators and conductors walked out, a hard line was adopted by the management of the Vulcan Ironworks against its striking employees. Vulcan owners Leonard R. Barrett and his brother, Edward G. Barrett, were extremely hostile to labour, professing a divine right to run the company without union interference. L.R. Barrett said, “God gave me this plant, and by God I’ll run it the way I want to!”
Frustrated by weeks of futile negotiations, the plant’s moulders went on strike on May 18. Vulcan’s machinist and blacksmiths presented their own demands and issued an ultimatum calling upon the company to immediately reply. The workers were subsequently informed by management that the plant was closed. After the lock-out, the three unions set up a joint committee to negotiate with the company. The company expressed willingness to discuss wage demands, but adamantly refused to hold talks with union representatives. Subsequently, Vulcan declared itself to be an “open shop” free from unions.
For the first time in Winnipeg’s history, the company then enlisted the help of the court and obtained an injunction against the striking workers, prohibiting them from picketing in the vicinity of the plant. The court ruling removed a very public display of solidarity which may have united Winnipeggers to the workers’ cause as was the case during the streetcar strike. For the company, the absence of a picket line meant the unhindered passage of strikebreakers into the iron works and the company being able to maintain “business as usual.”
Meanwhile, sympathy strikes ordered by union organizers for the Northern Iron Works and the Manitoba Iron Works were quickly settled with workers gaining a 2.5-cent an hour wage increase. The management of the two iron works sought a quick resolution to the disputes with their workers in order to fulfill pressing contract obligations.
Two months into the strike, the Winnipeg Trades Council held a meeting during which a motion was passed declaring Vulcan as “unfair to organized labour.” The motion resulted from Vulcan’s refusal to negotiate with its striking workers as well as the company’s importation of strikebreakers from Eastern Canada and the United States.
By the end of July, the strike was over. “The unions had been thoroughly whipped and the men found themselves competing with strikebreakers to regain their old jobs,” wrote David Jay Bercuson in his 1990 book, Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike. “The Vulcan Iron Works strike-lockout of 1906 set a pattern for labour-management relations in the city’s contract shops that was to be followed for the next thirteen years. As with the streetcar strike both sides wanted a showdown; but in this case the union was not yet strong enough to take on this most obstinate of employers and suffered humiliating defeat.”
Vulcan continued its pressure against the unionization of its workers. “This is a free country,” said company president E.G. Barrett, “and as far as we are concerned the day will never come when we will have to take orders from any union.”
With the help of the court, Vulcan was able to defeat worker strikes in 1906, 1917 and 1918. But following a long period of festering tensions between employers and employees — including Vulcan and the Metal Trades Council — hired special constables, police and the militia would again clash with crowds during the general strike of May-June 1919. The unions decisively lost the general strike, but learned the lesson to seek more political power, and subsequently elected labour members to the city, provincial and federal governments.
But similar to the immediate aftermath of the 1919 strike, unions are today losing ground. Not so much at the hands of employers, but through the might of the federal government, which has shown its willingness to continually invoke back-to-work legislation to break their collective power.