Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Winnipeg General Strike



In these troubled times, around the world people seem to be asking each other, how do we fight back against this madness?  In May, 1919 in Winnipeg, the working class answered this question by shutting down the city and running it themselves.

I was born in 1967, and for many people my age, who turned 13 in 1980 or so, I felt like I was growing up in the shadow of a massive, exciting, really earth-changing social movement that I had missed out on -- what we have come to refer to as "the Sixties" in shorthand.  But as I grew up and became more and more interested in history, I increasingly came to realize that the most significant period of earth-shattering social movement activity around the world that I missed, at least as far as the twentieth century goes, took place a half century before I was born, one hundred years ago, with this month, the month of May, of 1919, being an especially iconic moment of the period.

In many circles, particularly among labor history buffs, one-word place names are all that are needed to evoke historical battles in the ongoing, thousands-year-long struggle on planet Earth between the haves and the have-nots, also known as the class war or the class struggle.  Refer to cities like San Francisco or Seattle and people think of many things, but in certain circles, say the name of these cities and "General Strike" will be the first thought that comes to mind, the moment in the history of these cities when the class struggle was on, and most clearly defined, and the workers were, briefly, in complete control.  By the same token, in the annals of the global class struggle in the industrial era, if anyone outside of Canada knows anything about Canadian history it can be summed up in a word and a number:  Winnipeg, 1919.

Being born and raised in the US, there is an ingrained tendency to assume that the US and Canada, both being former British colonies in North America with a whole lot else in common, that history and the development of the societies in the two countries happened along similar lines.  This assumption is sometimes not at all accurate, but when it comes to the first two decades of the twentieth century there was a lot of parallel stuff going on.

Westward expansion in both countries with the building of the railroads had seen the rapid development of cities and towns throughout the west of North America.  As usual, it was often those who had the least to lose who were the most itinerant, so a huge number of the people moving out west were immigrants and refugees from across Europe.

With widespread poverty, brutal exploitation of workers, massive unemployment as well as a huge influx of immigrants, conditions were extreme in so many ways, across both the US and Canada.  Extreme conditions tend to invite more robust responses, and this was very evident at the time, in the form, on the one hand, of a visionary, hugely popular, radical labor movement, and on the other, a very violent, often obviously corrupt, openly racist, actively xenophobic, and "pro-business" police state.

This was the sociopolitical context in both the US and Canada for World War 1.  Afraid of the potential consequences, there was much disagreement within the ranks of the militant labor movement of the day over whether to openly oppose this war that would pit the working classes of Canada, the US, Britain, France, Russia and so many other countries against the working class youth of Germany, Austria-Hungary and elsewhere.  Ultimately, both the Industrial Workers of the World in the US and the organization's Canadian rendition, the One Big Union, denounced the war as a bosses' war.  They said "a bayonet was a weapon with a working man at either end."

One half of Canadian draft-age men got medical exemptions to avoid military service.  In many cases this was evidence of the unhealthy state of the Canadian working class of the day, so many of whom were suffering from blacklung or had other chronic health problems related to working in dangerous mines, factories, logging camps, lumber mills, and so on.  But it's more likely that this statistic was also evidence of the widespread opposition to the war.

In the months after the imperial bloodbath in Europe ended, the class war in Canada came to a head in Winnipeg.  Both national and local authorities were actively promoting nationalism and xenophobia in their dual effort to garner support for Canada's participation in the war and defeat the organizing efforts of the One Big Union.  Their claims that the union was led entirely by immigrants and that the veterans of the war opposed the union were bald lies, which were countered by huge rallies of immigrants together with Canadian-born Canadians, including large numbers of returning veterans.

When the ruling class in both Canada and the US decided it was time to initiate their deadly, nationally-coordinated efforts to defeat radical unionism and divide the working class along immigrant and non-immigrant lines and to whip up anti-union, nationalist hysteria in the wake of the terrible sacrifices made by so many hapless members of the Canadian working class during the so-called Great War, in the midst of unrelenting, ongoing repression and a continent-wide backdrop of racism, xenophobia and nationalism, backed into a corner, with the only real alternative being to roll over and play dead, the working class, led by the One Big Union, responded.

In Winnipeg, this response meant unionized and non-unionized workers walking off their jobs throughout the city, and staying off their jobs for over five weeks.  By the end, they had no food.  The labor movement of the day was very militant and well-organized, but terribly under-resourced and constantly under siege.  There was nothing close to the kind of strike fund that would have been needed, but the strike happened anyway, because there was no real alternative.  In the end, the forces of capitalism and repression won, killing strikers, starving them out, and forcing them back to work -- if they were lucky enough to get their jobs back.

Many of the basic demands of the working class in Winnipeg in 1919 were later won by future labor struggles, and by political reformers elected to parliament from the ranks of strike leaders in the years after the Winnipeg General Strike.  But far more than those substantial victories that came later, it is the total solidarity of basically the entire working class of the city of Winnipeg in the very physical form of the shutdown and takeover of the entire city by the workers, that will long be remembered as the moment when the working class truly stood up.

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