May 15 Bloodshed in the Streets

May 15, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1919.

That was the day the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council called a general strike. 

It is considered one of the most important strikes in Canadian history. 

Social tensions intensified as soldiers returned home in search of work, only to find skyrocketing unemployment and inflation. 

In Winnipeg, building trades and metal workers attempted to organize and bargain as an umbrella organization.

They walked off the job at the beginning of May, appealing to the city’s unions for support.

On this day in 1919, some 30,000 workers walked off the job, starting with women telephone operators. 

The general strike had begun. 

Union and non-union workers alike heeded the call. 

Factories shut down. 

Public services came to a halt, including transit, mail service and utilities. 

Having lost most of their workers to the strike, newspapers quickly branded strikers as Bolsheviks, depicting them as bomb throwers in cartoons. 

Winnipeg’s bosses formed the Citizens Committee of 1000 and declared the general strike a conspiracy led by “alien scum.”

When the police sided with strikers, they were fired and replaced in their entirety by ‘Specials,’ used to break the strike.

Workers were intransigent and by the middle of June, the federal government ordered the arrest of strike leaders.

When tens of thousands of workers gathered on June 21 for a demonstration at Market Square, they were charged at by Royal Mounted Police, armed with clubs and guns.

Two strikers were killed and scores more were injured in what is known as Bloody Saturday.

Winnipeg was under military occupation and the strike ended in heavy losses for workers.

But many strike leaders won regional political elections the following year, defeating the very forces that smashed their strike.

 

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