It remains the most important date in the history of Canadian workers to date. On that day, 35,000 Winnipeg workers, only one third of them unionized, went on strike in solidarity with the city’s metal and construction trades workers who had been striking since May 1 for the right to bargain collectively with employers in their trade. The employers, themselves negotiating as a bloc, refused, insisting that
they would only negotiate with individual trades. They wanted to keep their workers divided so as to keep them weak relative to the united employer class.
The day began with the non-unionized telephone operators, the “hello girls,” declaring their support for the strike and refusing to work despite employer threats to fire anyone who joined the strike. Later, the “salesgirls” at Eaton’s and other stores, all non-unionized, as well as a variety of other non-unionized workers in the public and private sectors joined the unions in withholding their labour. In a city of about 180,000, a majority of families counted someone who was on strike.
A Strike Committee was formed to liaise with Winnipeg city council and the mayor about what essential services would be offered in Winnipeg while the workers continued their strike for just treatment of all
workers. At the council’s request, the Strike Committee agreed that vehicles used by workers deemed essential would be marked “Authorized by the Strike Committee” so that strikers would not see them as scabs and perhaps harass them. The so-called Citizens’ Committee of 1000, which formed to represent the interests of the city’s bourgeoisie of owners and professionals, would later distort that label to suggest that the Strike Committee had usurped power to run the city from the city council. The employers were determined to give no concessions to the striking workers and indeed to break the back of unionism in Winnipeg. That would cause the Winnipeg strikers to call for general strikes in other cities in solidarity with the Winnipeg workers.
The Winnipeg General Strike was the culmination of the frustration that most workers felt in the face of postwar unemployment accompanied by a continuation of the inflation that they experienced in wartime while their pay rates barely rose. They had managed a successful, short general strike in 1918 in the city and won concessions during a time when labour shortages and war needs weakened the position of employers. The Socialist Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World were all strong in Winnipeg and held huge public meetings to extol the idea of the One Big Union, an organization that would unite all workers and turn every strike into a general strike in order to strike fear into the hearts of greedy employers. The sense that World War I was a war of rival imperialists, not a just war, and that only capitalists had gained anything from it, all at the expense of
working people, and continuing poverty, insecurity, and poor working conditions combined with the organizing skills of radicals persuaded most working Winnipegers that they had to take a public stand for social justice for workers.
The strike would be broken by brute state force on Bloody Saturday on June 21, 1919. But on May 15, there was a feeling of exhilaration among Winnipeg workers. They were standing shoulder to shoulder in an effort to tell their employers that they wanted either serious reforms to capital-labour relations or an end to capitalism altogether. They did not want to return to work until wage slavery had been replaced by an economy in which workers had dignity, security, and a say in how their workplace was run.