by Kirk Niergarth
The Calgary Freight Handlers strike of 1918 was a precursor and inspiration to the General Strikes of the following year.
At the end of the First World War, with wages failing to keep pace with rising costs, Calgary workers organized to achieve change both electorally and in the workplace. Labour candidates, Andrew Broatch and Alex Ross, won city council and MLA seats respectively in 1917. 1918 witnessed a wave of organizing new unions and growing established ones. New union locals were formed in 1918 among teamsters, expressmen, retail clerks, telephone linemen, and street railwaymen.
Workers proved willing to strike for collective bargaining rights and improved wages and conditions. Beginning in March of 1918, hotel and restaurant employees struck for six weeks with the backing of the Calgary Trades and Labour Council (CTLC). The threat that this strike might lead to a general strike led employers to settle, gaining workers both union recognition and a wage increase.
During the summer of 1918, Calgary painters, carpenters, teamsters, letter carriers, postal clerks, retail clerks, telephone linemen, laundry workers, and civic employees all struck for higher wages. Such widespread militancy would be tested when the city’s railway freight handlers struck in September.
The federal government intervened in railway labour relations to ensure a smoothly functioning transportation system during the war. On 2 September 1918, the government railway board imposed a settlement on western Canadian rail workers, led by Calgarian R. J. Tallon, that largely matched concessions earlier granted to American workers. Excluded was the Western International Brotherhood of Railway Clerks, Storemen and Freighthandlers which the board rejected as a legitimate union. The union was in the process of signing up Calgary freight handlers who were 90% unorganized.
The conflict in Calgary began when a superintendent, D.C. Coleman, fired a shed checker who was also a union organizer and replaced him without honouring the customary seniority system. When a delegation of workers approached Coleman to reconsider his arbitrary decisions, he told them to “work or get off the premises.” They took the latter option and the Calgary freight handlers’ strike had begun.
On 28 September Tallon addressed a mass meeting of striking freight handlers and promised that Calgary unionists unanimously supported them and would walk out in sympathy to defend workers’ “rights against profiteering corporations.” By 4 October, preparations for a general strike were underway. The newly established strike committee decided to only call out unions as “necessary to the situation” but 19 of the 21 Calgary locals that took a vote voted to strike.
On 5 October, Calgary machinists, pipefitters, blacksmiths, boilermakers, carmen, and electricians downed tools. Most of the city’s trades unionists awaited the call to join them. Labour councils in other cities promised support.
The federal government dispatched Director of Public Safety, C.H. Carvall, to put a lid on the situation. His first tactic was repression. On 16 October, five strike leaders from Ogden shops were arrested by the RNWMP for violating the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act (IDIA), federal legislation that imposed compulsory mediation before workers in essential industries could strike. Carvall also brought to CLTC’s attention new orders-in-council that banned strikes in wartime and imposed stiff penalties on union leaders who violated them.
Government intimidation threatened to break the strike. After the arrests, several locals including sheet metal workers, stonecutters, and plasterers withdrew their support. In response, the strike committee called on the city employees and street railwaymen to honour their vote and support the strike. On 19 October, streetcars were returned to the depot, shutting down a vital part of public transportation.
The Calgary Herald denounced labour’s “Kaiser-like tactics” and labelled Alderman Broatch a “fascist” for his support of the striking workers. Foreshadowing events of 1919, the Herald called for the formation of a “citizens’ committee” to break the strike and obstruct the “volcano of class reign.”
Nonetheless, the federal government decided that the carrot might succeed where the stick had failed. The arrested workers were released with charges dismissed and the issues in question handed to the Railway Board for arbitration. While scolding Calgary workers for acting in an “unbusinesslike and unstable manner” and reasserting management rights over production, the Board granted freight handlers the same wartime increase as other railway workers, backdated to May 1918. All strikers were to be returned to work without discrimination. By 23 October, the strike was over.-For the freight handlers, it was a victory.1
1 The above account is drawn from David Bright, The Limits of Labour: Class Formation and the Labour Movement in Calgary, 1883-1929 (Vancouver, 1998), 147-150; Warren Caragata, Alberta Labour: A Heritage Untold (Toronto, 1979), 66-67; Elizabeth Taraska, “The Calgary Craft Union Movement, 1900-1920,” M.A. Thesis, University of Calgary, 1975, 63-69; and The Labour Gazette (December 1918) 974, 1098-9. Thanks to Mikhail Bjorge for locating this last source.