One little girl got into trouble and her baby was born three months after she was married. That baby was only four pounds in weight because the girl was almost starved to death… That little girl’s baby died on the 14th of this month from malnutrition or starvation… if they ask us ‘Are we in favour of a bloody revolution?’ Why, any kind of revolution would be better than conditions as they are now.”
So testified Calgary laundry worker Jean McWilliams in early May 1919 before the Commission to Inquire into and Report upon Industrial Relations in Canada, chaired by Thomas Graham Mathers, Chief Justice of Manitoba. Prime Minister Robert Borden had established the commission that March in reply to wartime and post-war labour unrest. Just weeks afterwards, McWilliams would become a key organizer of the month-long Calgary General Strike. As May ended, over 10,000 workers in a largely agricultural province of fewer than 600,000 residents were on strike. They included 6,500 coal miners, many striking in solidarity with British Columbia miners demanding restoration of pay cuts that left them unable to feed their families.
Miners in both provinces voted overwhelmingly to join the One Big Union (OBU), a radical new organization sanctioned by the Western Labour Conference in March. The OBU argued that when workers for one employer struck, all workers should strike in solidarity. That would supposedly influence all employers to pressure a recalcitrant capitalist to capitulate. Eventually, it was thought, the philosophy of “an injury to one is an injury to all” would lead workers to overthrow the capitalist system altogether, either at the ballot box or through revolutionary workplace activity. Solidarity strikes involving all workers in a particular city or in one industry across provincial boundaries were termed “general strikes.”
May 15, 1919: In this cauldron of misery, the workers of Winnipeg—some 30,000 men and women, most of the city’s labour force—struck.
International, national and local factors contributed to revolutionary fervour in Alberta cities and coal mines in mid-1919. Disruptions produced by the Great War of 1914–1918 were immediately responsible, but the anger had deeper roots in working-class unrest that the rise of industrial capitalism had already engendered for a century. Socialists regarded the First World War as a slugfest of competing Western capitalists for control over Asia, Africa and central Europe, using workers as cannon fodder. While nationalism among workers in warring countries blunted that critique in 1914, its popularity grew as the war prolonged. Fighting killed 16 million people, with even more perishing from the “Spanish flu” that spread quickly as soldiers returned home. Wartime inflation devastated workers, who increasingly attributed it to capitalist superprofits from selling munitions and provisioning armies. Workers suffering while others prospered provoked the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the German revolt that forced the Kaiser to flee Germany in 1918 and yield power to the Social Democratic leaders.
In Alberta, war created labour shortages. Many workers, previously afraid to union-ize or strike because employers routinely dismissed non-submissive workers, organ-ized and went on strikes, including general strikes, for wage increases. Strikes accounted for 600,000 workdays in Alberta from January 1, 1917, to June 30, 1919. The Hillcrest coal mine explosion of 1914, which cost 189 lives, ensured that Alberta’s militant miners would ignore government warnings that wartime strikes were treasonous. Though a coroner’s inquest concluded that Hillcrest operators had violated Coal Mines Act regulations, no charges followed. Miners understood that only militancy could protect them against profit-obsessed mine owners. Continual strikes in 1916 and 1917 forced the federal government to seize temporary ownership from mine owners and then appease miner demands to keep the mines running.
In January 1918 Edmonton City Council moved to appoint an outsider as city fire chief, ignoring a tradition of naming the senior city firefighter to the position. When 17 union locals voted to strike in solidarity with the firemen, the council rescinded that decision. In September 1918 the federal government made a similar turnaround, dropping a threat to legislate striking freight handlers back to work after half of Calgary unionists joined a solidarity strike called by the Calgary Trades and Labour Council (CTLC). Edmonton’s Trades and Labour Council also endorsed a sympathy strike with striking railworkers that accelerated a negotiated settlement.
Such victories dismayed governments and employers who feared that workers’ power exercised through general strikes would weaken the capitalist system. The response was repressive measures meant both to suppress radical organizations and sow division between British-origin and other workers. In September and October 1918 alone, the wartime federal cabinet banned publications in “enemy languages,” declared 14 radical organizations illegal and prohibited strikes and lockouts. The “syndicalist” Industrial Workers of the World—long-time advocates of solidarity strikes—and socialist ethnic organizations were the main targets of repression. Past membership in banned organizations became sufficient excuse for arrest and imprisonment. At war’s end, the government quickly doubled its “national security” personnel and revised its immigration laws to exclude citizens of enemy countries and individuals deemed potential radicals. Radicals without citizenship were deported.
But the successes of threatened general strikes during wartime alongside continuing class inequalities emboldened many workers to resist government and employer repression. The miner-dominated Alberta Federation of Labour convention of January 1919 voted “full accord and sympathy with the aims and purposes of the Russian and German revolutions.” Organized workers were angry that Canada had joined the US, Britain and France in rerouting troops from the former German front to support deposed Russian elites attempting to oust the Communist government and restore the czarist regime.
“Mrs. George Corse,” a worker, mother of six children, and a representative of the CTLC, outlined to the Mathers Commission the conditions that were creating revolutionary sentiment. Though she opposed revolution, Corse believed that governments must implement sweeping reforms. She had helped to investigate working conditions of female employees of Calgary stores, restaurants and hotels after a strike in 1918 of cooks and waitresses. Employers were ignoring the nine dollars per week minimum wage for women, a wage that would barely cover rent for a single woman.
“Girls in Calgary are working in places which have not sanitary accommodation all day long and there is absolutely nothing done about it, and that is one of the reasons why there is so much unrest among the women. Almost every day, women are being added to the ranks of, shall I say, the socialist party or those with socialist inclinations. We mothers find it is practically impossible to dress our children and to give them the education we feel they should have, on the money our husbands can earn. I myself… have taken my two eldest boys from school and put them to work, simply because I could not keep them at school out of my husband’s earnings.”
Her rent had recently risen from $15 to $25 a month and heating and food costs rose similarly while wages barely budged.
A Labour member of the Calgary School Board, Corse lamented that only 6 per cent of Calgary children reached high school. Post-war unemployment made things worse. The federal government was doing little to transition the economy from wartime to peacetime. As munitions factories closed and troops were sent home, unemployment was soaring. Unemployed, unskilled labourers could not send their children to school because they could not afford clothes and boots for them. “Then again we find the terrible dread of the future, the working man is… unable to provide anything for his future, he is unable to provide for sickness.”
On May 15, 1919, in this cauldron of misery, the workers of Winnipeg struck a major blow for worker solidarity. Metal workers and construction workers who wanted industry-wide bargaining met with resistance from employers who insisted on trade-by-trade negotiations. These workers decided to strike and asked other Winnipeg unionists to launch a solidarity strike. That meant potentially a strike of 12,000 workers. But to everyone’s surprise, some 30,000 men and women struck, most of the city’s labour force. The Strike Committee co-operated with the municipal council and authorized essential workers to continue their labour. But the city’s capitalists, angered that workers played any role in deciding who would work, united to demand that the federal government use military force to end a largely peaceful six-week strike. Non-unionized female and male workers alike spontaneously joined the strike in the hope that such solidarity would force employers to allow even easily replaceable workers to unionize and live with dignity.
The Winnipeg General Strike inspired solidarity strikes across Canada. In each case workers believed that victory for the Winnipeg workers would lead to gains for themselves. Outside Winnipeg the strikes were generally limited to unionists, since other workers feared employer retribution in the face of rising unemployment. General strikes called by the local trades and labour councils lasted from May 26 to June 25 in Edmonton and Calgary. Lethbridge and Medicine Hat unionists also voted overwhelmingly to strike, but their leaders stalled. In Edmonton, with 66,000 residents, about 2,000 workers—over half the city’s unionized labour force—was on strike for all or part of the general strike. In Calgary over 1,500 workers in a city of 72,000 souls participated. In both cities, municipal employees initially joined the walkouts, but returned to work when their mayors vowed to fire all who failed to do so immediately. Southern Alberta’s miners, already on strike before the Winnipeg strike began, remained on strike for several months. Some were starved into submission, while Drumheller miners were dragged back to work with threats of being hanged if they rejoined the strike. Though 95 per cent of miners in District 18 of the United Mine Workers of America (which included most miners from BC to Saskatchewan) voted to join the OBU, the federal government ordered them to remain in the UMWA, whose leaders had co-operated with mine owners and the government against member wishes.
Drumheller miners were dragged back to work with threats of being hanged if they rejoined the strike. Union leaders had co-operated with mine owners.
The Winnipeg General Strike ended after the North-West Mounted Police violently attacked strikers at a pro-strike veterans gathering. The government had prohibited striker demonstrations. With two men dead and many others injured, strike leaders called off the strike. Sympathy strikes in other cities soon ended as well. Attention turned to campaigns to protest government efforts to prosecute the more radical Winnipeg leaders.
Before and after the strikes, the workers’ movement was riven with divisions between reformists and revolutionaries. Reformists believed that unionizing workers and electing labour-friendly legislators would change the capitalist system sufficiently to make it palatable. Revolutionaries regarded capitalism as psychopathy that needed to be ended in favour of either state socialism, as Communists argued, or a grassroots worker-controlled economy, extolled by anarchists. The majority of prairie workers voted to join the OBU before a combination of state, employer and trade union leaders collaborated to remove that option for most workers. In Alberta, however, the pro-OBU majority was small and dependent upon the miners.
In 1921, in Alberta’s first post-strike election, four Labour members were elected, including Philip Martin Christophers, a revolutionary Crowsnest miner who had been an OBU organizer, and Alex Ross, an anti-OBU Calgary stonemason whom the new United Farmers of Alberta included in their cabinet to represent workers.
Over the next 14 years, before Social Credit obliterated both Labour and the UFA, tensions among workers regarding co-operation with the austerity-minded UFA persisted. Similar debates endure in Alberta to this day regarding whether the labour movement should engage in permanent efforts to organize and mobilize workers, or simply count on its NDP friends to represent worker interests quietly in the legislature. Some worker-friendly legislation has been won over time, thanks to worker militancy. But the uprisings of 1919 still serve as a reminder of the bleak prospects for workers when unfettered capitalism reigns.
Alvin Finkel is president of the Alberta Labour History Institute and author of Compassion: A Global History of Social Policy.