This weekend, a broad coalition of workers, women’s rights activists, human rights workers, immigrant groups, LGBTQ activists, union leaders and more will march through the streets of Winnipeg commemorating the transformation of this country that began in those same streets a century ago.
The Winnipeg General Strike began when the city’s telephone operators – all women and ununionized - walked off the job. Within hours, they were joined by more than 30,000 union and non-union workers demanding better pay and working conditions.
The First World War had just ended. The huge profits made by companies feeding the war effort had not made their way to the streets where working class families worked and lived. Jobs, when they could be found, paid badly and the conditions were dangerous.
Soldiers returning from the war joined the strike. They were angry that they had fought for their country, but their country could offer them nothing more than a life of poverty and hardship.
"In Germany, I fed on grass and rats. I would prefer going back to eating grass than give up the freedom for which I fought so hard and suffered so much," wrote a war veteran, in the striking workers newspaper.
As the strike grew, the city began to shut down. A strike committee effectively ran the city, ensuring essential services were provided without threatening the viability of the strike.
Their employers were not listening to their pleas. The government was only listening to the bosses, and the strike was put down, violently, after six weeks, but its impact and importance are still being felt a century later.
The fact is, the strike came close to succeeding - so close, in fact, that the state felt compelled to shut it down by force and death. The strike represented a broad coalition of working women and men, immigrants, skilled and unskilled workers, union and non-union, and returning soldiers. Each of them recognized that their enemy was not each other, but greedy employers and governments that did their bidding.
Such a coalition was unthinkable to many at the time, and presented a real threat to the status quo - not only a deeply unequal economic system, but the labour movement itself.
In 1919, it was not common for skilled workers and unskilled to work together. In fact, big labour at the time opposed the strike. Dominated by big international unions, the federations were threatened by a grassroots movement such as the Winnipeg Strike. Its roots in a broad coalition of all workers of all races was a direct challenge to their emphasis on skilled trades and often racist and sexist policies.
In Winnipeg, workers not only stood together, but brought in more groups, including immigrants, women and returning soldiers.
Their message was heard by other workers, who held sympathy strikes across Canada. The Winnipeg Strike even gained international attention, inspiring workers around the world about the possibilities of true solidarity.
Their demands would form the basis of the labour movement in Canada for generations to come. The hard lessons learned in the streets of Winnipeg would inform the leaders who emerged from the strike to continue to fight for workers’ rights and a better life for their families.
In the end, it would be another 30 years, another war and another generation of the working class returning from that war, for things to start getting better.
The strike and its roots remain an inspiration to us today. Our strength is not in each of us pursuing our own interests, but in standing together across a broad coalition and standing for the common good - and for as long as it takes, despite whatever the bosses and/or governments throw at us.
This is why Unifor works so hard to ensure that women, racialized communities, LGBTQ people, the disabled, young workers and other groups seeking equity become strong and leading voices in our union and across the labour movement.
If Winnipeg proved anything, it is that true strength and real change is only possible when we decide to fight and we stand together.