Unifor is proud to commemorate the longest general strike in Canadian history, which began one hundred years ago today in Winnipeg, on May 15, 1919. The first to walk out were the ‘Hello Girls’ – Winnipeg’s telephone operators. By 11 a.m., 30,000 union and non-union workers had gone on strike.
“It was a remarkable show of solidarity among workers,” said Joie Warnock, Unifor Western Regional Director, “especially when you consider that Winnipeg’s population was only 200,000.”
At the time, there was massive unemployment. Thousands of soldiers had returned from World War 1 and could not find a job. Those who did, including many immigrants, toiled for long hours, in deplorable conditions. The cost of food had gone sky high due to inflation, and it became harder and harder for the middle class to make ends meet.
The strike forced the city’s factories to close, retail trade was crippled and even the trains stopped. Public sector workers joined in the walkout, including the police, fire fighters, postal workers and employees of the utilities, in an impressive display of solidarity.
The strike began peacefully, but by June, a heatwave was choking the city and the conflict had turned into a pressure cooker. On June 21, a protest parade turned into a riot. A scab police force and government troops clashed with the workers in a day that went down in the history books as Bloody Saturday. Two demonstrators were killed, 34 wounded and 80 more were arrested. Strike leaders were sent to jail and dozens of immigrants were deported.
The strike ended but Canada’s labour movement was forever changed. It sparked a new era in workers’ rights and had a profound impact on the development of the labour laws and reforms.
The aftermath saw implementation of a minimum wage, improved workplace health and safety laws, employment standards, and eventually many of the labour rights we have today. It was also a catalyst for strengthened labour-oriented political parties, first with the Canadian Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and then with the New Democratic Party (NDP).
During May, Unifor will celebrate this significant anniversary, along with labour leaders from across the country. If you live in Winnipeg, join us at some of the public events, including a parade on May 25. For more info click here.