CBC INTERACTIVE HAS A COMPREHENSIVE SITE CELEBRATING WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE
Workers' demands for rights and a living wage shook the nation over 42 days in 1919
By Darren Bernhardt
May 15, 2019
The lineups were agonizingly long for the few jobs available in 1919 Winnipeg, a city teeming with a ballooning population and choked by factory smokestacks.
Afraid of losing what jobs they could get, many workers suffered through dirty, dangerous conditions and long days.
Inflation was skyrocketing and so was unemployment as Winnipeg exploded into the third-largest city in Canada, drawing in thousands of immigrants who also made it the most ethnically diverse city in the country.
These were the conditions that set the stage for the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, an upheaval that brought few immediate gains but seeded the change that resulted in modern workers' rights.
"It was the most dramatic single event in Canadian labour history," author Donald D.C. Masters wrote in his book The Winnipeg General Strike.
The cost of living had gone up 75 per cent between 1913 and 1919. The average pay was $900 per year, yet it was estimated that $1,500 was needed to feed a family.
A large number of newcomers, hoping for a better life, instead found themselves salvaging scraps of wood and metal to slap together shacks in growing city slums.
"There were many impoverished people in Winnipeg. I think for many Canadians, it would be shocking to see those conditions," historian and strike expert Nolan Reilly said.
But something else also was taking root and beginning to flourish in Winnipeg —the union movement.
From 1900 to 1920, the number of unions in the city tripled and demands for a better life for workers steadily grew, said author Paul Moist, a former national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
"Life was hard for the average working-class family in Winnipeg. The general strike gave voice to the frustration felt by many," he said.
"The solidarity of the city’s workers, and their decision to elect strike leaders to a range of public offices, would forever alter and define the geopolitical map of the city."
In Winnipeg in 1917, more days of work were lost to strikes than in the previous four years combined, Moist said.
And while there were gains for workers, they were modest — a few extra cents in pay.