Confrontation at Winnipeg

Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike

David Jay Bercuson
Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Confrontation at Winnipeg
    Book Description:

    Why was Winnipeg the scene of the longest and most complete general strike in North American history? Bercuson answers this question by examining the development of union labour and the impact of depression and war in the two decades preceding the strike.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-6267-7
    Subjects: Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface to the Revised Edition
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. 1. The Early Years
    (pp. 1-21)

    Had it not been for the railways, Winnipeg might have remained a small prairie town nestled in the arms of the Red and the Assiniboine rivers. Pierre Gaultier, Sieur de la Vérendrye, established Fort Rouge with the help of his sons on the present site of Winnipeg during his explorations in the fall of 1739. From those first days the settlement was meant to be both a junction and the link of a chain; it lay astride Indian trails from the south to Lake Winnipeg and joined a string of French fur-trading posts stretching from the Great Lakes to the...

  6. 2. The Depths of Depression
    (pp. 22-31)

    The most direct cause of the depression of 1913 was the latest in a series of power struggles centred in the Balkans. The wars of 1912 and 1913 channelled the heavy flow of British investment capital away from Canada, and the millions of pounds sterling which had financed railways, towns, industries, and grain elevators were converted into machines of war. The escalator of rising prices and heavy demand halted abruptly, as rural and urban land values tumbled, construction sagged, wheat prices dropped, wages fell, and unemployment began to climb rapidly. The “boom or bust” mentality of Winnipeg and the west...

  7. 3. The Trials of War
    (pp. 32-44)

    Since the outbreak of war the central government had assumed an increasingly important role in the daily lives of most Canadians. Through its assumption of emergency powers under the War Measures Act the task of mobilizing the nation’s industries, as well as its manpower, fell almost exclusively upon Ottawa. The distribution and separation of powers established by the British North America Act virtually disappeared. Under these circumstances many of the complex problems faced by workers throughout the country fell to the federal government to solve. Its inability to control the runaway inflation that began to erode most workers’ living standards,...

  8. 4. Injunction City
    (pp. 45-57)

    After eighteen months of war Manitoba, along with the rest of the country, began to experience a labour shortage. The recruiting campaigns, the general stimulus given to the economy by mobilization, and the increase of munitions production in Winnipeg melted unemployment away and put a premium on skilled craftsmanship. The unions were quick to feel the changing pulse in the labour market and knew that a shortage of industrial manpower would give them considerable leverage in their fight to organize Canadian workers.

    Membership drives helped create a new militancy in labour circles. In the days before the automatic check-off and...

  9. 5. The Triumph of Radicalism
    (pp. 58-77)

    In April 1918 teamsters, electrical workers, water works employees, and office workers of the city of Winnipeg approached the municipal administration for wage increases. Civic authorities held that a new schedule would freeze inflated wartime pay scales at an artificially high level but offered a bonus designed to tide their employees over until peacetime, when new wages could be negotiated. This proposition was totally unacceptable to the unions even though the grants came close to matching the workers’ financial demands. The bonus itself became the main issue and neither side showed any desire to compromise. On May 7 the electricians,...

  10. 6. Socialists and Soldiers
    (pp. 78-89)

    The thirty-fourth annual convention of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada opened at Quebec City on September 16, 1918. The meeting witnessed a mounting assault by western delegates against TLC policies and its connection with international unions and the American Federation of Labor. Western representatives, armed with resolutions expressing concern over government censorship, the jailing of war opponents, and Congress war policies were beaten back again and again. Resolutions calling for a reorganization of the Trades Congress along industrial lines met a similar fate; and to add final insult, James Walters, socialist and westerner, was ousted from the presidency...

  11. 7. The One Big Union
    (pp. 90-102)

    A grey and sombre atmosphere hung heavily over the Russian capital of Petrograd in the first days of November 1917. The weather, damp and cool, robbed the city of its colour and provided an appropriate setting for the foreboding which permeated the capital. The government of Alexander Feodorovitch Kerensky, which had come to power upon the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in March, was on the verge of collapse. The Bolshevik section of the Russian Social Democratic Party, led by a small group of determined revolutionaries including Vladimir Ulyanov, known to the world as Lenin, and Lev Bronstein, who used...

  12. 8. Towards the Brink
    (pp. 103-114)

    By January 1919 the tremors of social upheaval were shaking a significant part of the globe. The western democracies were not immune to fears and hatreds that had set almost half a world aflame with execution, assassination, and revolution. The end of the Great War had not ushered in the New Jerusalem that many had worked and fought for but, instead, unleashed pent-up forces seeking rapid changes in the world order. In Canada events which had begun the previous year were yet to reach their fruition. The increasingly serious nature of industrial confrontation forced men to seek new solutions to...

  13. 9. Battling for the Lord: May 15-29
    (pp. 115-141)

    The Winnipeg general strike began quietly in the early hours of Thursday, May 15, 1919. Most of the city’s population was sleeping as five hundred telephone operators in Winnipeg’s five central exchanges left work at the end of each shift. There was little unusual about their departure, except that no one came in to replace them at the switchboards as the night wore on. When the last shift punched out at 7:00 A.M. Thursday morning, no one was left to operate the telephone system in Canada’s third-largest city. It was almost as though Alexander Graham Bell had never existed.


  14. 10. Impasse: May 30-June 16
    (pp. 142-162)

    Veterans of the Canadian Expeditionary Force played an increasingly important role in the economic and political life of Winnipeg in the months preceding the general strike and continued, in the two weeks following May 15, to participate as individuals, without particular identification with the strikers or their opponents. The Citizens’ Committee and the General Strike Committee recognized the vital importance of veteran support to their cause, however, and worked hard during the first days of the strike to get the returned men to stand up and be counted. It appears that the strikers were, on the whole, more successful. The...

  15. 11. Defeat
    (pp. 163-175)

    The decision to imprison the strike leaders was not made without a good deal of planning and was timed to coincide with the climax of the mediation proceedings. As early as May 26, General Ketchen told his superiors in Ottawa that he thought the bottom could be knocked out of the strike by taking the leadership into custody.¹ A.J. Andrews agreed with him, and was particularly angered at the apparent impotence of federal immigration laws when James Duncan arrived in the city. He tried to get immigration authorities to stop Duncan, but was told they could do nothing under existing...

  16. 12. Confrontation in Retrospect
    (pp. 176-195)

    The Winnipeg general strike was one of the most complete withdrawals of labour power ever to occur in North America and dealt a mighty blow at one of trade unionism’s strongest bastions. The strike, from the labour viewpoint, was a complete failure in the short run and no amount of post-strike rhetoric could cover up this fact. As international organizer Fred Varley observed in early June 1919: “There never was in history a strike in which the workers answered the call so spontaneously, and there never was a strike in which the workers were so badly trimmed.”¹

    After eight weeks...

  17. 13. A Longer View
    (pp. 196-206)

    Both the Winnipeg general strike andConfrontation at Winnipegcontinue to generate controversy among Canadian historians. Since publication of this book, that controversy has formed the backdrop for a number of publications which have attempted either to add to the scope ofConfrontationor to point out its ideological “errors.” Articles of the first variety have covered the reaction of the farming community to the general strike, the role of aliens and women in the strike, and the impact of the strike on Winnipeg municipal politics. Works in the second category have been largely historiographical with the exception of an...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 207-224)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-230)
  20. Index
    (pp. 231-239)