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History

From THE FIGHTING MACHINISTS, A CENTURY OF STRUGGLE
by Robert G. Rodden

Women in the War Plants

The First World War propelled a vast migration of women from homes to factories. During the war some 27,000 Machinists Union members marched off to fight in France. As they left women flocked to take over their machines. Most of these women had never worked outside the home nor ever expected to. While the IAM had accepted women into membership since the early years of the century, the union, reflecting most of the railroads and job ships where the members worked, remained pretty much a male domain.

With women crowding into the work place, the men became increasingly concerned. An article in the February, 1918 Journal expressed fear that employment of women in factories and work shops might not be "conducive to their best interests, either mentally, physically or morally." However, the Journal went on to say that where women were employed "they should receive every protection at the hands of fellow male Workers" and "as a trade union it will be our aim to furnish this protection. Let employers pay women equally as well as they formerly paid men for the same class of work." The unknown writer of this 1918 commentary went on to declare "We demand 'equal pay for equal' service. This we shall insist upon. We shall not stand idly by and see women exploited by unscrupulous employers ready to take advantage of cheap labor." He was confident that "bringing women into industry" would not result in "keeping them there after the war."

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919

In Canada, as in the U.S., union membership reached unprecedented heights during the First World War. When the war ended and the troops stared returning home in 1919, jobs grew scarce and by the winter of 1919 unemployment was rising along with the cost of living all across Canada. While workers were being punished by rents and prices that had doubled in less than five years, landlords and employers were fattening off big profits.

Growing bitterness in the work force, which included thousands of recently demobilized soldiers, showed up in mass demonstrations and clashes with the police in Canadian cities from Halifax to Winnipeg. According to Canadian labor historian, Charles Lipton, when soldiers' wives, living in cramped quarters, contrasted their lot with that of the wealthy, and workers compared their pay envelopes with the profits of big business, "the flames of wrath against capitalism began to flare and the demand grew for redistribution of wealth."

In early months of the postwar era union membership continued to climb--increasing 50% in 1919 alone. Inspired by accounts of the revolution in Russia, where the Marxist Government had socialized factories, redistributed land and established the eight-hour day, large numbers of Canadian workers became radicalized. At a meeting held in the Walker Theater in Winnipeg in December, 1918, R. B. Russell, Secretary-Treasurer of IAM District Lodge 2, told a socialist rally, "Capitalism has come to a point where it is defunct and must disappear." A few months later Canadian railroad machinists followed with a repudiation of traditional bread and butter unionism by electing leaders sympathetic to industrial unionism. At the 1919 meeting of the Western Canada Labour Conference in Vancouver, delegates endorsed a strongly pro-socialist resolution submitted by IAM Lodge 456 of Victoria

"Full acceptance of the principle of proletarian dictatorship is sufficient for the transformation of private property into public or communal wealth."
The growing militancy and radicalism evident in this and other resolutions at the Vancouver conference climaxed in one of the pivotal events in the history of Canadian labor: The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. The seeds of what became a workers' revolt were sown when the IAM and other metal trades unions formed a Metal Trades Council, elected Machinist R. B. Russell as Secretary and presented Winnipeg's metal working employers, including the Vulcan Iron Works, Dominion Bridge Company and Manitoba Iron Works, with demands for union recognition, the eight-hour day, overtime pay and hourly wage rates ranging from 25 for apprentices to 85 for journeymen machinists. In an action which originally included only the building trades and the metal trades, 12,000 workers walked off their jobs at 11 a.m. on May 15. The strike spread like wildfire as organized and unorganized workers followed them out in industry after industry, from telephone and telegraph exchanges, hotels, banks, stores, bakeries, dairies, restaurants and even the newspapers. Within forty-eight hours, 35,000 workers were on strike in a city of 200,000--and police, firemen and postal workers were also ready to walk out.

As the strikers' numbers and confidence grew daily, union leaders stepped up their demand--reinstatement of all strikers without discrimination and recognition of the right to organize by employers and the government. Winnipeg's employers fought back, forming a Citizens Committee (to "provide milk for babies") and organizing a volunteer militia. In Ottawa, Canada's Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, proclaimed that "Law and order shall be maintained" and dispatched the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who, upon arrival in Winnipeg, began acting like a private strike-breaking agency for the employers, The RCMP was soon reinforced by a battalion of federal troops armed with machine guns.

This display of massive governmental force against Winnipeg's workers sparked reaction in union halls all across Canada. In Vancouver 60,000 workers walked out and the strike spread first across the prairies to Brandon in Manitoba, then to Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Kamsack in Saskatchewan and on to Lethbridge, Calgary and Edmonton in Alberta. In the East, workers began walking out, although not in such great numbers, in Toronto and worker unrest began to spread in Quebec. A plan by the Citizens Committee to recruit returning soldiers in Winnipeg backfired when a majority at a meeting of the Great War Veterans Association defeated an anti-strike resolution and adopted one declaring "full sympathy" with the strikers. As the strike wore on week after week into the middle of June, the government stepped up its repression. In the early hours of the morning of June 17 the strike leaders, including R. B. Russell and another IAM member, Peter Herenchuk, a veteran wounded twice at the battle of the Somme, were arrested, dragged out of their homes, hustled into waiting cars and sped to the Stony Mountain Penitentiary where they were held without bail. Intended to intimidate the workers, these measures infuriated them. In Toronto the Metal Trades Council proposed a national general strike, in Montreal the Trades and Labour Council protested and from Cape Breton the leader of the Canadian coal miners wired Ottawa pledging a strike by his members all across Canada. With protests pouring in from every direction the government released the strike leaders on bail within seventy-two hours.

A few days later the Winnipeg strikers scheduled a massive silent parade down the main street of the city to protest the arrests and the government's violence. The mayor read the Riot Act as a warning to the crowd of men, women and children. however, few expected the ferocity of the attack that followed. Fifty mounted police, swinging baseball bats, rode down upon the marchers--who parted silently to let them through. The riders swung around, drew their pistols and galloped into the crowd, firing as they came. They were followed by club-swinging police. When the crowd was scattered and the bodies counted, two workers were dead and thirty others lay in pools of their own blood. The city was put under martial law and all meetings and public gatherings were banned. As it became increasingly difficult to hold the strikers together, the Metal Trades and Building Trades Councils negotiated a settlement that included a reduction in metal trades hours from fifty-five to fifty a week with no reduction in pay, but little else. Thousands of the strikers were fired, blacklisted and otherwise discriminated against and the government continued to harass unions, raiding labor temples and seizing records not only in Winnipeg, but in Calgary, Saskatoon, Brandon and Montreal.

The clubs, bullets, arrests, raids and blacklists that finally ended the Winnipeg General Strike after nine weeks left a residue o bitter class militance in Canadian workers and radicalism in Canadian politics that continues to reverberated in the Canadian labor movement. In seeking to know why Canada as a nation is second only to Great Britain in the number of strikes each year, one can start with the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

 


Repression and Retreat~1920-1930,
Business Unionism and Union Businesses

 

History


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Greg Enright