Friday, 1 June 2018

2018 STRIKE Tour


During MayWorks each year, there is a 1919 Sympathetic General Strike Tour on the last Sunday in May. The City Transit bus was full in 2016 and 2017 so it is wise to book space early.
To register for the 2018 Strike Tour, contact commgroup@mts.net or call/text 204 793 3289.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Labour Action in May 1918

PRELUDE TO THE WINNIPEG SYMPATHETIC STRIKE 1919
Civic Workers versus City of Winnipeg, May 1918 
While many people know of the Winnipeg Sympathetic General Strike of 1919, only a few are aware of how Winnipeg civic workers a year before set in motion the political dynamics for 1919.
     Pressure to change the relationship between workers and employers, between the unions and industry, started building around the turn of the 20th century. While there were certain definable trends that were predicable – for example, demands for wage increases met efforts to limit wage increases – the situation was very unstable and chaotic, evolving. 
       Leading to the Winnipeg strike were significant years when both parties were testing each other on what was possible in asserting some control over their opposing interests. Though much of the tension of the time was confined to specific workplaces, they were starting to coalesce in both the traditional trades and in the more progressive industrial unions, into union councils and federations representing a collective of unions.
 In 1906 a series of strikes in Winnipeg brought out the military, private security and legal injunctions to stop union picketing of employer’s facilities. The situation was dramatic. With the commercial growth and large immigration that created a booming economy there was more space for demanding increases in wages and some reduction in work time. Workers were more plentiful and there was work for both skilled and unskilled labour as industry was being resourced and encouraged to produce more. The Street Railway Union (Local 99) was bargaining with the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company (that owned and ran the street cars) and went on strike. The company hired a detective agency to protect drivers they brought in from Toronto to keep the streetcars moving and to break the strike. Violence would often break out on the picket line as union members tried to stop the trolleys and the hired security would respond aggressively. The Mayor threatened to bring in the military but because the public was generally sympathetic to the workers and the union, he held back and instead agreed to allow mediation that did find a position both parties ratified. The workers got a wage increase but employers did not have to accept the union as a representative of the workers.
Later that summer, workers for the big three metal companies went on strike for wage increases and union recognition. To bring in strike breakers the employers sought and were given a court injunction to stop union picketing which minimized the union’s ability to pressure the employer. Within a month workers went back to work with a small wage increase but again without union recognition. The result of these strikes was that workers saw more clearly how the government and the courts were positioned to support employers, to the union’s disadvantage.
      During the First World War, the growing need to support injured soldiers and their families left behind also influenced the development of government involvement in social welfare. Schemes to provide rehabilitation services, income support and pensions started so that in Manitoba the first mothers' allowances legislation was passed in 1916. Several provinces followed with mothers' allowance legislation of their own, which were initially restricted to minimal support for ‘deserted’ and widowed women.
In the final decades of the 19th century there were examples of strikes that made small gains for the unionized members. For example, the International Typographical Union started in 1894 went on strike in 1896 and was able to secure an eight hour work day. Boiler Makers, Brakemen, Bricklayers, Stonecutters and Plasterers Unions in 1884 struck and were able to increase wages from $3.50 a day to $4. Railway unions in 1883 and 1892 were able to get jobs back for union members fired by their employer. Incrementally the unions were demonstrating the value of collective bargaining for members, and while employers were making concessions there was still overall resistance to accepting union representation.
The Dominion Government Department of Labour issued a report in 1918 on Strikes and Lockouts in Canada 1901-1916. In that period, there were almost 1,600 strikes (about 100 a year though peaking in 1911) involving 9,430 employers and almost 400,000 employees, at a loss of over ten million working days. “The majority of the disputes in the period 1911-1915 were due to questions of wages and hours, about 70 per cent of the disputes and 63 percent of the time loss being due to this cause,” was reported in the document (page 7 and 10).
In 1916 the Manitoba government set up the Fair Wage Board to help define minimum wages for government and private sector employees. It would issue wage schedules but had very little power to enforce the schedules, so that there was still a fair amount of discretion employers could apply. The Norris government also introduced the Industrial Disputes Commission that gave labour and employers a forum for dealing with some workplace issues, but it still allowed court injunctions to stop union picketing which the unions vociferously wanted removed. Federally the Borden government issued Orders-in-Council in 1918 which acknowledged workers could form unions which could negotiate hours of work and wage standards.
By 1918 there was a cadre of workers and union leaders who had experience dealing with intransigent employers and extracting small wage gains but who had failed to secure collective bargaining recognition. They were testing their union muscle in an environment where issues of rights, wages and democratic input were being discussed in public. In May, contract negotiations with Winnipeg City officials stalled for electricians, water works staff, sanitation workers and stablemen, over a wage increases. City officials had recommended increases of 12% that the unions basically agreed with. When the City responded with a straight $2 a week increase, the unions refused and threatened to strike.  Immediately there was talk in other unions about a general strike in support, particularly from the Steam and Operating Engineers, Telephone Operators and the Typographical workers. 
City Council passed the Fowler Amendment (presented by Alderman Frank Fowler) which stated, ”All persons employed by the city should express their willingness to execute an agreement undertaking that they will not either collectively or individually at any time will go on strike.” (May 15th) The employer’s actions infuriated the unions, turning a wage oriented confrontation into a battle over the right to strike. Of particular concern for the City, was the firefighters right to strike. The result, both sides dug in their heels and for three weeks, 40 unions and about 15,000 workers were on a general strike.
The spectre of a long general strike brought in the Dominion Government which was still embroiled in the war and therefore very sensitive to the effect of a work stoppage, particularly if the railway workers were involved. Senator Robertson, on behalf of the Minister of Labour intervened (May 24th) in Winnipeg to find a settlement that gave the City unions recognition and the right to strike, withdrew the Fowler amendment and modified the wage schedules which the unions wanted. He went on to help settle a Vancouver shipyard strike in June and a postal strike in July using a similar approach of finding compromise. Within a few months, there were three other unionized sectors that were in bargaining and on the brink of striking. The metal workers were bargaining with the big three steel companies, and as usual the employers were not willing to increase wages or decrease hours of work and were especially resistant to recognizing collective bargaining. A strike of letter carriers brought out support from across Canada at the same time.
All of the 1918 strikes made some small wage gains but only the civic workers were able to get Winnipeg Council to accept their unions as official representative of the workers in contract negotiations. However, the tactic of a general strike demonstrated a union solidarity that encouraged the workers and threatened employers and the government. Both parties to this confrontation saw a mounting ability of the unions to backup their contract demands with significant economic action and consequences.
The labour agitation in early 1918 set the stage for a number of union and government actions that would lead to the 1919 sympathetic strike, and lay the foundation for labour-management relations for decades to come. The Dominion government for example, by Order-in-Council passed in July, 1918, made a policy declaration that "All employees have a right to organize in Trade Unions, and this right shall not be denied or interfered with in any manner whatsoever, and through their chosen representatives they should be permitted and encouraged to negotiate with employers concerning working conditions, rates of pay, and other grievances."
Coming out of 1918 and what the civic workers in Winnipeg achieved, unions felt empowered. Government felt threatened.

Monday, 23 October 2017

City STRIKE Memorial


   Looks like the City’s ‘interpretive centre’ for the Winnipeg General Strike is complete. And once again we can see how the legacy of the General Strike is being downgraded and denigrated by those in power today.
   The steel billboard commemorates a few key words from a textbook description of Strike events. There is an emphasis on the placement of the Strike in this part of the city. If the intention was to create something photogenic for tourists, it has succeeded.
   Clearly the intention was not to recognized the courage and commitment of the thousands of working people who stood up for their rights in 1919. This thing certainly doesn’t reflect any of the values and principles that played an important role in the Strike. And to add insult to injury this passive structure ignores what the Strike means to Winnipeggers of the past and present.

   Come to Market Avenue and Lily Street to see it. Tell me what you think. See if you can pick out the historical inaccuracies they have cut into steel!


October 2017

Unveiling November 3rd, 2017
Without a great deal of publicity and community participation, the billboard was unveiled today. See the CBC report;

Monday, 19 June 2017

98th Anniversary

This year, 2017 is the 98th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike.
Here is a short commentary on what the Strike means to us today.

Youtube Video


Monday, 13 June 2016

1919 General Strike Memorial
Reflecting today’s Complacency, not yesterday’s Courage

When I do the annual General Strike tour I like to end at Victoria Park, to show how the legacy of the Strike resonates with politicians and the public today. And no there isn’t a huge monument there to the most significant political event in the city’s history. And that is the point of my approach to the Strike and the tour – there is nothing to mark the significance of the place, only a condo development and a boutique hotel.

Somewhat ironically but consistent with how City officials have treated the Strike for 97 years, the design for a General Strike Interpretive Centre has maintained a cancerous official neglect. The City has decided to play down the political meaning and social importance of the Strike with a bland and pedantic design that reflects more of today’s attitude than what actually happened in 1919.

First the location for the memorial is innocuous and irrelevant to the Strike. A tiny sliver of land next to a building at Lilly and Market is virtually invisible unless you are facing it and standing within meters.

Second, the City has allocated only $250,000 for the design and construction of the memorial.

Third. The design is based on text and rusting steel to reflect “multiple conflicting meanings.” As Monteyne Architecture Works describes their design, “It is a monument made primarily of weathering steel and multiple, conflicting meanings. The archetypal struggle for a fair deal that gripped the city almost 100 years ago mirrored the clash between classes and values that was occurring in other places, and the various oppositions that existed then continue to dominate our political and social discourse to this day.”

And fourth, there was no public input or consultation on the design. I had hoped the Selection Committee handpicked for the competition would have the creativity and courage to treat the task with more respect. But an open public process would have been commensurate with the nature of the Strike.

A historical period that was imbued with honour, sacrifice, solidarity and courage is written off as a mere competition and extension of class conflict in this winning design. An event that sent ripples of change to labour laws, social services, economic relations, urban design and the cultural character of Winnipeg is given a miniscule reference in an ambiguous sterile structure. Instead of having a monument that helps Winnipeggers and visitors understand and appreciate the contribution of the Strike, we get an abstract architecture that only vaguely reflects a calendar event with a scattering of benign references.

In 2019 the centenary of the Strike will be celebrated and that will be an opportunity for the citizens of Winnipeg to reflect their appreciation for what happened in and for Winnipeg. We will be able to expose the sacrifices and significance of the Strike and I’m fairly confident the people who supressed the Strikers will not be celebrating or holding events that commemorate ‘conflicting meanings.’

Information on the selection process and chosen design is at:
Dennis Lewycky

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

1919 General Strike gets attention for 2019


2019 will mark the centenary of the General Strike and a number of memorials and events are being planned for Winnipeg. The next few years will be exciting for everyone who has been aware of the importance of the Strike to so much of what Winnipeg is today. 
The Manitoba Federation of Labour is starting to plan a series of events for 2019. CentreVenture is looking at what should be done in the Exchange District. Strike the Musical will start shooting the film version soon that will be shown in 2019. And artist Noam Gonick is planning an installation on Main Street. The City of Winnipeg has invited proposals for a ‘Winnipeg General Strike Design Competition and Interpretation Installation at the corner of Lily Street and Market Avenue’.

While this City memorial could be a way for the City to exonerate itself, it appears it is going to maintain a pattern of virtual denial of the Strike it set almost a hundred years ago. The site proposed for the installation is small, obscure and funding is inadequate. Note:

·         Two years after the Strike the City destroyed Victoria Park where the strikers met daily. In 1924 a steam plant was erected on the site that functioned until 1984.

·         A reasonable plan to recreate a modest Victoria Park in 1999 as part of the North Main Development Plan was never implemented.

·         Proposals presented 10 years ago by the Labour History Project to develop a park and memorial on what was Victoria Park was rejected by the Planning Committee of the City.

·         Instead the land was sold to developers who built a condominium block and boutique hotel on the site that some historians call “the spiritual centre” of the Strike.

·         The condominium developer was required to place a memorial on its fa├žade in 2012 but a modest plaque created by the Province has not been used (word is they will put it up in 2019).

·         The memorial plaque that was put outside on City Hall in 1969 (by the Steelworkers where it could be publicly seen) was removed two years ago and is now in the basement next to the women's bathroom (where very few people will see it).

Considering this history of suppressing the Strike story, it is unlikely that the City will revise its plan for this token site for a memorial. However, someone may bid on the proposal and note that ‘Hell’s Alley’ was near this site where the ‘Specials’, hired by the City, attacked and brutalized strikers who were fleeing the North-West Mounted Police on June 21, 1919.

For the record, there are dedicated Winnipeggers who have not let the memory of the Strike fade away. In 1992, on the 75th Anniversary of the Strike, the Winnipeg Labour Council collaborated with community and government in a jubilant commemoration of the Strike.  Strike the Musical is a wonderful depiction of the personal passions and deep sacrifices made by the strikers. Tombstones have been erected for the two men shot by the police on ‘Bloody Saturday’. Each year there are about five Strike tours around the city to educate people, entertain tourists and keep the memory of the Strike alive. Historians teach about the Strike at both universities and The Manitoba Museum has a large Strike display. At least four web sites are repositories for photos, analysis and stories from the Strike, and there have been numerous books written and smaller markers erected to commemorate the Strike or parts of it by individuals.

Hopefully others will come forward to help commemorate what the strikers did then and how their courage and solidarity set the stage for so many social benefits we have today. If you or your organization is interested in contributing to these efforts, contact me and I will forward your information to the appropriate groups.

Dennis Lewycky