Sunday, 16 May 2021

Strategic Non-Action

 May 15, 1919. At 7am workers started walking out of their workplaces across the city. By the end of the week the city was shut down by the workers in what became a historic moment for Canada, though they did not know it yet.

From the book Magnificent Fight, “There was a huge cast of players in the drama that was acted out in the Winnipeg General Strike, mostly divided by class but with many cultural, ethnic and gender alliances or antagonisms providing a complex script. The issues that motivated the protagonists were both simple and complex, some contentious and others confused. All of which stimulated different perspectives of what was at stake in The Strike. Ultimately the drama ended in a violent confrontation that left the Winnipeg working class disappointed but not defeated.”

The Strike represented issues still at play today. The workers were fighting for the right to organize in unions and for a living wage. Veterans were protesting their treatment by the government. Immigrants wanted respect and a fair place in society. The main strategic action promoted by the strike leaders was to withdraw their labour, to stop working. As William Ivens wrote in the Western Labor News on May 21, that the “only thing that the workers had to do to win The Strike is to do nothing”.

Today workers are also consumers. And there is power in what we buy, when, where and how.

Today there is a strategic suggestion from The Strike. In addition to taking a public stand on what we believe, also withdraw participation in what is exploiting us. Don’t shop!

Just think the reaction we could have when we refuse to buy products wrapped in useless and wasteful plastic (covid restrictions showed how quickly the air could be clearer). Think what we can tell business leaders if we don’t shop at Walmart or Tim Horton’s (which I admit would be difficult for me). Think what power we could have if we seriously and vigorously buy local, not imported. Think what will happen when we cancel Netflix.

There are instructions and inspirations in our history. What we do with history is up to us.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Time for 'Living Wages"

Living Wage

Once again, a hundred years later, is the call for a living wage.

One of the main demands of the 1919 strikers was to establish  'living wage' for workers. They knew it was important  to pay a fair or decent wage so families could meet their daily needs. They also knew a living wage was good for the local economy, as it would keep money circulating and generally lifting the well being of communities.

Now in the time of covid19 there is a renewed call for a living wage. Fortunately the public and politicians now see how important workers - front line, service, support - are to our economy and public health. Will the public and politicians now also realize how important it is to pay these workers a living wage?

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Victoria Park

Victory Park has its own brass plaque.
After 100 years, the location of the park is marked by a tiny plaque on Waterfront Drive between Pacific and James Avenues.
But if going by you may miss it. It is on the south side of the condominium building, accessible by a sidewalk going west.
It was put up this spring, without notice. When the developer was given the land, it was required to post a commemoration of the location, which was not done until this year.

Friday, 30 November 2018

100th Anniversary of The Strike

2019 was the centenary of the General Sympathetic Strike.
Here are some of the events that took place, engaging an estimated 10,000 people:

UFCW Parade & CUPE Concert         May 25th,  Exchange District to Memorial Park

Joe Hill Road Show                                May 30, 8pm Ukrainian Labour Temple

Songs for next Century Concert       June 8,  Old Market Square

Play: Women Strike                              June 13, 7pm Ukrainian Labour Temple

STRIKE the musical                    June 19 - July 9, Rainbow Stage

Memorial of Blood Saturday         June 21, @ corner Market Ave. / Main St.


100th Anniversary of the Ukrainian Labour Temple
(February 14 actual anniversary) Rededication event April 25

Social Planning Council of Winnipeg 100th
(April 14 actual anniversary) April  26th Celebration, ULT

MayWorks Festival of Labour and the Arts
May, numerous locations

Heritage Winnipeg, Doors Open event                    
May 25 & 26, various important historical sites

Premier of  movie STAND (was known as STRIKE the musical)

Art Exhibition: “Revolting”       Edge Gallery 621 Main Street.                                    
            August 2 to August 30


1919 STRIKE Exhibit                     March 22 onward, Manitoba Museum

Book Launch: Magnificent Fight     May 2, 7pm McNally Robinson

1919 Strike Conference                   May 9-12, University of Winnipeg

Myers LLP Social                          May 11, 2019, Ukrainian Labour Temple

Book Launch: PAPERGIRL             Sunday May 5, 3pm McNally

BOLSHIE BASH                                   May 9 – 17, Rachel Brown Theatre

Book Launch: Graphic History of General Strike             May 12, 2pm, McNally

Poetry Reading: Ron Romanowski                May 13, 7pm McNally

Memorial Service – Mike Sokolowski            May 16, 7pm Brookside Cemetery

Sympathetic Strike Tour                              May 26, North/South End/Exchange 

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Walker Theatre Meeting sets Stage for 1919 Winnipeg Strike

There were two very visible events that fed the view that The Strike was a revolt, not merely a protest. One was an important meeting at the Walker Theatre on December 22, 1918, organized by the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council and the Socialist Party of Canada. It was “dedicated to the purpose of finding no good at all in the government.”  The meeting was planned because the workers realized that the Trades and Labour Congress officers were “impotent in the matter of securing from the Government redress of the grievances complained of, and were determined that the voice of protest should be heard."  (Defense Committee 1920:4)
The 1,600 workers at the meeting were protesting the use of Orders-in-Council (Dominion Cabinet orders) to deal with issues they believed parliament should have responsibility for. They believed Orders-in-Council were undemocratic in suppressing union action, limiting freedom of the press and curtailing political party activity. The meeting was also a protest against the continued imprisonment of political prisoners and sending military forces to fight the revolutionary government of Russia. The meeting endorsed a resolution (copied from a similar Toronto meeting), "that conditions in this country do not, and never have warranted such an unjustifiable interference with the liberties of the people. We view with apprehension the introduction of autocratic methods and the increasing tendency of a few men to usurp the prerogatives of the people which are alone vested in their elected representatives.” (Defense Committee 1920:7)
The report on the meeting in the Western Labor News of December 27 noted that John Queen, “then called for three cheers for the Russian Revolution. The meeting ended with deafening cries of ‘Long live the Russian Soviet Republic! Long live Karl Liebknecht [a German Socialist who was murdered by nationalist troops the following January]! Long live the working class!’ The meeting ordered that, if possible, the message of congratulations be cabled to the Bolsheviki.” A follow up meeting at the Majestic Theatre, only organized by the SPC, reiterated the critique of government made at the Walker, but laid on more of the socialist critique of government. Despite these meetings, there was never a formal alliance between the unions in The Strike and any political party.  

Video Statement

Introduction to Victoria Park 

Friday, 1 June 2018

2018 STRIKE Tour

During MayWorks each year, there is a 1919 General Sympathetic Strike Tour on the last Sunday in May. The City Transit bus was full in previous tours so it is wise to book space early.
To register for the 2019 Strike Tour, contact or call/text 204 793 3289.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Labour Action in May 1918

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.