This day in 1919 saw the beginning of a defining moment for Canada’s labour movement: the Winnipeg General Strike started.
Negotiations between workers and management in the building and metal trades broke down, and on May 15, 1919, the labour council called for a general strike.
Within hours, some 30,000 workers had put down their tools.
Opposition to the strike came swiftly, led by the Citizens’ Committee, made up of Winnipeg’s ruling class. The federal government also quickly got involved, fearing the strike would spread to other parts of the nation, and sent ministers to Winnipeg.
When they ordered public employees back to work or face dismissal, 25,000 striking workers demonstrated on June 17. The RCMP was called out to quell the demonstration – by any means possible – which led to its being styled Bloody Sunday.
The federal government, rattled by sympathy strikes across the country, ordered Senator Gideon Robertson to mediate the dispute. He settled in favour of the strikers, ending what many believe to be the biggest strike in North American history.
The labour movement, vindicated and conscious of its new-found power, would unite and spread. It would take three more decades for the rights of trade unions to be recognized in federal law, but the die was already cast.
Today, we are confident of our rights as workers – but also conscious of the powerful forces that continue to seek to attack these hard-won rights. Chief among them in Ontario are Doug Ford and his government’s right-wing agenda of austerity and privatization.
But when we look back 100 years and see the victories won – most recently, the 2015 Supreme Court ruling affirming the constitutional right of all Canadian workers to join a union and engage in meaningful collective bargaining – we are reminded that while governments come and go, the labour movement goes on.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President of OPSEU
Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida, OPSEU First Vice-President/Treasurer