The Current

What today's labour movement can learn from the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike

On the 100th anniversary of what has become known as the Winnipeg General Strike, we take a look back at the milestone moment in the history of labour relations and politics for Canada.

Labour rights we enjoy today can be traced back to the milestone event, says Sid Ryan

Strikers tip a streetcar on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg on June 21, 1919, during the Winnipeg General Strike. The six-week event was a major moment for the Canadian labour movement, an activist says. (Provincial Archives of Manitoba)

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A century after a major labour uprising shook Winnipeg, there are still many lessons to be learned from the milestone moment in Canadian history, a labour activist says. 

On May 15, 1919, women who operated telephones kick-started the Winnipeg General Strike by refusing to go to work. Trade workers quickly followed, and so did thousands of other unionized and non-unionized workers ranging from clerical workers and bakers, to streetcar drivers and police officers.

The strike lasted six weeks, as workers fought for higher wages, better working conditions and the right to collective bargaining.

The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti spoke with Sid Ryan, former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour and CUPE Ontario, about today's labour movement and what we can learn from the Winnipeg General Strike. Here is part of their conversation.

How important is the legacy of that Winnipeg General Strike for workers' rights in Canada?

Hugely important. Out of that strike, and like a number of years later, we got the right to have free collective bargaining in Canada. But out of that came a whole lot of labour laws, jurisprudence, health and safety legislation, the right to strike, the right to organize. So, basically all of the rights that we enjoy today in the labour movement can be traced back to the Winnipeg strike and similar types of strikes across Canada.

Can you see a day when there could be another general strike anywhere like that?

Well, take a look at what actually led to that particular strike. It was, you know, workers coming back from the First World War, immigrants primarily living in conditions that were horrible, horrible working conditions, low wages. Are we seeing the same thing today? I think we probably are.

We're seeing great inequality in the system right now. We see precarious workers. We see workers on the streets demanding $15 an hour. So is it the same conditions as back in 1919? No, not maybe as severe. But I do believe … a day of reckoning is coming. There's no question that people are feeling, in this province at least, with the election of the Ford government, that all of these rights that we won could very well be under attack.

In 1919, Winnipeg was the scene of the most dramatic single event in Canadian labour history as thousands of people took part in a general strike. (courtesy: Library and Archives Canada) 1:20

In Canada, how strong is the labour movement today?

The labour movement is not as strong as it used to be. They're not as cohesive … The central organizations — the Canadian Labour Congress, the Ontario Federation of Labour — are not viewed by individual unions as the central body that can actually pull the labour movement together.

The second thing I would say is … the labour movement has not yet figured out how [to] grow the labour movement in the private sector. Public sector is basically organized. Private sector is not. So there's all these precarious workers. There's people of colour who are not really represented in the labour movement. It's mainly, you know, guys [who] look like me — bald, grey-haired guys who are in charge of the labour movement, by and large, certainly in the private sector. That needs to change, because workers will not join organizations that they don't see themselves represented in.

Is there one thing the Canadian labour unions can learn from that history lesson?

I think it's to go out and organize precarious workers, to go out and take a look at where the growth is going to be. It's not in the manufacturing sector, so take a look at new immigrants coming into Canada, refugees, women, people of colour. That is where the growth of the labour movement is.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Q&A edited for length and clarity. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.


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