National Perspective by David Shribman

Canadian City's 1919 General Strike Has Lessons for Today

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Why should we care today about a general strike in a faraway city on the remote Canadian plains exactly a century ago? Why should the fact that it lasted six weeks and involved 36,000 strikers -- or even that it produced at least four novels -- interrupt our preoccupations with American travails: a presidential impeachment, a race for the White House or even our absorption in this week’s NFL schedule?

That is a long story, rooted in the world of 1919, a story abbreviated here but with lessons for our own time, our own leaders, our own country.

That long story begins quietly, in Winnipeg’s five central telephone exchanges, when some 500 operators left work and no one came to replace them. "It was," as David Jay Bercuson wrote in his "Confrontation at Winnipeg," published 45 years ago, "almost as though Alexander Graham Bell had never existed."

But soon, streetcars headed to their barns, firefighters abandoned their stations, electrical workers left transmission stations unattended, theaters closed, railway yards emptied, garbage collectors walked off their routes, the post office was deserted. Canada’s third-largest city -- Winnipeg at the time had a population of 180,000 -- ground to a whispery-silent halt.

"This was a significant moment for the Canadian labor movement, for people on the left, and for immigrants to Canada," said Daniel Beland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. "It was an important turning point for Canada, especially in the west."

But its origins, and its implications, were not confined to Canada, or its almost-empty west.

The Winnipeg general strike was part of a wave of strikes in the immediate post-war era across the Northern Hemisphere. The combatant nations massively expanded their production of textiles, coal, steel and ships in their drive to win World War I, and workers not in uniform enjoyed full employment and high wages. But once the war ended, with oversupply of basic industrial materials and markets glutted, prices fell, there were savage wage cuts, and workers across North America and Europe were laid off.

The unions fought back, producing a wave of strikes in 1919, including the famous Great Steel Strike in the United States. In Great Britain, there was severe industrial strife, with disruption focused on the coal industry but spreading to steel and the railways. In Italy, the 1919 strike wave across the north might be considered the seed of fascism, a crude reaction to "Bolshevism" that was spiking in the factories. In Germany, the Weimar Republic was almost brought down by Communist militancy.

Craig Heron, emeritus professor at Toronto’s York University, wrote that the labor agitation, not only in Winnipeg but also in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, southern Ontario and British Columbia, was part of a "grassroots movement that developed in working-class communities across the country in which rank-and-file workers’ anger, frustration and confidence overflowed the bounds of their employers’ established workplace regimes."

The result was passion among workers, fear among citizens, determination among employers and government officials.

The principal opponents of the strike, the self-proclaimed Citizens’ Committee of 1,000, said in a statement in its newspaper that "no thoughtful citizen can any longer doubt that the so-called general strike is in reality revolution -- or a daring attempt to overthrow the present industrial and governmental system."

Four years later, Douglas Durkin published "The Magpie," an evocative novel that has a character saying, "The guys on the other side of the business, the big fellows who called out the Mounties and had the streets cleared with bullets, don’t worry about how we think. It’s how we feel that’s got them worrying."

In the end, the strike failed, its leadership was prosecuted, and the entire episode revealed what Bercuson called "the futility and tragedy of massive confrontation combined with hysteria and intransigence."

Then began the struggle to shape the legacy of the strike for history. Did it have, as the famous Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci claimed, "the overt character of a bid to install a soviet system"? Was it a moment of what the Workers' Weekly of Stellerton, Nova Scotia, called part of "the uplift of humanity through trade unionism"? Or was it merely the expression of frustration over falling wages?

That debate continues today, in the streets of Winnipeg, a city once more gritty than glittery; in labor-union halls, where tactics, if not perspectives, have changed; and in academic circles, where the nature of class conflict and social crisis are examined through the perspective of a full century.

One of the novels that was inspired by the strike was Margaret Sweatman’s 1991 "Fox," with a new edition published only two years ago. Her grandfather was a lawyer alarmed by the revolutionary language that spoke of overthrowing capitalism.

"Canadians are still quite split on the strike, and in this anniversary year there is a groundswell here, with a particular Winnipeg left-wing intellectual life based in the Jewish, Christian and Scottish communities," she said told me recently. "Because this is quite a static city, the strike remains a powerful part of the city’s culture, because it is shocking that financial equity is a bigger issue than ever."

Today general strikes are in disrepute in the West, in part because of the failure in Winnipeg and, seven years later, the failure of the general strike that gripped the entire country of Great Britain. The power of organized labor, moreover, has declined. But wealth disparities have grown, and social unrest has new avenues of expression that have produced new opportunities for communication, for grievance and perhaps for action. The protests in Hong Kong are the most vivid example.

"We cannot forget the shock to the gut that people felt at the strike, the fear that order and freedom were under threat," wrote Reinhold Kramer and Tom Mitchell in a 2010 study with the ominous title of "When the State Trembled."

Today in the United States, the fears about order come from the right, the fears about freedom come from the left. It is a toxic mix, where dissent and disillusionment are not confined to one region, one class, one ideological viewpoint. Today in the United States, the state trembles because some on the Donald Trump right believe its powers are too entrenched, and some on the Elizabeth Warren left believe its powers are too constrained. It is a titanic debate, with titanic potential consequences.

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