By Jon Milton, Communications Staff
This column is the first of a new series in Direct Impact, which will look at Alberta’s labour history. We’ll be looking at specific important events to re-learn the lessons our forebears taught us.
By all accounts, 1919 was a miserable year. Coming at the tail-end of a devastating and pointless world war, 1919 also saw the onset of a horrifying pandemic that came to be known as the Spanish Flu. Millions were dead, and the people of Canada—like almost all other countries in the world—had made enormous sacrifices for years.
Well, most people had sacrificed, anyway. A small class of people, in Canada and beyond, had benefited enormously from the suffering. The rich had seen their wealth explode while working people suffered through a series of crises that they had no hand in making.
“The Spanish Flu, which killed more people than the war, revealed the class differences in countries,” says Alvin Finkel, President of the Alberta Labour History Institute (ALHI). “It was the poor living in crowded conditions, dying in large numbers, and unable to get medical care. So this all led to a lot of unrest.”
“This really is the beginning of the labour movement as a force to be reckoned with. This is the time when the bosses realized that they couldn’t just bully workers into submission.”
The trade union movement had grown substantially over the course of the war, and workers were getting a sense of their collective strength. Firefighters in Edmonton had beat the city in a fight over the new fire chief, and freight handlers in Calgary had won significant working improvements. Working people in Canada were beginning to show their teeth.
“This really is the beginning of the labour movement as a force to be reckoned with,” says Jason Heistad, AUPE Executive Secretary-Treasurer. “This is the time when the bosses realized that they couldn’t just bully workers into submission.”
An idea began to germinate on the Canadian prairies—the idea of “one big union.” The Western Canadian Labour Conference, which was held in March 1918, came up with the proposal. Their idea was that, rather than having workers organized into separate “craft” unions—specialized unions that represented skilled workers based on their trade—the labour movement should instead form One Big Union.
They believed uniting as one big union would help the workers harness their full strength, Finkel says. “If one employer wasn’t cooperative, then all of them would go out. All strikes would become a general strike.”
When workers in Winnipeg went on strike in the legendary 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, that concept kicked into action. Already, in Winnipeg, the strike stretched far beyond the traditional base of trade unionism in the city. When Winnipeg strike representatives called for sympathy strikes in other cities, workers in Calgary and Edmonton answered the call.
“By striking in solidarity with Winnipeg, the workers in Alberta showed that working people are strongest when they’re united,” Heistad says. “They showed that if we want to win, we need to stand in solidarity with each other.”
Corporate-owned press demonized the strikers in Winnipeg, writing that the strike was a communist conspiracy to overthrow the government. Strikers were called “reds,” and the press highlighted the fact that many workers were immigrants, or “aliens,” in an attempt to divide the movement.
“By striking in solidarity with Winnipeg, the workers in Alberta showed that working people are strongest when they’re united."
“The bosses use every tool in the toolbox to divide us,” Heistad says. “They want to make workers fight amongst ourselves over race, or over immigration status. They do it because they’re afraid of what a united working class can do.”
“What workers were saying in 1919 is that we regard ourselves as part of a class, and so if workers anywhere are being mistreated, it’s our duty to go out as well,” Finkel says. “If there’s a strike at a particular factory, at a particular workplace, then that employer figures he can beat down his workers and be left alone. But if all other workers go out as well, then other employers will put pressure on that employer as well.”
“You’ll do what we say, or the whole working class is going to be against you,” Finkel says.
The federal government called in the RCMP against the Winnipeg strikers. The RCMP’s raids—which took place on June 21—are referred to as “Bloody Saturday.” The police killed two of the strikers, injured dozens, and arrested nearly 100. Strike leaders were put on trial. The strike ended in defeat. Alberta workers, who had gone out in solidarity, returned to work.
But as crushing as defeat can feel in the moment, those strikes are generally viewed as a watershed moment in Canadian labour history. They made the employing class feel real fear—fear of how powerful working people are when they stand together. The government reacted in a panic and sent in the police, but they also knew that they wouldn’t be able to do so forever. They would need to make concessions.
“During World War II, you have workers uprising as well,” Finkel says. “They aren’t as coordinated as they had been in 1919, but it’s powerful enough, and reflect a change in political thinking in the working class. Employers and the political parties are worried that if certain concessions are not given to the working class, then the whole capitalist system could collapse. So the Winnipeg General Strike, and the solidarity strikes like the ones in Alberta, can receive a lot of credit for things like pensions, legal unions, and improved working standards.”
“All of the protections that we have as workers today were won through struggle,” Heistad says. “Weekends, maternity leave, unions, minimum wages, abolishing child labour—all these things were won by the fights of working people. Even when those fights don’t win right away, they make an impact that might not be felt for years. But that impact is real.”
“In order to win, we need to fight,” Heistad says. “When we fight, we can win.”
Alvin Finkel has produced a number of works for the Alberta Labour History Institute, including this booklet about the 1919 general strike in Alberta.