CM . . . .
Volume VII Number 4 . . . . October 20, 2000
On Strike: The Winnipeg General Strike, 1919. (The People's History of the West Series).
Joe MacDonald & Clare Johnstone Gilsig (Directors). Joe MacDonald & Keith Packwood
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 1991.
19 min., 46 sec., VHS, $39.95.
Order Number: C9190 111.
Work and Lobour Relations.
Grades 6 and up / Ages 11 and up.
Review by Kristin Butcher.
In an era when unions wield as much power as management, it is difficult to imagine a time when
they did not even exist. To rely on an employer's goodwill for decent working conditions and a
fair rate of pay without any avenue of recourse is a proposition as alien to the modern worker
as the idea of commuting to work on a space shuttle. Yet for post World War I Canadians, a
living wage, an eight hour work day, and the freedom to organize into bargaining groups were
rights that had to be fought for. On Strike examines this struggle, chronicling the conditions
and events leading to the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.
Individually, none of the contributing factors would have provided sufficient justification for the
strike, but, taken together, they created a volatile situation. The relationship between the first-generation, self-made bosses and the immigrant working class was becoming increasingly strained.
While manufacturing moguls became wealthy as a result of the war, their employees remained
grossly underpaid. The cost of food continued to rise, and it became harder and harder for middle
class workers to make ends meet. Soldiers returning from the War expecting to be received as
heroes found nothing waiting for them but unemployment.
On May 1st, 1919, the building and metal trades, upon being denied the right to bargain
collectively, went out on strike and urged workers throughout the city of Winnipeg to do the
same. On May 11th, the Winnipeg Trades Council polled its members for their feelings on the
matter. On the 13th, 20,000 organized employees and 10,000 others walked off their jobs.
Initially, the strike proceeded peacefully, its participants doing nothing more but meeting in the
parks to listen to speakers. But when the Citizens' Committee of One Thousand was formed by
concerned business owners, things began to heat up. Local authorities, fearing a clash of groups,
banned public gatherings and hired a scab police force to enforce the ban. But the action backfired
when a small riot broke out on June 10th, and the 'special police' received the worst of it.
As the strike went on, distrust grew. Workers and their families found themselves increasingly
hard pressed to pay bills and put food on the table, and tempers became short. But it was the
government, rather than the workers and their bosses, who brought the situation to a head.
Convinced the strike indicated the beginning of a violent revolution, authorities secretly arrested
the strike organizers and imprisoned them. Then, on June 21st, what started as a silent parade of
protest and solidarity turned into a riot. The event is remembered as Bloody Saturday. Two
demonstrators were killed, 34 were wounded, and 80 others were arrested. Dozens of immigrants
were deported, and jail sentences were handed out to the strike leaders.
Beaten, the strikers drifted back to work. They had lost. Or had they?
The Winnipeg General Strike proved to be a turning point in labor relations. It sparked a political
consciousness of the issues. In 1920, several strike leaders were elected to the Manitoba
legislature, and the following year, workers had representation in Ottawa.
On Strike is effectively told by combining narration with photographs and artists' renditions of
the time. Actors' voices relate the stories of actual strike participants. Events are related clearly
and succinctly. This video is an excellent means of enriching the study of western Canadian
history, particularly the growth of unions. Closed captioning for the hearing impaired is available
through the use of a decoder.
Kristin Butcher, a former teacher, lives in Victoria, BC, and writes books for children.
To comment on this title or this review, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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