We have all heard the expression, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And so let us take a moment to reflect on what happened in May of 1919 in Winnipeg.
The First World War had just ended and soldiers returning from Europe had expectations of a better life. For many who had not gone overseas to fight in the war, they had suffered years of sacrifice to ensure the war machine had all it required for a successful outcome. But instead of returning to a better life following the war, workers faced an industrial downturn, high unemployment and increasing inflation.
Workers, wanting to protect and further their interests, joined unions in increasing numbers. They knew their demands were better advanced when they cooperated as a collective; as a union. But the industrialists and the government of the day were concerned, perhaps even fearful of the increasing influence and power of the unions’ strength in numbers. The revolution in Russia was not yet two years old and there was a very real concern that there could be a Bolshevik-styled revolution in Canada, too.
Unions had been attempting to negotiate agreements in the early months of 1919 to no avail. On May 1, the building workers went out on strike. On May 2, the metal trades went out on strike when their employers refused to negotiate with their union. The Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council was the umbrella organization for the strikers and called for a general strike in solidarity for May 15. About 30,000 workers, both union and non-union, left their jobs to join the strikers.
On May 30, Winnipeg police who refused to sign a no-strike pledge were fired and an 1,800-man “special force” was hired and supplied with horses and baseball bats. The federal government passed legislation to deport British-born strike leaders. All levels of government ordered public employees back to work.
On June 17, strike leaders were arrested in late-night raids. On Sunday, June 21, strikers gathered outside City Hall and were met and attacked by the Royal North-West Mounted Police, who killed two men and injured 30. The “special force” followed through the crowd beating the protesters with baseball bats. The army patrolled the streets with machine guns.
Following the Bloody Sunday riot, the metal trades went back to work without a pay increase. Some leaders were jailed, others deported and thousands lost their jobs. In the 1920 Manitoba election, 11 labour candidates were elected, four of which were strike leaders. Twenty years later, collective bargaining was recognized in Canada.
Today, governments continue to influence and shape the efficacy of unions. The provincial Liberals under Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark passed legislation to deliberately lessen union density in the construction industry. Unionized construction fell from approximately 33 per cent in 2001 to 23 per cent today. At the federal level, the Harper Conservatives also passed legislation (Bills 377 and 525) that directly targeted unions so as to further reduce our collective strength.
Today, the federal Liberal Trudeau government and the provincial NDP Horgan government have recognized the value unions bring to society. For decades, our union training centres have been
providing the skilled labour our provincial and national economies need in order to grow. Union workers now clearly make up the middle class as more and more non-union workers fall deeper into poverty. Our unions continue to provide better pension and health and welfare programs than what is on offer from non-union contractors.
We need to recognize and remember the value we bring to society and to the economy. We need to remember that we are impacted by the governments that hold the levers of power. We need to remember that we too have power; the power of the ballot. And we need to remember to use that power when we elect governments. For should we fail to remember our past, we will be condemned to repeat it.
By Tom Sigurdson, executive director, BC Building Trades