Echoes of Bloody Saturday: Winnipeg General Strike still relevant 105 years later

June 21 on the calendar is many things to many people — across Canada, there’s a strong focus on National Indigenous Peoples Day. It’s recognized worldwide as International Yoga Day, and for Winnipeg history buffs, it’s also the anniversary of Bloody Saturday.

echoes of bloody saturday: winnipeg general strike still relevant 105 years later

In the summer of 1919, Winnipeg workers were embroiled in one of the most significant labour movements in Canadian history: the Winnipeg General Strike.

The strike, which involved more than 30,000 Winnipeggers protesting unfair working conditions, low wages and unstable employment — among many other concerns — came to a head on June 21 when members of the Royal North-West Mounted Police (the predecessor to today’s RCMP) fired on a crowd of strikers, killing two and injuring dozens more.

Although the strike was ultimately unsuccessful, it sparked more worker activism and the creation of unions across the country, and united workers with common goals.

Its legacy lives on in Winnipeg, including that of Bloody Saturday, in murals, a homegrown musical-turned-feature film, and other artistic depictions. Its most iconic image — a streetcar overturned by strikers on Bloody Saturday — remains an instantly recognizable symbol in the city and beyond.

echoes of bloody saturday: winnipeg general strike still relevant 105 years later
0:43 More Manitobans considering Labour Day an ‘activist holiday’: history professor

University of Manitoba labour studies professor Julie Guard says there are a number of lessons that can be learned from the events of 1919.

“Something close to the entire working class was on strike in 1919. Most people did not have a union. Most people did not have secure jobs. So people took a risk and they relied on each other,” Guard told Global Winnipeg.

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“It was like the collaborative solidarity of people pushing back for things that they thought were worth fighting for. That actually made the strike happen. If you remember, that was actually a lost strike.

“They didn’t win their demands, but we remember it because it is such an important moment when 30,000 people went out on the street together and demanded that they be treated like human beings. And that’s a huge lesson for the rest of us today. We need to survive together. We need to be collaborative. We need to act in solidarity.”

Although the strike is more than a century in the rearview, Guard said some elements of what the workers were fighting for may continue to ring true in 2024 — but there’s been progress.

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Safety improvements, legal rights to collective bargaining and worker protections are some of ways the situation has improved for workers since, but like 105 years ago, Guard said the best way to protect your rights as a worker is to join a union.

“Unions really are the best way that workers can protect their rights. But it’s like any power structure, you have to make it happen,” she said.

“You can’t just join a union and say, ‘Well, the union will look after me. I don’t have to do more.’ You have to be active in your union. You’ve got to push your leadership to be as progressive as you want them to be. You’ve got to make sure that your demands are the ones that they’re fighting for.

“Unions also need to be pushed to be progressive, to fight for their members. So some of the unions are pretty good at that. Others have fallen slack.”

echoes of bloody saturday: winnipeg general strike still relevant 105 years later
1:43 ‘Summer of Strikes’ raises profile of this year’s Labour Day for Manitobans

Labour lawyer Jamie Jurczak with Taylor McCaffrey in Winnipeg says she’s seen a culture shift across workplaces — union or otherwise — toward inclusivity and protection against discrimination.

One of the key demands of the 1919 strikers, she said, involved the fight against discrimination toward immigrant workers.

“Some of that carries forward when we think about … the shift we’re seeing today — obviously that issue is still just as alive and well and something that workers are concerned with and employers need to be live to today,” Jurczak told Global Winnipeg.

“I would say protection is one thing, but there’s also a shift towards focusing on things like inclusivity. You see a lot of DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion — committees developing within workplaces, which is obviously a very positive thing.”

And while some struggles in the workplace remain the same 105 years later, there are also new challenges that the strikers could have never imagined.

“I think we still see issues like hours of work and trying to focus around things like overtime … but we might see something today that obviously no one was thinking about in 1919.

“Remote work or the use of devices and how those types of issues are changing the way we work. And are we seeing those issues come up around the bargaining table now? Oh, for sure,” she said.

“How we are as a society is going to be reflected in the bargaining agreements that we that we’re negotiating — both on the minds of employers and on the minds of the unions that represent the employees.”

— with files from Drew Stremick

echoes of bloody saturday: winnipeg general strike still relevant 105 years later
1:38 Streetcar sculpture marks 100 years of Bloody Saturday on Main Street

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