Living Rights Then & Now: The Winnipeg General Strike

Welcome to Living Rights Then & Now: a MARL blog. The goal of this blog is to spread knowledge about the unique history of human rights struggle within the province of Manitoba, and the multiple struggles, victories, and challenges that have occurred here. Living Rights Then & Now will help enlighten Manitobans and anyone interested that the rights we enjoy did not arise out of nowhere, and that human rights abuses and issues remain within our province today.

The Winnipeg General Strike made global news and brought the city to its knees. In 1919, Winnipeg was noteworthy for its rapid growth and for the vastness of its social and economic inequality. This opulence can still be seen in Winnipeg’s architecture, its Crescents, Avenues, even its famous lakefronts. Yet the underclass toiled miserably, often 14 hours or more a day. Many earned mere subsistence wages, outpaced by inflation after WWI. Something had to give.

Over 30,000 workers in Winnipeg’s public and private sectors – including all of the telephone operators, firefighters and city police force – went on strike. On June 26th, over 25,000 strikers flooded the streets demanding justice. Soon after these events, governments here and elsewhere were urged to alter their agendas to include redistribution dedicated to improving the working and living conditions of the poor. According to the Robson Commission report: “It is necessary that steady labour see that it has the consideration from the government and other elements of the population, and that such consideration takes practical form.” 

What forced this major shift in thinking, making consideration of the poor now ‘necessary’? It was not our collective capacity to share and to reform. It was not our reason, nor our moral enlightenment, nor even a compassionate awareness of unnecessary suffering. To win this consideration took a real fight. These reforms were hard-won by many people over a brutal and chaotic season in our city. Their insistence on a more just arrangement and their willingness to put their livelihoods and even their lives on the line made a new political reality an absolute necessity. Their legacy echoes in the political commitments we now recognize and struggle to uphold toward one another today.

Blog by: Emily Muller

Categories: Living Rights Then and Now
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