From jail cells to the legislature

The election of 3 labour leaders who were still in prison was a clear statement by voters that it was anti-labour laws that were wrong, not the strikers.

Ottawa (29 June 2020) — 100 years ago today, in the 1920 Manitoba election, 4 labour leaders who played key roles in the Winnipeg General Strike were elected to the Manitoba legislature. The victories of George Armstrong, Fred Dixon, William Ivens, and John Queen were part of major gains by labour movement during the election as the number of labour and socialist MLAs increased from 1 to 11.

The results of that election 100 years ago are part of the reason the Winnipeg General Strike is so important for the labour movement today. While the strike didn’t achieve its objectives in the short-term, the impact of the sense of unity felt by workers is still being felt today.

In 1927, 2 other leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike who had been elected to Parliament, J.S. Woodsworth and A.A. Heaps, were able to force the federal government to introduce old age pensions. Through the role played by leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike in the founding of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner of the NDP, one can trace a link from the strike to programs like medicare and the first legislation in Canada to allow public employees to unionize.

3 labour leaders elected while in prison

What makes their victories all the more remarkable is that 3 of them were in prison when they were elected. George Armstrong, William Ivens and John Queen had all been sentenced to one year in prison for their work during the Winnipeg General Strike.

The election of 3 labour leaders who were still in prison was a clear statement by voters that the government's anti-labour laws were wrong, not the strikers.

Attempts to divide workers based on backgrounds also still with us

For strikers who were not born in Canada there was another threat. Strikers born outside of Canada were threatened with deportation. Strikers from Eastern Europe were particularly vulnerable. 11 strikers were deported and 2 others were left Canada before being extradited

The deportation and threats of deportation were part of an effort by business leaders to divide strikers by ethnicity. Sadly, attempts to appeal to bigotry and prejudice to divide workers are still with us. And just as the Winnipeg General Strike teaches workers that we cannot afford to ignore politics, it also teaches us that unions have to be committed to fighting sexism, racism, bigotry, and homophobia.

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE