This national Convention marks a 43 year milestone for the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE). 2019 also marks the 100 year anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike.
Winnipeg (19 June 2019) — The Triennial Convention, with delegates from all components, is the supreme governing body of NUPGE. Between conventions, the National Union's governing body is the National Executive Board, which comes from the leadership of all the components.
This year, the Triennial Convention of the National Union of Public and General Employees will be held at the RBC Convention Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, beginning at 9:00 am on Friday, June 21, 2019 and continues until the conclusion of business on Sunday June 23, 2019.
Winnipeg General Strike memorialized
The Winnipeg General Strike was one of the most influential strikes in Canadian history. 100 years later, it’s finally being memorialized on Main Street where a replica streetcar will be tipped on its side and displayed outside the Pantages Playhouse Theatre.
The sculpture (crafted by Noam Gonick) is made of metal, symbolic of the metal workers who called for a general strike after negotiations broke down with management. At the heart of the strike were two main points: the right to collective bargaining and the right to a living wage. On May 15, telephone operators, called the “Hello Girls”, were the first to join the metal workers on strike. 30,000 workers walked off the job in solidarity on the first day of the strike, including essential services employees like firefighters. The Central Strike Committee, comprised of elected members, bargained with employers and ensured essential services continued during the 6 week strike.
Opposition from management
Shortly after the strike began the Citizen’s Committee of 1000, comprised of Winnipeg’s business elite, was created in opposition to the workers’ grievances. The Citizens Committee petitioned the federal government for help, claiming the strikers were being influenced by revolutionaries from Russia and fearmongering about strikes breaking out across Canada. The federal government sent Senator Gideon Robertson and Arthur Meighen to Winnipeg to assess the strike. Robertson and Meighen met with the Citizen’s Committee but refused to meet with the Central Strike Committee.
On the advice of the cabinet ministers, the federal government ordered federal employees back to work under penalty of dismissal. The Federal Immigration Act was amended so that British-born immigrants could be deported, and the Criminal Code’s definition of sedition broadened. This allowed for the arrest of 10 strike leaders.
On June 21, strikers and sympathizers gathered to protest the arrest of the strike leaders. It was on this day that the scene from Noam Gonick’s statue played out, as frustrated protestors vandalized a streetcar and tipped it on its side.
By this point, most of Winnipeg’s police force had been fired for being sympathetic to the strike and replaced with 1,800 special constables (known as the “Specials”). In reality, Specials were nothing more than scabs armed with baseball bats and instructions to break up protests by force. Specials and the North West Mounted Police were called in to disperse the protestors and shot openly into the crowd. The ensuing violence injured around 30 and caused the death of 2 men: Mike Sokolowiski, who was shot on the street, and Steve Schezerbanowes, who died of gangrene from gunshot wounds. This event was later dubbed Bloody Saturday. In response to the violence, strike leaders decided to end the strike on June 26.
Win or loss?
Although the Winnipeg General Strike did not achieve gains in the short term, the unity formed between Canadian-born workers, British workers, and European workers helped ease racial tensions in the city. It also prompted more activism across Canada and saw some strike leaders, like J.S. Woodsworth, enter government. Woodsworth, who had been arrested during the strike but released when the charges were dropped, helped form the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) with other former strikers. Tommy Douglas, the first leader of the New Democratic Party, was an MP with the CCF and became the first CCF premier of Saskatchewan. His government passed many socialist reforms including: legislation that allowed for public servants to unionize, the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights (13 years before the Canadian Bill of Rights was introduced), and government-funded health insurance.
Looking back to move forward
It’s impossible to miss the similarities between the things workers were fighting for in 1919 and the things the union movement works for today. But it’s also important to remember how one strike brought workers of different genders, ages, and backgrounds together and became the catalyst for so much change. NUPGE looks forward to welcoming the 2019 delegates to Winnipeg to spark discussion and shape the future of the Canadian labour movement.
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