ActiveHistory.ca is launching a special Theme Week (17–21 June) that examines the 1919 strike wave in what is today known as Canada. The series is edited by Sean Carleton and Julia Smith.
At a time of growing unrest, with calls for climate strikes and recent threats of general strikes in the United States and in Ontario, revisiting the 1919 strike wave and reflecting on the tactics and strategies of past labour battles can yield valuable lessons for those battling to build a better world today. History is an important organizing tool.
100 years ago, in the spring and summer of 1919, thousands of workers across the country went on strike—they withdrew their labour—to protest poor wages and working conditions and to grow workers’ power in society. The strike was, and remains, a powerful tool of working-class protest because capitalism depends on working people to work to make profit. Workers’ withdrawal of their labour thus strikes at the very heart of capitalism. This was clearly on display in 1919. Since then, capitalists and the state have increasingly tried to limit workers’ ability to strike, channeling protest into the legal system and other mechanisms that do not disrupt capitalist production. The 1919 strike wave reminds us that the strike and solidarity are working peoples’ ultimate weapon.
The 1919 strike wave was part of a larger workers’ revolt in Canada that started just before the First World War and ended in the early 1920s. Between 1912 and 1921 there were approximately 2,451 strikes, with more than 500,000 workers involved. Over 10 million striker days—or days of work—were lost. More than a third of those days were in 1919.
The most well-known action in the 1919 strike wave was the six-week Winnipeg General Strike (15 May–26 June) that saw 35,000 workers walk off the job. Much has been written recently about the centenary of the strike in Winnipeg. As previous contributors to ActiveHistory.ca have explained, the strike was a significant event that holds many lessons for activists today.
It is important to remember, though, that the Winnipeg General Strike was not an isolated event. It was part of a broader workers’ revolt that swept across Canada that year, as workers from Amherst, Nova Scotia to Victoria, British Columbia launched a series of strikes to show solidarity with strikers in Winnipeg and to address their own local grievances. The goal of this Theme Week is to highlight the 1919 strike wave by showcasing some of the strikes that happened outside of Winnipeg.
Each strike had its own unique context and circumstances, reflecting the particular histories of colonial and capitalist development and class formation and organization in each city and region. Though we are not covering every strike in this Theme Week, the strikes we showcase help map the terrain of class conflict in Canada in 1919.
In the spirit of the 1919 strikers, and in taking seriously the idea that we can accomplish more by working together, as editors we selected a methodology of solidarity. We invited members of the Canadian Committee on Labour History, including emerging and established scholars, to contribute posts based on their interests and areas of expertise, putting theory into practice and showing how we can work together to produce something bigger than ourselves. Working together, as a union of writers, we have created a cohesive Theme Week that introduces readers to a series of local labour histories that composed a national strike wave.
We invite readers to share and engage with the posts to spark dialogue between historians and labour activists about the lessons and legacies of 1919 for 2019 and beyond. You can reach us at @ActiveHist, @SeanCarleton, and @GHC_Comics.
Sean Carleton is an Assistant Professor at Mount Royal University.
Julia Smith is a Banting Fellow and Honorary Grant Notley Memorial Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta.