The Workers’ Revolt in Toronto

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Jim Naylor

The militancy, radicalism, and enthusiasm of large numbers of Toronto workers suggested they were on a parallel path to Winnipeggers leading up to that city’s general strike. The final year of the war had seen a new spirit among Toronto’s workers in ways that mirrored Winnipeg’s. For instance, Toronto’s Civic Employees’ Union had grown steadily to perhaps 1,500 members by the summer of 1918 when the Toronto District Labour Council (TDLC) rallied to their support for a substantial increase in wages. In doing so, the TDLC explicitly referred to Winnipeg’s labour council’s threat of a general strike in support of municipal workers in that city. That threat, along with a short strike by Toronto civic workers, resulted in an arbitrated agreement that met most of their demands.

Through the final months of the war and into 1919, the Toronto labour movement grew dramatically—and transformed. Older unions grew in new ways; the machinists organized less-skilled “specialists,” often women. The building trades became increasingly unified. Not only were they willing to call out all 7,400 members of the industry in Toronto in support of the painters, the building trades council established its own strike fund—independent of the international unions—to enable such actions. New unions among teamsters, telephone operators, bank workers, and domestic servants emerged. The Meat Cutters and Butcher Workers’ union grew from 22 members in 1918 to about 4,000 in 1919, making them the largest union local in the city, and with a gender and ethnic diversity that reflected the changing character of the labour movement.

“Striking Workers (ca. 1919),” City of Toronto Archives. Courtesy of Craig Heron.

On May Day 1919, up to 10,000 Toronto workers rallied and cheered for social revolution, celebrated the Bolshevik victory, honoured working-class martyrs Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and demanded the release of political prisoners jailed under the War Measures Act. That same morning, 4,000 metal trades workers in 232 factories went on strike demanding the eight-hour day and recognition of, and negotiations with, their federated council.  When left-wing leader John Macdonald proposed the TDLC organize limited strikes in support, perhaps one or two days per week, the machinists’, butcher workers’, and carpenters’ delegates demanded a full general strike. Leading up the 26 May vote on the general strike, it was hard to argue with the Metal Trades Council president R.C. Brown’s prediction that “It is going to be Winnipeg all over again.”

But the vote on the general strike seemed to belie the prevailing sentiment. It passed by an unimpressive 9,985 to 5,150. Worse, delegates representing 15,550 workers had abstained. What had happened?

A number of delegates, led by officials of the Street Railway Employees’ Union, had opposed “precipitate action,” expressing concern about the consequences of striking without the sanction of their international union. Toronto labour included a number of well-established unions that had evaded the influx of more diverse workers and, to some extent, radical ideas, and whose members were wary of placing their organizations at risk in what seemed to be emerging as a dangerous class battle. More specifically, conservative labour leaders—some of whom were successful municipal politicians, others salaried union business agents concerned that their own positions were being challenged by a new breed of militant, radical unionists—continued to lead the labour council. They would be swept from the TDLC leadership in July 1919 (although not from their own unions or from city council). Still, the existence of a minority, yet powerful and vocal, opposition to the general strike revealed the cracks in the movement and deflated hopes of any sure or quick victory. The abstentions in the TDLC’s general strike vote no doubt reflected support for the Metal Trades workers but a lack of confidence that the tactic of the general strike could succeed in the face of such divisions.

However weakly, though, the TDLC had voted in favour of the strike and—following a futile trip to Ottawa to meet with Prime Minister Borden and employers’ representatives—a somewhat-less-than-general strike started on Friday, 30 May.

Estimates of the number of participants ranged from 17,000 to 19,000—far fewer than much smaller Winnipeg. Even the militant butcher workers’ union decided it was not worth risking their recently hard-won collective agreement in what was clearly a losing battle. The Committee of Fifteen that had been elected to lead the general strike was forced to the same conclusion. After spending the weekend attempting to rally more support, they met on Monday evening, 2 June, and called it off.

As in Winnipeg, the mass strike was met with unrestrained red baiting from the conservative press; the Financial Post decried the attempt to impose “the Trotzky [sic] form of Government” in Winnipeg and Toronto. Lord Baden-Powell, who happened to be in Toronto, volunteered the Boy Scouts as strikebreakers. The strike of metal trades workers continued until the end of July. The machinists won some reduction in hours, but Toronto had been a major front in the moulders’ unsuccessful continent-wide battle for the eight-hour day that bankrupted the union. Not surprisingly, the earlier enthusiasm of several groups of Toronto workers for the OBU dissipated; given the deep divisions revealed in labour movement, any notion of a “one big union” in Toronto proved particularly illusionary. Notably, the left remained strong and even achieved dominance within the TDLC and the building trades entered a fight of “one big agreement” in 1920. But the moment had passed. The deep well of militancy and radicalism that clearly existed in Toronto could not compensate for the fact that the city’s labour movement seemed incapable of spawning the kind of solidarity and unity that would have made it “Winnipeg all over again.”

James Naylor is the author of The Fate of Labour Socialism: The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Dream of a Working-Class Future (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), which examines the aftermath of the general strikes era over the interwar period. He teaches History at Brandon University.

Further reading:

Naylor, James. “Toronto 1919.” Historical Papers 21, no. 1 (1986): 33–55.

Naylor, James. The New Democracy: Challenging the Social Order in Industrial Ontario, 1914–25. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Heron, Craig. Toronto 1919. Play. Directed by Aida Jordão. Toronto: Toronto Workers’ Theatre Group, 2019.


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