In the first days of the strike there appeared to be a steadily growing support for the workers’ cause–a support which would compel the iron masters and the builders to concede the unions’ demands. This appearance was heightened by the failure of the daily press to replace its staff immediately the strike began, while the Western Labor News issued daily Strike Bulletins. The middle-class dismay at being deprived of its own source of news is illustrated in the contemporary diary of a Methodist minister.
When the Free Press finally was sold again on the streets on May 23, he wrote, “The Free Press has installed a wireless on the roof of its building so now we are all right, and the strike is practically broken, as the working folks have no money, and they are sick of the strike…. ” Further fear of a strike victory was stimulated by the fact that the majority of the city’s returned soldiers were in support of the strike. This was undoubtedly one of the most disturbing features from the point of view of the Citizens’ Committee.
The day the strike started a great meeting of returned soldiers was called by the executives of the Great War Veterans’ Association, the Army and Navy Veterans’ Association and the Imperial Veterans of Canada. The purpose of the executives of these organizations was to obtain passage of a resolution condemning the general strike. However, the executive resolution was defeated and another, strongly in favour of the strikers, was passed. As it turned out, the Citizens’ Committee had no more cause to fear violence from the returned soldiers than it had from the strikers themselves.
There were two noisy but peaceful mass interviews with Premier Norris and Mayor Gray, neither of which produced startling results. The policy of the strikers and the published directions in the Western Labor News indicate a consistently passive technique and a peculiarly cautious regard for “law and order. ” The editorials of the Winnipeg dailies, the actions of the Citizens’ Committee and the three governments concerned, all seem to exhibit a determination to suppress the claim of the working class of the city that it need not work under conditions which it regarded as oppressive.
This is not to paint the picture in black and white, but rather to emphasize again the hysteria that reigned almost supreme in 1919 amongst the middle and upper classes controlling the governments and economic life of the nation. There was undoubtedly a deep-seated belief that overthrow of all established institutions was imminent as a result of the spread of communist thought following the Russian Revolution, and that even if the Winnipeg strike was not designed as such a revolution the principle of the general strike should be effectively denied.
Fear that the traditional bonds of society might break was widespread. In the Commons, M. R. Blake, representative of North Winnipeg, stated his belief that “the tired feeling is abroad in this land” and that the workers had ceased to appreciate “their responsibility to capital and the state. ” The endeavor to depict the strike as the work of a few radicals, and the continual reiteration of the theme that violence was just around the comer, were enthusiastically followed up by the Telegram, the Tribune, and the Free Press. These attitudes remained constant throughout the strike.
The several attempts at conciliation were blocked by the fundamental problem of recognizing the collective bargaining principle. As the strike progressed, the employers and the representatives of the governments insisted that at the very least all public utilities should be “returned to normal” before the issues of the strike were discussed, and, when an attempt to mediate was made by a committee of the Canadian Railway Brotherhoods, again refused to deal with the Metal Trades Council on any grounds. The familiar employer’s insistence broke all the mediation efforts; “give up the strike, then bargain on our terms.
” By May 22 there was apparently a deadlock, and the necessity of breaking it appeared to many minds to be very great indeed. Not only had organized labour exhibited a colossal strength in Winnipeg, but the idea was spreading. There were contemporaneous strikes of varying size and importance right across the country and labor leaders in Winnipeg and some other western cities were beginning to call for a Dominion strike committee. At this point the concerted offensive which finally resulted in the collapse of the strike was begun.