The employers of the building trades agreed that the average wage was inadequate but claimed they were unable to do any better. The iron masters not only refused the wage demands but also declined to deal with the Metal Trades Council, the common bargaining agent of the metal trades unions. They asserted that collective bargaining applied only to the group of men employed by any one firm (or type of firms), and in this, as previously noted, they were supported by the governments.
The Building Trades Council and the Metal Trades Council then took their case to the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council and the latter ordered a vote in all its affiliates on the question of a general strikeprimarily to secure the principle of collective bargaining, and secondly as a demand for general wage increases to meet the soaring cost of living. The result of the vote was an overwhelming majority in favour of a general strike, and on May 15 approximately thirty thousand workers left their jobs (including, significantly, about twelve thousand who were not members of unions).
The strike, which lasted until June 26, involved everyone in Winnipeg deeply, produced a spasm of fear throughout the great middle class of the city which led some of the people of Fort Rouge to sleep in churches for fear of being murdered in their beds, and yet was characterized primarily by its almost absolute lack of violence. Indeed, as already observed, the present communist criticism of the strike holds that the policy of telling the workers to stay at home was its greatest weakness.
At the very outset were established the two organizations which give the strike the aspect of a class conflict: the Central Strike Committee and the Citizens Committee of One Thousand. These two bodies quite clearly represented the opposing classes in the strike. The Central Strike Committee was elected by the General Strike Committee which was composed of delegates from each of the unions affiliated with the Trades and Labour Council. The Citizens Committee was an ad hoc group of business leaders whose chairman was A. L. Crossin, and which included A . J.
Andrews, Isaac Pitblado, and others prominent in the citys legal and business life. The actual statistics of the strike tend to minimize the significance of the divisions in Winnipeg in 1919. The Citizens Committee claimed to represent the great mass of neutral citizenry, but a contemporary article by an excellent news reporter, W. R. Plewman of the Toronto Star, observed that it must be remembered that this [ Winnipeg ] is a city of only 200,000, and that 35,000 persons are on strike. Thus it will be seen that the strikers and their relatives must represent at least fifty per cent. of the population.
In the numerical sense, therefore, it cannot be said that the average citizen is against the strike¦ there is no soviet. There is little or no terrorism. That was the great trouble. The lawyers and business leaders of the Citizens Committee, realizing the great mass of inertia that was the strike, were compelled to characterize it as positive, revolutionary, and the work of a small group of Reds, if they were to suppress the movement and re-establish business as usual. In order to suggest further the attitudes of business, church, government, and labor leaders, something must be said about the course of the strike.
The original walk-out included not only most of the industrial workers, but also the employees of all the public utilities and services. This posed a difficult question for the Strike Committee. Basic services must be carried on because they did not propose an all-out war, contrary to the charges of their opponents. But this meant that it was necessary also to protect whatever workers remained at their jobs from facing the charge of being scabs. Thus the famous placards that appeared everywhere in the city explaining that the service being operated was By Permission of the Strike Committee.
These signs were taken by some to imply that government powers had actually been seized by the strikers; actually it was the head of the Crescent Creamery Company who suggested the use of the placards as protection for milk deliveries. The police force voted in favor of the strike but at the request of the Strike Committee remained on duty and under orders of the municipal government. Water was kept at a pressure sufficient for domestic purposes, and the distribution of bread and milk was arranged by joint action of the Strike Committee and representatives of the Citizens Committee and the City Council.