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Manitoba History: Review: J. M. Bumsted, The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919: An Illustrated History

by James Naylor
History Department, Brandon University

Number 30, Autumn 1995

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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J. M. Bumsted, The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919: An Illustrated History, Winnipeg: Watson and Dwyer Publishing, 1994, 140 pp., illus. ISBN 0-920486-40-1.

In the nineteenth century (to paraphrase Marx) world-historical events occurred twice, first as tragedy and then as farce. In the twentieth, they are more likely to find reincarnation as coffee-table books. In this case, such a fate may be appropriate. The 75th anniversary of the Winnipeg general strike—clearly the occasion for this volume—was an important public event in the city. Winnipeggers paraded, speechified, picnicked, wrote plays, produced videos, curated museum exhibits, sang, presented historical papers, and traced the route of a walking and driving tour, all to mark the anniversary. It was, after all, an event that historians have long credited with giving Winnipeg its unique political and social character. And it lives on in the city’s collective memory. An accessibly-written and produced volume on the strike that will occupy the coffee tables of those touched by the commemorations in 1994 is to be welcomed.

That there is not a great deal of new information about the general strike in this book need not be taken as a criticism. Primary sources have, for the most part, been well mined by several generations of historians from D. C. Masters through Kenneth McNaught and David Bercuson. Bumsted augments the standard works with more recent studies of women, of immigrants, and of the role of the authorities in dealing with the strike. In total, this is a competent report of the state of research on the general strike. On the other hand, there is little here to reflect the development of the “new labour history” in the past couple of decades, with its focus on working-class culture and values. The general strike was deeply rooted in class-based assumptions of the value of work, community and honour. While the immediate background to the strike is well explored, there is little explanation of the centrality of class within this specifically working-class event. It is important to remember that the ostensible goals of the strike—collective bargaining rights—only applied to a small group of metal trades workers. Why did perhaps 30,000 other workers, most of them not even union members, walk out in support? What did they hope to gain by such a dramatic step? The costs were high in lost wages and, for many, the permanent loss of their jobs. The answer lies not just in the immediate background to the strike (which is well documented here) but also in cultural expectations that somehow united a diverse community of workers.

The details of the strike are not in dispute among historians, but how these events are interpreted has provoked much debate over the past few years. What was the strike about? What were these workers trying to achieve? Bumsted senses the innate drama of the strike and largely abandons the dominant interpretation (defended most vociferously in David Bercuson’s most recent edition of Confrontation at Winnipeg) as “merely a modest attempt to win the right of collective bargaining” (73). In contrast, he takes seriously the more radical aspirations widely voiced before and (in more cautious terms) during and after the strike. The leaders, he points out, “all believed in the need for extreme social and economic change” (33). Unfortunately, he is silent on the beliefs of the thousands of Winnipeg workers who joined the strike. However, as the historians of crowd activity have pointed out, collective activity can be “read.” The collective willingness to act can only be explained by a belief in the possibility of meaningful, if vague, social change. The city’s elite recognized this and labelled their action as “revolutionary” in its implications. It is worth adding to the narrative Bumsted presents that the 30,000 were not alone. The tension of the Winnipeg strike in part lay in the ongoing possibility that it could spread throughout the region, if not further. Sympathetic strikes smouldered throughout the prairies, always threatening to ignite into replays of Winnipeg. Neither the strikers nor the authorities knew where it all was leading. Everywhere, in 1919, workers seemed willing to challenge the status quo through unprecedented militancy and new tactics. Bumsted has attempted to produce a lively and popular text, but the dramatic tension of the moment does not always emerge.

It must also be added that Bumsted is not always sure of his ground in labour history. The February 1919 general strike in Seattle was not the first such event in American history (2). The 1892 New Orleans strike is the most important counter-example. British immigrants were still more likely to be schooled in craft, rather than industrial unionism (6), and the emergence of the “Canadian Labor Congress” (28) lay almost four decades away. More serious is his characterization of the ideology expressed at the western labour conference in Calgary (and by extension to the Winnipeg strike leadership) as “producerism.” Rather, 1919 saw the effective rejection of the idea (dominant, for instance, in the Knights of Labor in the 1880s) that the principle social divisions in society lay between producers and non-producing “drones.” This led to alliances with other producers—farmers, small manufacturers and middle class reformers. What is notably the case about the Calgary gathering and the Winnipeg strike was the extent that the primary antagonists were clearly recognized as capital and labour. That wage workers had a historic role to play as a class was accepted apparently without dissension or debate. The vague populism of agrarianism and cross-class reform movements was strikingly absent in the general strike movement, and farmers and urban liberals were largely ignored if they did not explicitly declare themselves for “labour.”

The Winnipeg strike presents many challenging questions for historians. Many of these are implicit in Bumsted’s text. Why did so many workers walk out? Why did most returned soldiers identify with the strikers despite the Citizens Committee attempts to associate the strike with “enemy aliens”? And why did bourgeois Winnipeg perceive a revolution at its doorstep? Some of the questions posed more explicitly are simply facile, such as “Should the Mounted Police have ridden into the crowd?” (57). If there is a current of historical opinion that supports attacks on horseback into unarmed crowds of returned soldiers, one assumes that it can be easily dismissed. It seems to me that this would be the occasion to ask more challenging questions about the willingness of the city’s elite to appeal to nativism and to violence and the willingness of the state to turn to authoritarian responses to mass disobedience. The debate is truncated by Bumsted’s conclusion that the strikers’ interpretation “has come to be the accepted one” (73). It would be in interesting indictment of the historical profession if an interpretation of the events of 1919 crafted three-quarters of a century ago by the strike leadership in response to charges of seditious conspiracy would stand the test of time. In fact, within the context of general sympathy for the strikers, there is a lively debate about the meaning of these events, and room for a panoply of interpretations.

Finally, having noted at the outset that this book is clearly intended for a wider audience, a few comments about its presentation would seem in order. As Bumsted notes, Winnipeg is fortunate in having access to the huge collection of photographs by Lewis Foote and the author has generally chosen wisely in selecting illustrations for the volume although larger pictures would have been more appropriate for such a volume. More peculiar is the very long glossary. Running to 53 pages (the main text is only 73 pages) it is difficult to escape the feeling that we are being told the story of the Winnipeg general strike twice: once chronologically and again alphabetically. Much of the interesting information in the glossary would have been better presented in sidebars thereby breaking up the narrative with details and explanations that could add insight and nuance along the way.

Winnipeg General Strike leaders, circa 1920.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg Strike 35, N12322.

[April 2011: Archival references that place this photo at Stony Mountain Penitentiary are incorrect if William Pritchard (top row, far right) is to be believed. In commenting on the image as it appeared in Norman Penner’s Workers Own History of the Strike, Pritchard reported that it was taken “outside the walls of the County jail, Winnipeg, not Stony Mt., 18 miles west.” See Archives of Manitoba, Jack Walker Collection, Bill Pritchard to Jack Walker, 10 November 1973, P5623, file #14. We thank Tom Mitchell for bringing Pritchard’s correction to our attention.]

Page revised: 4 December 2011

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