Another page from our history that is often overlooked by our critics.
On June the 26th, 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike that began on May 15, ended.
The authorities had declared that the Winnipeg general strike as the first stage of a revolutionary conspiracy. The New York Times had the headline “Bolshevism invades Canada”. But for most of the men and women, the Winnipeg General Strike was not an exercise in ideology. Instead, its roots grew from a yawning chasm of economic inequality that had become too impossible to ignore. The 1919 Royal Commission report on the causes of the strike explained, "There has been... an increasing display of carefree, idle luxury and extravagance on one hand, while on the other is intensified deprivation." The strikers sought only the right to collective bargaining and a wage increase. The evidence is overwhelming that the intent was not political revolution, and the great majority of Canadian workers, including most workers in Winnipeg, were not socialists in any meaningful sense.
The strike did demonstrate, however, that the workers were well capable of organizing and performing the jobs usually done by the representatives of the ruling class in the smooth running of a city. In essence, how the workers conducted themselves was the real lesson of the strike.
Bill Pritchard's solidarity speech to Vancouver workers sounded the appropriate defensive note: Their comrades were in the fight, and it was now a question of standing by them and, if necessary, going down with them - or, later, going down by themselves. His advice was:-
"If you are going to drown - drown splashing!"
The working class must stand united, however ill-prepared their forces and however badly chosen the field of battle.
The strike committee told supporters the next battle would be waged on a political level. The One Big Union was not expected to free the workers from wage slavery any more than the traditional trade unions were. There was no question of industrial versus political as in the 1908 Industrial Workers of the World schism. The two were complementary phases of the working class movement.
The Socialist Party of Canada disbanded in 1925 and later re-constituted in 1931 but is still to regain its earlier strength and influence.
The remnants of the One Big Union became part of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) in 1956. The concept of the One Big Union was that all workers should be organised in one union - one big union, the OBU. Most notable was the attempt of the Industrial Workers of the World ("the Wobblies") to organise in the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries. The debate was over whether unions should be based on craft groups, organized by their skill, the dominant model at the time, carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, each into their respective unions. Capitalists could often divide craft and trade unionists along these lines in demarcation disputes. As capitalist enterprises and state bureaucracies became more centralised and larger, some workers felt that their institutions needed to become similarly large based on entire industries (industrial unions). The One Big Union movement supported the "entire industries" model over the "craft groups" model. The OBU organisation in Canada differed structurally from the IWW in that the IWW organised on industrial lines, the OBU in Canada focused more on organising workers geographically.
The One Big Union movement in Canada grew out of the discontent of the Western unions with the Trades and Labor Congress of the Dominion, On March 13, 1919, a conference was called at Calgary, Canada. The 237 delegates who attended immediately voted to sever connections with the old body and the A. F. of L. and to form a new industrial organization. They adopted the name One Big Union, along with resolutions demanding the release of political prisoners, the six-hour work day, five-day week, withdrawal of Allied troops from Russia, and a general strike beginning 1 June to enforce these demands. Delegates approved “the principle of ‘Proletariat Dictatorship’ ” called for “the abolition of the present system of production for profit,” and sent fraternal greetings to Russia’s Soviet government and the German Spartacists. A central committee was elected, consisting of five SPC members, three from BC, denouncing war profiteering and price fixing, an end to the sedition act (which had been used to ban the IWW and the SPC), equal pay for women as well as the right to vote, free public education, health and safety legislation for industry, the nationalisation of major industries especially railroads and utilities. The many members of the Socialist Party of Canada helped form the One Big Union movement. The SPC provided many of the activists of the OBU but they did not abandon the project of building the party for an anti-political syndicalist dream. The OBU stressed class organisation rather than industrial organisation.
In pursuance of this class policy it did not condemn political action, but rather declared that the only hope for the workers was:-
"In the economic and political solidarity of the working class, One Big Union and One Workers' Party." -The OBU Bulletin, Dec. 20, 1919.
The founding members of the OBU were determined to create an industrial union that would not discriminate between skilled and un-skilled, foreign-born or Canadian workers. A union that was opposed not only to capitalist war but to capitalism itself.
"It is not the name of an organization nor its preamble, but the degree of working class knowledge possessed by its membership that determines whether or not it is a revolutionary body.... It is true that the act of voting in favour of an industrial as against the craft form of organization denotes an advance in the understanding of the commodity nature of labour power, but it does not by any means imply a knowledge of the necessity of the social revolution." explained Jack Kavanagh, "There can be no question of industrial vs. political," he concluded in the fall of 1919, "the two are complementary phases of the working class movement."
The OBU at its peak had 101 locals and 41,500 members—almost the entire union membership of Western Canada. The OBU faced three very powerful opponents.
Employers blacklisted OBU workers and incited hysteria. A mine owner told the Calgary Herald, “One thing is for certain, and that is that we will have no dealings with the One Big Union nor officers of any organization representing that sentiment."
The CLC and its affilate UMWA which was anti-socialist and against militant industrial unionism. The OBU stood for everything it opposed.
The Communist Party following Comintern's orders began a campaign of disruption, forcing the OBU members back into the CLC unions or and working to destroy the organisation outright. Lenin argued against dual- unionism, against the setting up of revolutionary unions, and exhorted radicals to work in the mainstream of the labour movement in order to win the support of the majority of workers and to oust the various bureaucratic leaderships. In Canada, this meant rejoining the CLC.
Nevertheless, in 1925 the membership was 17,000 and grew slowly throughout the 1920’s to reach a maximum of 24,000 members. The year they joined the Canadian Labor Congress the membership stood at 12,000.
Today, union activists continue to strive for collective forms of organisation capable of superseding institutional barriers and a cumbersome legal apparatus. Driven by the same dreams that mobilised a generation behind the OBU, contemporary workers can learn something from the possibilities (and pitfalls) of the OBU. The OBU did not have all the answers by any means. But what they represented was a tendency that was stopped by so-called revolutionary proponents of Leninism and the reformist apologists of Labourism. Who knows what might have resulted had this development not been cut short by that informal alliance of employers, union bosses, Federal government and Communist Party.
The right to strike is one thing, the power to strike is another. The weakness of the members of the OBU was not in daring to dream and to act on those dreams, but not realising how many and how powerful the guardians of capitalism were.
“Strikes may result in changes and even so-called improvements but this is but superficial. This will continue until the workers in sufficient numbers free themselves from the concepts of this society, from ideas that bind them to the notion that the present is the only possible social system, and recognize that under this system “the more things change the more they remain the same”; that even now in their struggles over wages and conditions, like the character in “Alice in Wonderland” they have to keep running in order to stay in the same place. But the Winnipeg Strike will go down in history as a magnificent example of working class solidarity and courage.” - W. A. Pritchard