This year, May 1st has special significance for the Canadian proletariat. It coincides with the centenary of an event whose memory remains forever engraved in its memory, an event that, at the time, allowed it to learn fundamental lessons and, above all, to forge essential weapons that are still used today in our struggle against the capitalists: the Winnipeg General Strike.
On May 1, 1919, Winnipeg construction workers – followed the next day by metallurgy workers – went on strike to obtain better wages, shorter days and union recognition. Two weeks later, following the bosses’ categorical refusal to negotiate with the workers, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, after consulting with its members, announced a general strike in support of construction workers and steelworkers. More than 30,000 unionized and non-unionized workers – out of a population of 200,000 – began a strike that would paralyze the capitalist economy in the city for six weeks. A strike committee was set up and took over the administration of essential municipal services, such as food delivery and water distribution. Solidarity strikes have been unleashed in some 20 cities across the country, from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. In Montreal, a popular assembly of English-speaking, French-speaking and immigrant proletarians adopted a motion in support of the movement. Under the leadership of Winnipeg workers, the country literally burned down, shaking the bourgeoisie and the foundations of its exploitative regime.
While some will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike in a purely intellectual way, being completely disconnected from the current class struggle, or even denying its existence, the Revolutionary Communist Party (PCR) calls for the political struggle against the capitalists of our time to highlight this anniversary whose symbolic charge can only and must serve to inspire the workers of today for their future battles and especially to strengthen their will to overthrow bourgeois society once and for all. Our party therefore calls for taking to the streets on May 1 and storming the financial and commercial centre of the Canadian imperialist bourgeoisie in Montreal, one of the neighbourhoods in the country where the wealth produced by the working class is concentrated today and from which it continues to be plundered. The rally is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Phillips Square. We call on the masses to go on the offensive, to confront the capitalists and their repressive apparatus in the streets and to target bourgeois interests, putting the unity of the proletariat and its desire to take power to transform society and abolish exploitation in the foreground.
Today, as the need for socialism becomes more and more pressing with the long-term crisis in which world capitalism has been plunged for decades, as the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie sharpens in all countries, including ours – just think of recent attacks on the working masses such as the Trudeau government’s special law to force Canada Post employees back to work, as people’s living conditions deteriorate and fires burn throughout society, it is imperative that workers reconnect with their class’ traditions of struggle and regain the means of action it has historically developed during its many struggles against the capitalists.
At the moment, emancipatory perspectives for the whole class are lacking within the Canadian proletariat, while with its powerful productive forces and incredible wealth, the country has long been ripe for the collectivization of the means of production and the empowerment of the masses in the organization of society. It is therefore urgent to seize the forms of action that promote the unity of all the proletarians, that make it possible to put forward the fundamental needs of our class and, above all, that advance the revolutionary struggle to overthrow bourgeois power and replace it with workers power. In short, we must develop our initiative and, using the experience accumulated historically by the working class and the popular masses, build the camp of communist revolution!
Combative proletarian demonstrations are one of those forms of struggle that have long been part of the Canadian and international proletariat’s arsenal of combat, a powerful form of struggle now used by the masses almost everywhere in the world – especially on May 1 – and that must spread here in order to put the bourgeoisie on the defensive and advance the revolutionary movement. It was also one of the forms of struggle that the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 put forward. On June 21, 1919, during a major strike demonstration near Winnipeg City Hall, the demonstrators attacked, overthrew and set on fire a streetcar operated by scabs – an action that was immortalized by a famous photo that now symbolizes this historic strike.
Unfortunately, the strikers were not sufficiently prepared for the harshness of the repression that would follow that day, now known as “Bloody Saturday”; after the city mayor read the Riot Act, the Mounted Police of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police (the RCMP’s ancestor) loaded the demonstrators, beat them with batons and shot the crowd, killing two strikers and injuring dozens more. The routed strikers were then chased and beaten through the city streets, before they were finally occupied by the army. Despite the fact that the demonstrators somehow resisted the attack of the repressive forces, succeeding in causing some damage in the opposing camp, they were unable to hold out for long.
Far from signifying, as some pacifists might think, that the strikers should not have used violence, this episode shows on the contrary that greater and better organized violence should have been used to respond to reactionary violence and repel capitalist attacks. It should be noted that repression – including the formation of a bully militia equipped with baseball bats, the deployment of soldiers armed with machine guns, a brutal charge on June 10 against a peaceful crowd gathered to listen to a speech, and the arrest and detention of several strike leaders on June 17 – had begun before the events of Bloody Saturday, showing that the bourgeoisie, whose profits were threatened by the strike, intended from the outset to control the movement by force.
The Winnipeg General Strike – and the strike movement that swept across the country under his leadership – marked a turning point in the class struggle in Canada. It marked the decisive entry of the working class into the political arena as an independent class, based on its legitimate demands and its aspiration for socialism. It was characterized throughout its duration by an intense confrontation between workers on the one hand and capitalists and their state on the other, and that is why it made the class consciousness of the proletariat in the country jump.
It strengthened, as no previous event had done, the unity of the proletariat throughout Canada, leading men and women, Canadians of origin and immigrants, Anglophones and Francophones, to march as a single army and fight side by side against the bourgeoisie, despite the latter’s racist calls to fight “foreign garbage”, pointed out as the leaders of the movement. It has established essential demands and essential means of struggle as fundamental components of the Canadian labour movement. It was them who put forward the fight for the eight-hour day, the right to union recognition and collective bargaining. It paved the way for the development of industrial trade unionism – as opposed to trade unionism – in the following decades, which, at the time, marked a real progress in the organization of the working class. Above all, it has allowed the Canadian proletariat to seize a new form of struggle, the general strike, a weapon that it will have to use again in the years to come.
The Winnipeg Strike has helped to raise awareness among many proletarians that the workers’ economic struggle remains futile if it does not turn into a political struggle to overthrow the power of exploiters and establish socialism. Several workers leaders of the time, including some leaders of the 1919 strike, already shared this point of view before the events.
In March 1919, a few weeks before the strike, a labour convention – the Western Canadian Labour Conference – was held in Calgary, attended by representatives of the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council. During this congress, resolutions were adopted calling for the abolition of capitalism and support for the Bolshevik revolution that had just taken place in Russia two years earlier. One of these resolutions even specified that the goal of the Canadian workers movement should be the dictatorship of the proletariat in Canada: “Congress declares its full acceptance of the principle of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as absolute and effective in transforming private capitalist property into collective wealth and sends its fraternal wishes to the Russian Soviet government. In a speech to the jury that judged him for his role in the strike, John Queen, one of the movement’s leading leaders, made a statement demonstrating his radical stance: “Finally, the working class’s challenge could not be limited to improvements from within the structure of the existing economic system; if it wants to free itself permanently, it is obliged to fight capitalism itself. Thus was born modern socialism… and the workers movement merges with socialism…”
It is precisely the meaning of the slogan “Let us fight for socialism and our demands” that our Party puts forward: workers must not be content to fight in isolation from each other for their specific and immediate demands; on the contrary, they must unite and fight for the fundamental and long-term interests of the whole class, that is, seek to extend these struggles for the overthrow of bourgeois society as a whole. For without socialism, the satisfaction of their demands remains partial and ephemeral.
The Winnipeg Strike also allowed the Canadian proletariat to experience the limits of the general strike as a means of overthrowing capitalism if it is not subordinated to the armed struggle to defeat the repressive forces of the bourgeoisie. The events of Bloody Saturday confirmed what Lenin had already foreseen a few years earlier, based on the experience of the revolutionary movement in Russia, namely that the capitalists, during a general strike paralysing the economy, are almost inevitably pushed to resort to violence to revive the production process and the accumulation of profits: “Under these conditions, the strike can become – much more: in most cases, it is inevitable that it becomes – a direct and immediate collision with the armed forces.” This means that without sufficient preparation to face the organized counter-attack of the bourgeoisie, without the arming of the proletariat and the taking over of the military confrontation with the bourgeois state, the general strike, if it does not fade by itself, is doomed to be crushed by the reaction. In the future, in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to overcome the shortcomings of the 1919 experience, the general strikes that the revolutionary movement will bring about will be integrated into a superior form of combat: the prolonged popular war.
Finally, the Winnipeg General Strike helped to raise awareness among advanced workers of the need to form an independent proletarian political party to lead and bring to an end the struggle against the bourgeoisie and laid the groundwork for the creation of such a party two years later – the Communist Party of Canada (CPC). This party, of which many of the 1919 movement’s strikers were members, formed for two decades, before degenerating and abandoning the revolutionary path in the 1940s, the vanguard organization that the Canadian working class needed and which had been lacking during the Winnipeg Strike.
Today, the communist movement in the country is reborn from its ashes: a new proletarian vanguard party, the PCR, is being built by taking over the torch of the old CCP to prepare for armed struggle and lead the revolution against the Canadian imperialist bourgeoisie. The supporters of the PCR today represent the true continuators of the Canadian proletariat’s historical struggle for emancipation. It is with the need to preserve the common thread of this long and wonderful experience in mind that they will be demonstrating on May 1 in Montreal and paying a powerful tribute to the workers who participated in the historic strike movement of 1919!
Workers, take part in the movement to abolish capitalism and exploitation!
Join the May 1st demonstration in the city’s financial centre! Let’s get together at 6:30 at Phillips Square!
Let us live up to the past struggles of the proletariat: let us dare to confront the bourgeoisie and its repressive forces in the streets!
We are the Continuators!