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Levine: Jews and the Winnipeg General Strike

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Winnipeg General Strike (Flickr photo - Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Foote Collection)

On the morning of May 15, 1919, approximately 30,000 workers in Winnipeg walked off their jobs. For the next six weeks, the Winnipeg General Strike nearly paralyzed the city’s population of 175,000 people.

The strike pitted the Central Strike Committee, led by such labour leaders as Robert B. Russell, James Winning and William Ivens – almost all of whom were British or Scottish-born and members of the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (TLC) – against the city’s business community, which established the secretive Citizens’ Committee of 1,000.

Though some labourites used extreme rhetoric about rebuilding society while at the same time praising the Russian Revolution of 1917, the strike was essentially about the recognition of union rights and collective bargaining. The business elite, most notably lawyer Alfred A. Andrews, who spoke publicly for the Committee of 1,000 and communicated throughout the strike with the federal government, maintained that the labour conflict was in reality a Bolshevik plot to set up a Soviet-style regime in the city.

The random element of the strike was hundreds of disillusioned veterans of the First World War. The majority tended to side with the strikers, but a good number were decidedly anti-strike and believed that “aliens” and “foreigners” were behind it. The two sides clashed more than once, leading to several violent incidents – most famously on “Bloody Saturday,” June 21, when the Royal North-West Mounted Police (RNWMP) attacked strikers marching in the downtown area. In the ensuing melee, two people were killed and many more were injured by anti-strike veterans who had been hired by the city as “special constables.”

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Winnipeg had a Jewish population of about 9,000 in 1919. The vast majority were eastern European immigrants who resided in the North End of the city. The Central Strike Committee was not interested in protecting the rights of eastern European workers, yet most Jews, especially those who regarded themselves as secular socialists, were sympathetic to the strikers.

The most prominent Jewish labour leader was Abraham A. Heaps, a 34-year-old English Jew whose parents were from Russia. Trained as an upholsterer, he had arrived in Winnipeg from Leeds in 1911 and became a member of the local upholsters’ union. A bright and affable individual, he earned the respect of his fellow tradesmen and was elected as their representative to the TLC. Heaps spoke English with a Yorkshire accent, but had never learned Yiddish. As a result, he remained distant from Yiddish culture and was never truly embraced by the Yiddish-speaking workers in the city.

Though the Committee of 1,000 never kept any official records, it is believed that Max Steinkopf, one of the first Jewish lawyers in the city who was acceptable to the commercial elite, was one of its members.

Steinkopf’s presence, however, did not stop the dissemination of propaganda that blamed foreigners and Jews for the strike. “Rich Jews are meeting in West Kildonan (in the north part of the city),” an officer of the RNWMP declared on June 11, 1919, in a report sent to Prime Minister Robert Borden’s office in Ottawa. “The object of these secret meetings (is to support) the
strikers financially.… The Jews (are) fulfilling a mission for the higher up Bolsheviks.… The feeling against Jewry is becoming more bitter as people are realizing more and more that the removal of Jews from responsible positions … will not only be the salvation of the country but a final victory over Bolshevism.”

The Mountie who wrote the report was nowhere near the truth of the matter. Yet, the participation of several Jews as strike leaders left the impression that Jews were as keen as anyone else for a working-class victory.

Near the end of the strike, during the early hours of June 17, the Mounties swept through Winnipeg and arrested 12 of the strike leaders, including Heaps. He was incarcerated at the Stony Mountain Penitentiary and charged with seditious conspiracy. At the strikers’ trials, Heaps brilliantly defended himself and was acquitted. He went on to have a successful career as a member of Parliament, where he continued to represent the interests of Canada’s working-class and Jews.