Rough ride

Violent streetcar strike, with baton-swinging special constables attacking citizens, stunned city


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This city’s early labour history is dominated by the much-studied, much-written-about Winnipeg General Strike. Thirteen years earlier, the less-known, 10-day Winnipeg Street Railway Strike shocked the city with its violence, vandalism and the sight of troops in the street.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/04/2017 (2128 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This city’s early labour history is dominated by the much-studied, much-written-about Winnipeg General Strike. Thirteen years earlier, the less-known, 10-day Winnipeg Street Railway Strike shocked the city with its violence, vandalism and the sight of troops in the street.

The city’s formal public transportation system dates back to 1882, when the privately owned Winnipeg Street Railway Company was given a charter to operate a streetcar service. A decade later, it was sold to another private entity called the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company.

The relationship between the city and streetcar company was often tense. City officials had to deal with constant complaints from the public about the frequency of cars or demands for routes to serve new streets and neighbourhoods.

The company, very conscious of its bottom line, often had to be ordered by the city to make necessary service improvements. (The strained relationship lasted until the 1953, when the company was bought by the provincial government, eventually becoming Winnipeg Transit.)

Employees found the company equally tough to deal with. Throughout the 1890s, for example, the work week was six days — just over 11 hours per day on weekdays and almost 12 hours on Saturday. The 15 to 17 cents per hour pay rate was considered meagre even by the standards of the day.

Streetcar employees finally organized in 1899, but the company refused to recognize the union. It provided small raises every couple of years, which kept employees showing up for work, but didn’t address other, long-simmering issues.

If there was an ally the streetcar employees could count on, it was the public. This support was seen in the December 1904 referendum on the introduction of Sunday streetcar service.

People pose with an abandoned streetcar during the strike, which started on March 29, 1906. (Western Canada Pictoral Index, Robert Goodall Collection, No. 9839)

Winnipeg was one of the few large cities in Canada that didn’t offer seven-day streetcar service, and a strong vote in favour of the proposition was considered a foregone conclusion. Things quickly unravelled when the company refused to guarantee it wouldn’t make existing employees work a seventh day in addition to their existing schedule.

In the end, the vote was lost, and the daily papers unanimously agreed it was because of the public, who traded their own convenience for the well-being of the streetcar employees.

However, this public show of support did not earn the employees any concessions with their employer or favours from government officials.

Frustrated at the inaction over complaints about hours, pay rates and safe working conditions, the union appeared before various government committees and had face-to-face meetings with both the premier and mayor in the hopes some of these matters could be addressed through legislation.

While they were given sympathetic hearings, they were told to negotiate or arbitrate with their uninterested employer.

Replacement workers under police guard prepare to remove two abandoned cars from Main Street and return them to the garage on the first day of the strike. (Western Canada Pictoral Index, Robert Goodall Collection, No. 9842)

Tensions peaked in early March 1906, when the company suspended a handful of streetcar employees who were active in the union. It had also added to its job applications a pledge for new recruits to sign swearing they would not join a streetcar-related union.

On Thursday, March 29, at 12:30 a.m., after the last streetcar went out of service, employees met to discuss their situation. Three hours later, they had a 237 to 0 vote in favour of an immediate strike.

The employees had a long list of demands. It included a 10-hour work day with a two-cent per hour raise. Drivers wanted to be able to choose routes based on seniority rather than have them assigned by the company. Recognition of the union, and a promise that in the future, disputes would be settled by arbitration, were also near the top of the list.

There were a number of safety issues the men wanted addressed, ranging from providing heat inside the drivers’ compartment to new braking systems on the streetcars.

Winnipeg Electric Railway Company officials replied in a written statement it “always endeavoured to meet their men in any reasonable request.” While they sounded conciliatory about most of the demands, they did not budge on the matter of a wage increase or union recognition.

The company had been preparing for a possible strike all month by hiring more than 200 replacement workers from places such as Toronto and Montreal. It assured the public cars would roll later that morning, despite the strike call.

At 6 a.m., streetcars began leaving the Main Street garage. A Manitoba Free Press reporter at the scene noted striking employees “confined themselves to picket duty and did nothing more harmful than hoot at the men that were displacing them.” Later in the morning, the picket line dissolved as the men, who had been awake since their strike meeting, went home to bed.

‘It is a very serious fact that there are walking about the streets of Winnipeg over one hundred strangers armed with guns who are possessed of the executive powers of special constables’– a Free Press editorial 

Most of the city’s streetcar routes were in service, the exceptions being suburban lines to St. Boniface and St. James. Newspapers report many passengers chose to walk to work rather than ride with the replacement workers, some sporting “We Walk” badges to show their support.

As the morning crowds on downtown streets grew, some passing streetcars were pelted with stones, the broken glass injuring some passengers and drivers. Crowds then began to confront the cars, disabling them by unhooking them from the overhead wires and emptying them of occupants.

By 11 a.m., Main Street service was at a standstill as the tracks were blocked by disabled cars. Protesters then went to other streets such as Selkirk and Notre Dame avenues to find more cars. By 1 p.m., the city’s streetcar system had ground to a halt.

The streetcar company reported more than a dozen of its vehicles had been vandalized. Later in the day, two disabled cars were set on fire, one on Selkirk and the other on Higgins Avenue.The most violent incidents seem to have occurred when replacement workers, with a police escort, went later in the day to tow the damaged streetcars back to the garage. They were pelted with projectiles and often confronted directly by protesters. Police had to use batons to keep them separated.

A Free Press reporter noted the day’s protesters were a cross-section of society. “The demonstrators were made up of sympathizers of all classes and reputable-looking people seemed to be taking a keen enjoyment in the disorder.” Even women and children got in on the action, he wrote.

The mayor appealed for calm, but on that first day did not call on the militia (members of the 90th Battalion and 13th Field Battery were on standby at Osborne Barracks), nor did he read the riot act.

That afternoon, the streetcar company released a statement expressing anger about the destruction of its property and insisting the city pay for the damage. The mayor was urged to call in the militia because the city’s police force demonstrated it was unable to protect its property or personnel.

Friday, March 30, started off much the same as the day before. Pickets were set up, replacement workers were jeered at, and projectiles were thrown at passing cars.

The streetcar company had something new up its sleeve on this second day. Though officials later denied it, the Tribune and Free Press, and weekly labour newspaper the Voice, all reported about 100 security officers from the American-based Thiel Detective Service had been hired to provide protection.

The company had convinced provincial magistrate Alexander McMicken, a former Winnipeg mayor, to swear these men in as special constables, or “specials.” This gave them a badge and all the powers of a regular police officer.

Over the lunch hour, crowds on the streets began to swell. Newspaper reports indicate 2,000 or more people jammed into a short stretch of Main Street north of city hall.

Streetcars continued to pass though the crowds, some at very high speeds, narrowly missing people, and the number of projectiles thrown increased. Mayor Sharpe, who had been watching the action from the sidewalk, decided at around 1:30 p.m. it was time to read the riot act and called in the militia to disperse the crowd.

Just before 3 p.m., the troops marched through Portage and Main to take up their positions at Higgins and Main. Sharpe entered the intersection street behind a shield of militia men and made a number of verbal requests for people to disperse, but to no avail.

During this time, a streetcar came to a stop at the intersection behind him. People began hurling objects at it and “some of the more daring spirits” surrounded it and tried remove the replacement workers inside.

It was at this point the mayor read the riot act.

The crowd did not disperse, so Sharpe ordered the troops to prepare their bayonets. The sight caused people to “scatter like leaves.” He later told a Tribune reporter he “would not have read the riot act had the crowd taken the least notice of what I said. There will be no bloodshed in the city of Winnipeg if I can help it.”

The mayor stayed on scene to observe the situation, and at 5:20 p.m., another streetcar pulled up at the intersection. One of the specials who was riding on the platform jumped off and came at the officials with his baton swinging, striking the mayor. When Sharpe informed him who he was, the response was, “I do not give a damn who you are. Get the hell out of here.”

When Mr. Hunt, the city solicitor, tried to intervene, the club was swung at him, and a Free Press reporter in the midst of the melee noted, “the language used was even more brutal.”

The driver of the streetcar began to pull away, and the special jumped back on board. Hunt grabbed the side handle to climb on to get the man’s badge number, but he let go after being struck in the hand with a baton.

A city police officer and the reporter gave chase but didn’t have to go far. The car had stopped at Logan Avenue, where the same special “had just clubbed an old man over the head and thrown a little girl into a pile of mud.” He was arrested and put in a waiting police wagon.

This was the highest-profile event involving a special because of the mayor’s involvement, but it wasn’t the only one. The Tribune and Free Press both reported multiple incidents of specials jumping from streetcars into crowds with batons swinging.

Troops from the 90th battalion and 13th field battery make their way to their post at Main Street and Higgins Avenue on March 30. (Western Canada Pictoral Index, Robert Goodall Collection, No. 9834)

The reaction to the conduct of the specials was swift and angry.

A Free Press editorial stated, “It is a very serious fact that there are walking about the streets of Winnipeg over one hundred strangers armed with guns who are possessed of the executive powers of special constables.” It referred to the men as “mercenaries that the street railway rounded up from the four corners of the continent.”

The Tribune chided the streetcar company for not choosing arbitration to avoid the strike and accused the company of exercising “brute force.” It went a step further by questioning why the company existed at all: “The one thing that the present strike proves beyond a shadow of a doubt is the folly of ever allowing great public utilities, such as the street railway of a city, to be controlled and operated by private corporations.”

The streetcar company insisted none of the men sworn in as specials was American, which would have been a violation of federal law. Instead, they were some of the replacement workers hired from Eastern Canada. It vowed any of the men involved in the violence would be suspended and returned home and it would disband the specials altogether if the city’s police force could prove it could protect the company’s property and personnel.

The latter point was not left up to the company. The attorney general suspended McMicken as a magistrate the following day, saying he had no authority to have sworn in the men. Their status as special constables was rescinded.

The violence of Thursday and Friday, something not seen on the streets of Winnipeg before, caused everyone to take a step back.

The YMCA put out a call Friday night to any religious ministers willing to sit on a special committee that would attempt to mediate a solution. About 15 volunteered and spent most of the next four days shuttling between the streetcar company’s offices and strikers’ headquarters.

On Saturday, people congregated along Main Street, but it was reported most were good-natured, and any stone-throwers were easily scattered by the police. Streetcars ran empty of customers except for a few shoppers with their packages along Portage Avenue. That afternoon, the mayor asked the militia at Osborne Barracks to stand down.

The streetcar company announced it would suspend evening car service to prevent violence and from overstretching police resources. The only notable violence that week came on the evening of April 5, when the company attempted to run evening streetcars again.

People continued to walk, but as the week wore on, newspaper stories and letters to the editor showed the public’s patience was wearing thin. A number of events around the city had to be cancelled, and some businesses were closing early because of the disruption in streetcar service.

In the end, it wasn’t arbitration or political leadership that ended the strike. The credit went to the ministerial committee and it chairmen, Rev. William Patrick, principal of Manitoba College, and Rev. Joseph Sparling, principal of Wesley College.

They presented a proposed settlement to officials of the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company the night of Friday, April 6. It was agreed to, and the next morning, it was presented to strike officials.

Most of the employees’ demands were met. They got their 10-hour working day, though with just a one-cent per hour increase. The controversial pledge about not joining a union was dropped, the men suspended for union activities were reinstated, and employees would be able to choose their own routes based on seniority.

There was one key demand that wasn’t resolved. The company refused to recognize the union, though it did agree to meet regularly with an “employee delegation” to discuss safety improvements.

The strike committee signed the settlement, and by 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 7, the employees agreed to it. Streetcar service resumed two hours later.

The Tribune rejoiced “the termination of the strike will be seen as the triumph of common sense.”

The city and streetcar company learned a lesson about whose side the public was on. Another, and this time successful, vote on Sunday streetcar service was held in late June. As part of the final negotiations, the company agreed in advance no worker would be made to work seven days in a week.

Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.

A police wagon on Main Street near Logan Avenue after the mayor read the riot act on March 30. (Western Canada Pictoral Index, Robert Goodall Collection, No. 9830)
Christian Cassidy

Christian Cassidy
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