July 18, 2019

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100 years later, strike gala honours first who walked off the job

A century after workers in Winnipeg made history by launching the largest strike Canada has ever seen, the beneficiaries of their courage and sacrifice celebrated the anniversary, dining on beef tenderloin and chocolate truffle torte at a gala event.

A crowd of 1,300 union members, leaders and social justice supporters gathered for the Winnipeg General Strike centennial gala dinner, which was presented by the Manitoba Building Trades. For the female president and CEO of one of the province’s largest unions, it was a time to honour the telephone operators — mostly women — who started the Winnipeg General Strike at 7 a.m. on May 15, 1919.

“It’s a true celebration of what those women did 100 years ago today,” said Michelle Gawronsky who heads the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union. The historical record often doesn’t note that women were the vanguard of the strike, followed by more than 30,000 other workers, she said at the gala, where ticket prices ranged from $200 for a “platinum” seat to $100 for retirees and those on fixed incomes.

“Working-class people can afford to be here and deserve a celebration,” said Gawronsky. She was getting dressed up and “standing proud” Wednesday night as part of an homage to the telephone operators.

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A century after workers in Winnipeg made history by launching the largest strike Canada has ever seen, the beneficiaries of their courage and sacrifice celebrated the anniversary, dining on beef tenderloin and chocolate truffle torte at a gala event.

A crowd of 1,300 union members, leaders and social justice supporters gathered for the Winnipeg General Strike centennial gala dinner, which was presented by the Manitoba Building Trades. For the female president and CEO of one of the province’s largest unions, it was a time to honour the telephone operators — mostly women — who started the Winnipeg General Strike at 7 a.m. on May 15, 1919.

"It’s a true celebration of what those women did 100 years ago today," said Michelle Gawronsky who heads the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union. The historical record often doesn’t note that women were the vanguard of the strike, followed by more than 30,000 other workers, she said at the gala, where ticket prices ranged from $200 for a "platinum" seat to $100 for retirees and those on fixed incomes.

"Working-class people can afford to be here and deserve a celebration," said Gawronsky. She was getting dressed up and "standing proud" Wednesday night as part of an homage to the telephone operators.

Marianne Hladun, left, Chris Aylward and Sharon DeSouza of PSAC sing along with a rendition of 'Solidarity Forever' at the Winnipeg General Strike Centennial Gala Dinner presented by Manitoba's unions Wednesday evening at the RBC Convention Centre Winnipeg.

JASON HALSTEAD / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Marianne Hladun, left, Chris Aylward and Sharon DeSouza of PSAC sing along with a rendition of 'Solidarity Forever' at the Winnipeg General Strike Centennial Gala Dinner presented by Manitoba's unions Wednesday evening at the RBC Convention Centre Winnipeg.

The General Strike of 1919 was one of the most influential strikes in Canadian history, and became the platform for future labour reforms. At the time, there was massive unemployment and inflation and dismal wages and working conditions.

Work stopped at the big railway shops and yards across Winnipeg from May 15 to June 25, 1919. All factory production ceased. Winnipeg had no mail, streetcars, taxis, newspapers, telegrams, telephones, gasoline or milk delivery. Most restaurants, retail stores and barber shops closed. Police, firefighters, and employees of the water works shocked and frightened many in Winnipeg by joining the strike. 

It ended six weeks later, on Bloody Saturday, when two protesters were killed. The strike did not immediately succeed but the united and empowered workers eventually improved working conditions and pushed for the universal health care and social safety net Canadians benefit from today. 

"We have much to celebrate," Lynne Fernandez, a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives economist said at the gala. "A lot was accomplished but a lot of the same issues are still here," she said.

Immigrants and Indigenous Canadians are still marginalized and unions are still targets of the powerful, she said. "There are constant attacks against workers," she said. "The provincial government is going after the civil service... It seems we take two steps forward and three steps back," said Fernandez. 

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, speaks at the Winnipeg General Strike Centennial Gala Dinner.

JASON HALSTEAD / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, speaks at the Winnipeg General Strike Centennial Gala Dinner.

Wednesday’s gala, which featured a preview performance of Strike! The Musical by Danny Schur and Rainbow Stage, was one of several Manitoba Federation of Labour events to mark the 100th anniversary of the strike.

Most are free and open to the public, said MFL president Kevin Rebeck. They’re celebrations as well as reminders, he said.

"I think it’s important to remember our history and remember that when working people stand together, amazing things can happen," said Rebeck, whose federation represents more than 100,000 unionized workers in Manitoba.

"We laid the seeds for improvements on health and safety and employment standards and labour legislation that we all benefit from today and forget how we got there. People don’t remember there was a fight to get those rights." 

Now those rights are "under attack" from Conservative governments, he said.

"But people are finding as their rights are being stripped away, as they’re watching their emergency rooms close, that maybe this austerity measure and what’s good for the elite isn’t good for everyone." 

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

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Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
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Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.

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