On this day in 1919…
Winnipeg residents wishing to make telephone calls in the early hours of the day were met with silence. The familiar, cheerful voices of female telephone operators vanished. At 7 a.m., the “Hello Girls,” as they were commonly known, chose to walk off the job, making these women the first group of workers to join the sympathetic strike in support of the building trades and metal trades unions in the city.
At 11 a.m. approximately 30,000 labour workers, both unionized and independent, followed the women’s lead as the Winnipeg General Strike officially commenced.
In just a few hours Winnipeg became almost paralyzed. Elevator operators disappeared from their posts. Bread, milk and mail deliveries stopped. Barber shops, restaurants and retailers closed their doors. Factories stood vacant and the street cars that ran down Portage Avenue came to a halt.
Many people, unsure of how long the strike would last, rushed to independent businesses and department stores in the morning, stocking up on food and supplies for the days to come. In some neighbourhoods, water and electrical services were shut off as utility workers joined the strike.
On the front page of the Manitoba Free Press, Mayor Charles F. Gray publishes an appeal for co-operation and calmness from all strikers, employers and citizens in Winnipeg:
“History has taught us that men only learn wisdom under the pressure of calamity – calmness, patience and British fair play are salient attributes that must and will guide us safely through this trying hour in our city’s life […] Should any acts be committed that savor of lawlessness I will act swiftly and will surely use the full powers vested in me by the voice of the people.”
In the days following, presses stopped as writers from the city’s main newspapers also walked off the job. Some joined the strike and stood in solidarity with labour workers. Others stood alongside the Citizens’ Committee of 1000 and helped create and publish the committee’s newspaper the Winnipeg Citizen.
The anti-labour paper rejected the union movement. It portrayed the strike and its supporters as part of a Bolshevik revolution trying to establish a Soviet-style government in Winnipeg.
Tensions between Winnipeg’s business owners, labour workers and government continued to rise and as a result, the city became divided.