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Remembering the Winnipeg General Strike

Winnipeg general strike.

May 2, 2019

Remembering the Winnipeg General is a political vaudeville that tells the story of the momentous, yet oft forgotten Winnipeg General Strike. On May 15th, 1919, in solidarity with striking construction workers, two-thirds of Winnipeg’s population walked off the job. The strike lasted six weeks and is arguably North America’s largest labour action ever. It only ended after a riot in which two strikers were killed. On the eve of the strike’s anniversary, Socialist Worker spoke with the play’s author, Thomas McKechnie.

Why did you decide to write this play?

I’ve been a radical since I’ve had politics. At first they were the sort politics of… you listen to Rage Against the Machine and you get the general sense there are bastards out there. My politics have gained nuance since then but I was always a leftist. I found these posts (on facebook) about the Winnipeg general strike a few years ago. I was amazed, I had never come across this most amazing thing that we did. A leftist for a decade and no idea. I felt it had to be a symptom of a disorganized or organized “national forgetting”, that they buried it because it worked. So when I realized the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg general strike was fast approaching, I thought it was high time we tried to remember it.

What do you think is most important about the Winnipeg general strike?

What’s important about it to me now, is that it’s terrifyingly relevant. The central concern of the strikers was that they needed wages to keep pace with inflation. After 30 or 40 years of wage stagnation, most people don’t have anything. The notion that my generation can afford houses if we stop eating avocado toast is sad joke. After that, it’s the scale that’s amazing to me. A whole city! Shut down!

Second, immigrants were central – Ukrainian immigrants primarily. They were followed by the suspicion of Bolshevism because of the Russian Revolution. People had been fleeing Tsarist Ukraine for years, and many ended up in the Prairies. They were needed by capitalists, but were not part of the national project of Canada.

Some of the things associated with those events are close, some are far away. We’re not ready to shut down the second largest city, we don’t have the organizational capacity right now – but we have the same needs as the Winnipeg general strikers.

On the issue of immigration, what parallels do you see with today?

One of the things I see, is a very interesting mixed consciousness in Winnipeg – some people were with ‘Canadian’ strikers against the bosses, but also against immigrants as ‘not real Canadians’. Immigration, the ‘other’, the outsider, can be utilized by our enemies to obscure our class relationships. That’s very true right now, because this is a more globalized world, climate change will accelerate the necessity of migration, we’re going to see people trying to use the immigrant “Other” to avoid solving what are class conflicts. Look at the US: some are pulling on legitimate class anger about the way bosses have been f***ing workers for years, but are weaponizing it against Mexican migration. That is going to be used against us, and solidarity across borders and citizenship status is going to be vital to build an effective labour movement. We need to center the challenges faced by immigrants.

What do you want to do with this play?

Something I’m excited about is that we’ve invited a number of groups to table at the events, groups like the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the IWW, the IS. Myself and other artists can use the play to stir up and agitate, in the traditional sense of the word, to show it is not just letters or petitions, but we can take control of the city if we want. These things are possible. Put this feeling of potential into the hands of radical organizations! You are fired up to do something? Here are people who want to do something!

Does the Winnipeg general strike tell us anything about how we might stop Ford?

To me, one of biggest stumbling blocks the left faces is how neoliberalism has closed our possibilities. The idea that workers could give enough of a shit about each other that we could do something… Sometimes you have to fight all of it at once. They’re coming for everything, so we have to fight everywhere. It’s happening everywhere, and we need to fight back everywhere.

• Remembering the Winnipeg General, an original play by Thomas McKechnie, performed by Heather Marie Annis and Ximena Huizi, directed by Erin Branderburg, with original music composed by Kristine Schmitt. June 26-July 6 at Owl’s Club, 847 Dovercourt at Bloor, Toronto. Details can be found on Twitter at @zietpunktheatre1

 

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