‘Don’t worry and don’t work’: When Toronto workers went on strike in 1919

Inspired by the Winnipeg General Strike, labour leaders in Ontario’s capital organized a walkout — so how come it failed to catch on?
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on May 1, 2019
a newspaper illustration
An editorial cartoon from the May 30, 1919, edition of the Toronto World.

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During the spring of 1919, labour unrest spread across Canada. Following the end of the First World War, many occupations had unionized, and workers began demanding better pay and conditions. In Ontario alone, around 90 strikes involving more than 34,000 workers occurred between May and July 1919. The year’s largest labour confrontation, the Winnipeg General Strike, which lasted from May 15 to June 25, inspired a wave of sympathetic walkouts across the country. While labour leaders in several Ontario cities contemplated general strikes, the only large-scale action happened in Toronto — and, even then, not everyone agreed to join in.

Toronto’s labour scene was more divided than Winnipeg’s. Many of its existing leaders, who had benefitted from previous labour negotiations and developed stable relationships with their employers, tended to have a more moderate outlook, rejecting socialist ideas and hoping to improve working conditions without totally reshaping employment relationships. But the rapid unionization of the previous year had stimulated the growth of a radical left wing that embraced a class-based critique of society and a confrontational approach. After the end of the war, organizers held several large protest meetings to protest remaining wartime measures — possessing socialist political literature, for example, was still against the law — that discouraged radicalism and contributed to “Red menace” hysteria.

The Metal Trades Council (MTC) led the effort to promote general action: two weeks after going on strike on May 1, 1919, its workers approached the Toronto District Labour Council with a motion calling for a city-wide walkout. While the proposal was supported by those in the trades, such as butchers, carpenters, and machinists, it was opposed by one of Toronto’s largest unions, the Street Railway Employees’ Union, whose leadership (which included a sitting city councillor) feared breaking with its international parent and losing its pension plan.

The decision was supposed to be voted on at a TDLC-organized convention on May 20, but it was delayed by nearly a week so that Mayor Tommy Church could hold meetings with employers and union reps. The negotiations, though, proved unsuccessful: the unions wanted collective bargaining; employers refused to shorten the work week to 44 hours.

When the unions reconvened on May 26, the motion for a general strike was passed by delegates from 44 unions representing nearly 10,000 workers — delegates representing 15,500 union members, however, abstained. The strike deadline was set for March 30, giving Church time to hold a conference in Ottawa involving Prime Minister Robert Borden.

During the negotiation period that followed, the city’s press went into fearmongering mode: if public-sector workers went on strike in sympathy as they had in Winnipeg, it said, the results could be catastrophic: the city would grind to a halt; innocent women and children — and businessmen — would suffer. Until provincial hydro workers reached a settlement on May 28, editorials warned of possible blackouts. According to the papers, if there were an extended general strike, restaurants might run out of food.

The press also charged that the labour strife was the product of a Bolshevist/socialist/anti-British plot. Although many strike organizers had British backgrounds, writers ranted against the “European” agitators who were trying to overthrow the existing order and attack glorious British traditions. Most hysterical was the Evening Telegram — on May 30, its editorial page read: “Collapse of the general strike insanity will be VICTORY FOR THE BRITISH CANADIAN OR TRADES UNION FORCES in the labour movement and DEFEAT FOR THE RED FLAG EUROPEAN SOCIALIST FORCES in the labour movement.”

The only major daily that didn’t contribute to the hysteria was the Toronto Daily Star, which had sent two reporters to cover the Winnipeg General Strike. Its reporting and commentary were calm and measured — at least in part because publisher Joseph Atkinson wanted to appeal to a working-class readership. A May 23 Star editorial about events in Winnipeg concluded that “it is becoming more and more clear that the issue is not Bolshevism or any attempt to usurp the government of Canada, but a dispute between employers and employed on the questions of wages, hours, recognition of unions, and collective bargaining.” In response, the paper’s competitors wrote nasty rebuttals and published unflattering cartoons of Atkinson, reporter William Plewman, and labour allies. 

The conference with the prime minister failed to avert the strike, as neither side would budge. Borden claimed that Ottawa didn’t have the jurisdiction to enforce a 44-hour work week, saying it was a provincial matter that fell under the British North America Act (the Ontario government, however, had recently claimed that it wasn’t its responsibility either).

So, on May 30 at 10 a.m., workers walked off the job. To combat apocalyptic predictions and keep the public on side, organizers kept essential services and some leisure activities running. Numerous professionals were told not to participate, including police, firefighters (who threatened to do so anyways), teachers, clergymen, hotel workers, food deliverymen, sewage-plant employees, hospital workers, and film projectionists. Labour leaders promised that protests would be orderly. The strike’s slogan was “Don’t worry and don’t work!”

Church promised that all precautions had been taken to meet any emergency. “I appeal to all classes of citizens to keep the law and preserve order in the city during these days of stress and strain,” Church said in a statement to the press.

Apart from activity outside labour halls, the city was quiet on the first day of the strike. “It would have been impossible for any stranger to the city to become aware that anything unusual had taken place,” the Mail and Empire observed.

Organizers had hoped that the number of strikers would grow, but their optimism faded over the next few days. When the general-strike convention reconvened on May 31, those on the left demanded a fresh vote in hopes that other unions would join the cause, while those on the right attacked the organizing committee for supporting the idea of a national general strike. In the early morning hours of June 1, two moderate TDLC officials overseeing the convention resigned and were replaced by leftists. The street railway employees declined to join the strike, although they did launch their own action a few weeks later. Other unions who had been expected to join the movement, such as those representing butchers and meat packers, didn’t. By June 2, the number of participants had peaked at between 15,000 and 17,000 — the majority were members of the MTC.

There was at least one alleged scuffle involving picketers and police, at the Massey-Harris plant. The company had dismissed employees who had walked out in sympathy and had worked there only since the end of the war. (Workers who belonged to the MTC kept their jobs because, in management’s eyes, they were legitimate strikers.) Police suggested that strikers should choose British-born picketers if they wanted to, as the Evening Telegram put it, “avoid trouble because of the dislike of Toronto city for the Reds and Bolshevists.”

With the exception of the Star, the press doubled down on its attempts to dampen enthusiasm for the strike and raise a Red scare. “Collective bargaining and the 44-hour week are incidental considerations,” a June 2 editorial in the Toronto Times observed. “The primary, overwhelming fact is that Bolshevism is out to destroy Organized Labour as we have known it in the past.” After 12 men were arrested for subversive activity, the Globe published an editorial supporting federal efforts to deport anyone with known revolutionary tendencies. “The only kind of Bolshevists that this country should be responsible for feeding and lodging at the public expense is the Canadian variety, which is usually represented by men whose minds have become perverted by false teachings, who conjure up imaginary wrongs and tyrannies from which they never suffered, and work themselves into a state of frenzy bordering on insanity.” 

Sympathy strikes did not spring up in other cities such as Hamilton, London, and Windsor, possibly in part because Toronto labour leaders offended potentially sympathetic allies elsewhere in the province. When H. Lewis, a machinist union leader, spoke at a gathering in Hamilton on May 22, he blasted that city’s labour council for being a bunch of lazy “deadheads” who were more concerned about preserving comfortable jobs than about taking a hard line with employers and hitting the streets. “I think that the standard of intelligence of the members of the Hamilton council compares favourably with Toronto or anywhere else,” local labour leader H.G. Fester told the Hamilton Spectator.

Realizing that the strike wasn’t going to gain momentum, the MTC issued a statement late on June 2 asking those who had walked out in sympathy to return to work. Within a few days, most strikers had done so, though members associated with the MTC stayed out until July, when the president of the International Association of Machinists persuaded them to accept the 48-hour work week.

In the aftermath of the strike, the leadership of the TDLC shifted further to the left. The public expressed its frustration at the ballot box, electing labour-friendly candidates during the next round of municipal elections and supporting a coalition government of the Independent Labour Party and the United Farmers of Ontario in that fall’s provincial election. The reduced work week sought by strikers didn’t come into effect until 1944, when the Hours of Work and Vacations With Pay Act established an eight-hour day/48-hour week — the 44-hour week was introduced in the 1970s.

Sources: Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-1919, Canada’s First War on Terror, by Daniel Francis (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010); The Workers’ Revolt in Canada 1917-1925, edited by Craig Heron, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998); the May 30, 1919, and June 4, 1919, editions of the Evening Telegram; the June 3, 1919, edition of the Globe; the May 23, 1919, and May 26, 1919, editions of the Hamilton Spectator; the 1986 edition of Historical Papers; the Spring 1984 and Spring 2006 editions of Labour; the May 28, 1919, and May 31, 1919, editions of the Mail and Empire; the May 23, 1919, and May 30, 1919, editions of the Toronto Daily Star; the May 29, 1919, May 30, 1919, and June 2, 1919, editions of the Toronto Times; and the June 4, 1919, edition of the Toronto World.

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