Remembering the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919

Remembering the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919

by Levy Abad

Last May 15, I attended one of the events of the May Works 2015 Festival at the Ukrainian Labour Temple dubbed as “96 Years Later: The Legacy of the Winnipeg General Strike.” I was with some friends who are also members of the Winnipeg Multicultural Human Rights Forum, Simon Baer and Pablo Herrera, Chair of the Chilean Human Rights Forum. Before going to this event, we were at the Meet Me at the Bell Tower event at Selkirk.

Arriving at the Ukrainian Labour Temple reminded me of the historic struggles that happened in the past here in Manitoba. Sitting and looking at the architecture of the building brought back memories when I was still a member of the cultural arm of one of the biggest unions in the Philippines, the May First Movement (or Kilusang Mayo Uno), which fought for the welfare of the workers and the whole country in general. I remember writing songs that were sang in big rallies against abusive regimes as well as singing anti-fascist songs like “Viva la Quince Brigada,” “Levántate” of Victor Jara, and songs of Bertolt Brecht. It took me back to the days of organizing unions through cultural approach, attending cultural workshops, and giving songwriting workshops in different parts of the old country.

That night we saw some of the good activist friends whom we met in the community, including Dennis Lewycky, former Executive Director of Social Planning Council, who invited me to attend the event. He assured me that I was going to enjoy the musical. He was right. I really appreciated it for having reminded me of those times when I was still a trade-union cultural activist in the Philippines. I recalled the International Solidarity Affairs in which brothers and sisters from different unions rendered cultural presentations depicting the struggles from different parts of the world to end human exploitation by wicked influential and powerful individuals.

There was this group of four artists who sang songs from Danny Schur’s musical Strike!—songs that depicted the workers’ struggles in 1919, songs that told of issues that mattered way back in time, especially from an ideologically conscious perspective and cultural pieces that constitute the spirit of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. The lyrics of the songs dealt with issues like unemployment insurance, the weekend, equal pay for equal work, workers’ compensation, health benefits, farm labour rights, minimum wage, pension benefits, sick leave, parental leave, civil rights, and grievances. Such rights have long been entrenched in Manitoba. In the Philippines, similar struggles for these rights were bloody. I could not help but think of my friends who were felled by bullets because of their firm stance for the welfare of the workers.

As an artist and a cultural activist, I am well aware of the role of the workers in improving human conditions and I know that songs with social content can be used as a powerful tool in rousing people to stand up for their rights, achieve victory, and defend the historical gains. In moving marginalized and oppressed people, a good cultural presentation is more powerful than a boring speech full of rhetoric. Only an ideological cretin will fail to recognize this. When a movement fails to consciously use culture as an aid to raising consciousness, it can be considered a dull movement not worthy of emulation.

Ninety-six years ago, the North End was the centre of gravity of the struggle to improve the condition of the working class. The intensity of the Winnipeg General Strike was such that the reactionaries of the past were not able to crush it. Most of the issues enumerated have already been legislated into laws; and nowadays, the goal of reaction is to gut or reverse the historical gains of the great Winnipeg Strike of 1919. I can still hear the thunderous chants of the movement that can be likened to the song “We Shall Overcome.” It doesn’t matter if people forget about it. What matters most is that there is a group that remembers and will continue to raise the banner of struggle if need be. The workers also deserve a rest in the great struggles of life. What the oppressors should worry about is the reality of the resurrection of the working class movement. Viva 1919!

And as the African-American social activist Frederick Douglass once said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

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