How the First World War changed the labour landscape

by Gregory Beatty

In recent months, tons of events — many of them sponsored by our military-lip-service-paying federal government — have been held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. Conventional wisdom holds that, in many ways, the war and its aftermath marked a rupture point between old Edwardian notions of life and the modern era. In areas as diverse as art, technology, international relations, class, race and gender, the impact was felt.

The labour movement also experienced changes at the same time, says U of S Assistant Professor Charles Smith.

Labour had been organizing in B.C. and Ontario, and to a lesser degree in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Wobblies [Industrial Workers of the World] were certainly a force, especially in the mines in western Canada and the U.S. But there were other established unions that were part of the old Trade and Labour Congress. They were male-driven, skills-driven, so the non-skilled working class was pushed aside.”

Founded in Chicago in 1905, the IWW promoted the goal of “One Big Union” to gain better leverage against employers and fight for improved wages and benefits for millions of workers who lived in poverty and despair.

But when WWI started, the ideal of worker solidarity took a hit, says Smith.

The internationalization of the working class that was being championed by socialists and progressives ended, and everyone rushed in a spurt of nationalism to the trenches. That fragmented the labour movement, as a lot of working class men went to the front.”

When the war finally ended, those men (who had survived the conflict) returned home by the millions — mostly to disappointment on the employment front.

Post-war, production dropped dramatically,” says Smith. “There were no jobs, and the men who came back found themselves asking, ‘What were we fighting for?’ That led to a really militant working class. That was most dramatically demonstrated during the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, but it was also present in Vancouver, Ontario and Alberta.”

Adding fuel to the fire, says Smith, was the Bolshevik Revolution that happened in Russia in 1917.

That really politicized members of the working class in Canada and around the world. In hindsight we can say it was problematic. But in 1917 no one had heard of Stalin, so in the eyes of many working people it was still a fresh movement that offered a real alternative.

When the strike in Winnipeg happened, a lot of people, including [federal Conservative Justice Minister] Arthur Meighen, were concerned it was going to lead to a revolution in Canada. That clearly wasn’t the case. But the fear was very much present in the ruling class.”

As for parallels between then and now? Well, in many ways, thanks to the battles fought by unions over the decades, working conditions for people are obviously much better.

But with inequality on the rise, U of R professor Andrew Stevens says the time is perhaps ripe for renewed activism.

It’s been talked about as the one per cent. But in Canada and the U.S. what we’ve seen is, as a proportion of national wealth, the amount going to labour has dropped precipitously in the last 30 or 40 years.

The counter argument is, ‘We have a bigger pie. So even though there’s more inequality everyone is getting richer.’ But socially and economically, we have to look at what the consequences are.

People need credit [to survive], and they start piling on debt rather than having real wage growth that can fuel savings as well as consumption,” he says.