After seeing STRIKE at Rainbow Stage last week I was reminded of a mural that used to be on the south wall of what is now The Palomino Club on Main Street. Painted by Tom Andrich in 2006 it told the same story as the musical, its illustrations giving life to one of the most memorable events in Winnipeg history, the strike of 1919. In May of that year, some 30,000 workers walked off the job because of poor working conditions and a lack of employment opportunities for World War I veterans. Union organizers had been passionately advocating for an eight-hour workday, collective bargaining and the need for employers to pay a living wage. Mural artist Tom Andrich chose to highlight nine of the strike leaders. The woman right in front is Helen Armstrong. Nicknamed Wild Woman of the West she was a union organizer who championed the cause of working women. Born in Toronto and married to a carpenter named George she moved to Winnipeg with him in 1905 where Helen became the leader of the Women’s Labor League. Her leadership helped bring a minimum wage to Manitoba. I was glad to see that Helen was given a major role in the musical Strike and was played in a strong and brilliant fashion by Andrea Del Campo a veteran of the Winnipeg acting scene. During the Winnipeg Strike Helen organized kitchens to feed female strikers and harassed strikebreakers who were crossing the picket line. She encouraged women to boycott stores where the workers were on strike and challenged them to join the men who were on strike. She was arrested and jailed for inciting people to strike, disorderly conduct and encouraging the abuse of strikebreakers.
Winnipeg business owners organized a Citizen’s Committee of One Thousand to oppose the strikers. They blamed foreign immigrants for the strike and some were deported. The majority of the strikers, however, were British. In the Rainbow Stage production, A.J. Andrews who was the mayor of Winnipeg during the strike and one of the founders of the Citizen’s Committee of One Thousand is played in a properly villainous fashion by actor Kevin McIntyre.On June 21, 1919, war veterans organized a parade to protest the arrest of labor leaders. They were also upset at the government edict that the labor movement newspaper could no longer be published. 6,000 people gathered in front of City Hall. When a streetcar, operated by strikebreakers came by the protesters overturned it and set it on fire. In the Rainbow Stage production, a replica of the streetcar makes an impressive appearance on stage.
The federal government had sent out the Royal North West Mounted Police to help put an end to the strike. Carrying clubs and firearms the North West Police charged into the crowd after the streetcar was overturned. They began to fire their weapons.
June 21, 1919, became known as Bloody Saturday because the North West Mounties killed two strikers, wounded thirty-four and made nearly a hundred arrests. Tom Andrich’s mural on Main Street had a portrait of one of the men who died. His name was Mike Sokolowski. Although almost nothing is known of Mike Sokolowiski beyond the few often contradictory details recounted by Winnipeg newspapers reporting on his death, he is the main star in the Rainbow Stage production of Strike and is played by Cory Wojcik. After Bloody Saturday the strike organizers fearing more violence called the strike to a halt and the strikers went back to work on June 26th. I took these photos of Tom Andrich’s strike mural on September 15, 2012. I captured the artwork just in time because later that same month a wicked rain and wind storm ripped the vinyl mural from the wall and damaged it beyond repair. Thankfully in this hundredth anniversary year of the strike, there are plenty of other ways to learn about its events. Many media stories have been written about the strike, books for young people published and of course, there is still time to see the lavish retelling of the story at Rainbow Stage.
Note: Tom Andrich the artist of the Winnipeg Strike mural died last year. You can read more about him on The Murals of Winnipeg site.