- We’re Going to Run This City: Winnipeg’s Political Left after the General Strike by Stefan Epp-Koop
Books about individual labor disputes in North America are rarer than one might think, particularly when one moves beyond a narrow set of truly iconic conflicts like Homestead or the “Big Strike” in Colorado. Rarer still are books that effectively attempt to uncover the legacy of a strike, to trace its particular social and political implications. Stefan Epp-Koop’s We’re Going to Run this City: Winnipeg’s Political Left after the General Strike is just such a book.
The 1919 general strike in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is widely understood as a signal moment in Canadian history. Although unfamiliar to many American labor historians, the strike has been well studied by many Canadian historians and is the subject of at least five books and quite a number of scholarly articles. Epp-Koop’s contribution is to trace the history of labor relations and politics in Winnipeg over the two decades following the strike. In so doing he enriches discussions about the nature and extent of “western radicalism” in Canada, debates about how “radical” the 1919 strike actually was, and, perhaps most importantly, arguments about the consistency of parliamentary politics with Left-reformist and radical labor agendas.
Given this, Epp-Koop’s book is actually less a history of labor, even at the institutional level, than a political history framed around the aftermath of a labor conflict. For readers who know little about the general strike, this approach has some frustrating implications. One is that the book spends little time describing the events of that conflict or its principal actors. Another is that, while We’re Going to Run This City is very much a story about class conflict, workers themselves do not figure very prominently in the narrative. Instead, the focus is on institutions and key institutional actors.
Nevertheless, this is the approach that Epp-Koop sets for himself. And it is not without considerable rewards. Readers who appreciated Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, for instance, will find many things both familiar and edifying in Epp-Koop’s detailed, highly localized (albeit relatively brief) elaboration of the efforts of the Left-reformist Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) to assert effective political influence in Winnipeg. To a somewhat greater degree than their peers in the United States, both the ILP (in its various decentralized iterations) and the CPC achieved electoral success in Canada in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in the western provinces. In Winnipeg during this period a representative of the ILP was elected mayor, and both ILP and CPC candidates served on the city council. Epp-Koop chronicles not only how the parties managed these electoral successes and how this was all influenced by the 1919 strike; he also describes the unrelenting struggles that politicians from these parties faced in trying to serve in practically relevant ways while [End Page 105] remaining faithful to their political and social visions. Epp-Koop accomplishes this with cogent narratives about the complicated inner workings of both parties.
While hardly unprecedented, this exercise is quite valuable for those interested in how organizations like these operated on the municipal level and outside the immediate context of particular, crisis-laden events like strikes. And not unlike Sugrue’s book, Epp-Koop’s study offers a sobering—and for that very reason, very useful—account of the economic and political realities that impeded the translation of political activism into effective reforms. Without contenting himself with the reductionist view that such things are predestined, and without discounting the real successes that ILP and CPC politicians were sometimes able to achieve, Epp-Koop makes clear how little was ultimately accomplished—and how contingent these accomplishments remained.
Key to this discussion is, of course, the resistance to reform from the Right. As Epp-Koop also demonstrates, the 1919 strike played a key role in consolidating the political...