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“When the State Trembled” by Kramer, Reinhold and Tom Mitchell Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Jul 20th, 2020

When the State Trembled presents a comprehensive study of the history of the Canadian working class, labor strikes, and the country’s most famous industrial conflict .

The book is about the 1919 Winnipeg general strike that created a heat wave in the legal and historical arena regarding its impact on the nature of collective bargaining and a phase of social revolution.

The other strikes that the book discusses are the Regina Riot of 1935, Asbestos Strike in Quebec of 1949, and many other such movements in the Canadian labor history.

Kramer and Mitchell unearthed a large number of new archival records that helped them reconstruct the events during the strike in a completely new way.

The authors went on to analyze the Citizens’ Committee of One Thousand that comprised most of the powerful men of the city, used their power to bring into disrepute the strike.

The book uses the state “trembled” to represent two meanings: first is the threat posed by the unified city workers who went on a strike against the state machinery through their refusal to continue normal work and second, the congregation of the powerful businesspersons of the city who apprehended state authority to defeat the strikers.

The book, When the State Trembled, is about the famous Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. The event involved more than 30,000 labors and is considered to be Canada’s most famous strike.

When the State Trembled presents the story of the strike from a different angle that had not yet been seen in the labor history i.e. through the point of view of the Citizens’ Committee of 1000.

The intention of the Committee was to regain normal working. However, the Committee, comprising mostly of the business class elites, failed to see the sentiment behind the strike, employed stern anti-strike measure, and ended up stigmatizing the strike as a criminal action. The root of the Citizen’s Committee lay at the pre-war antiunion mobilizations.

The Committee that was formed by all major businesses in Winnipeg, however, it was the core group of the Committee that directed the operations and decisions of the Citizens’ Committee.

Three lawyers who, through their legal knowledge, guided the Committee chiefly directed the Committee. Of the three, A. J. Andrews was the most influential and prominent leader. The book shows that it was A. J. Andrews and his tactical maneuvering helped the Committee attain victory.

Kramer and Mitchell in the book showed that the Citizens’ Committee took two distinct paths: first, are their similarities with the common Winnipeggers and the second, is the political wallop created by the federal policymakers.

The first consisted of the public propaganda conducted to discredit the strike. The authors unearthed the daily newspapers that were used by the Citizens Committee as a medium of propaganda during the strike e.g. Winnipeg Citizen.

They pointed out at powerful discourse of antistrike strike propaganda available through this particular newspaper. The authors point out the idea that the newspaper propaganda that could definitely demonstrate the actions undertaken by the Committee: “And only the Citizen could suggest the citizen’s best course of action.”

The main idea behind the book is represented by the single most ideal of the Committee to create a uniformed public opinion through the powerful discourse and project the strike as a harmful thing.

The authors have identified powerful discourses such as starving babies in order to prove the unconstitutional and derogatory status of the strike.

The presentation of the public documents by the authors is undeniable. The ignorance of the labor leaders led to their projection and comparison with those in Europe where a strike did lead to a revolution.

Handling problems such as food distribution and hampering of public health and work due to the strike led the Committee to replace the constitutional authority and negating the rising rhetoric in the pre-strike period of the downfall of capitalism.

Therefore, it was the strong discourse or propaganda of the led to make the strikers as communists and the Committee made racist attacks on the pro-strike war veterans accusing them of masterminding the strike.

The analytical approach of the authors also unearthed the private correspondence between A. J. Andrews and Arthur Meighen, the then acting minister of Justice:

Historians have mistakenly characterized Meighen … as the author of reaction, the antagonist in labor’s story. … However, during the Strike, Meighen and Andrews communicated regularly, and with the release (under the Access of Information Act) of the Meighen/Andrews correspondence, which previous historians had no access to, we can tell the full story of the Citizens’ Committee of 1000.

The private correspondence between Andrews and Meighen show that the federal government actually agreed to support the Citizens’’ Committee position of negating any form of negotiation with the strikers as it believed that the strike was a path to the European style revolution.

This led Meighen to give “loose” power to Andrews to deal with the strikers by appointing Andrews as the slackly defined delegate of the justice department to deal with the strikers.

This gave the Committee the leeway to decide on the actions to be taken against the strikers. Andrews took the opportunity to strongly deal with the strikers by doing what he and the other Committee members actually wanted i.e. to destroy the union.

Their main aim was to suppress the socialist extremism that was creeping into the working class of Winnipeg. Though Andrew regularly sent reports to Meighen regarding the proceedings and progress in dealing with the strike, he carefully manipulated the information he passed on in order to avoid any political awkwardness.

These letters of correspondence between Meighen and Andrews showed that the former was completed unaware of the ground realities and therefore, lacked control over the handling of the strikers. A communication of Andrews shows his judgment of the non-acceptable material:

Certain members of the Winnipeg Western Labor News Special Strike Edition have contained objectionable matter in that it is seditious, inflammatory and inciting to riot and this publication must be discontinued. NO more issues of this publication must be printed or circulated.

Andrew on the other hand was dedicated to finding evidence that would help in prosecuting the strikers. Andrews, determination to demolish the strikers, went ahead with the prosecution of the strikers under criminal law when the Immigration Act requested by the Committee proved to be too limiting.

He, singularly, convened a meeting of the Committee members and called upon a few government officials in order to make the list of the strike leaders to be detained.

Without any authorization given to him from the federal government, Andrews went ahead to arrest several leaders of the strike and started their trials.

Therefore, the authors point out that the private business houses had actually seized the wheel of state machinery and had started acting on their own accord to meet their own interests.

This therefore shows that the state was arrested by the private business houses comprising the Committee who wanted to do away with unionism and therefore, used this situation to meet their ends.

The most interesting part of these trials was that the federal government did not have any jurisdiction to arrest and put the strikers on trial.

Hence, these became private trials and neither the Committee nor the government wanted to explain such actions to the public. Therefore, the authors called Andrew as the “agent” of the government to hit against the strikers.

Kramer and Mitchell’s chronicle of the strike shows that it was the outright initiative of Andrews and few of his legal friends to be the reason why the Winnipeg Strike turned out to be the way it did.

By the end of the day, Andrews was a representative of the government but he ended up controlling the proceedings. Though his legal tactics were unconstitutional and unethical as he ended up fabricating a story of seditious conspiracy against the government and public long before the strike occurred.

The account presented by Kramer and Mitchell shows A. J. Andrews as the villain of the Winnipeg Strike who conspired and manipulated incidents, communication, and power to bring down a strong hand on the strikers to result in their consequent defeat.

Andrews was the mastermind behind the twisted stories, discourses, and manipulated communication to the Ministry of Justice demonstrating that the strikers were actively conspiring against the government.

The story of the Winnipeg strike is the most well known piece of Canadian labor history. Therefore, the question of its uniqueness in demonstrating a new angle to the strike is pertinent.

Does the book say anything new about the strike? Yes, the book does point out to a new aspect of understanding the greatest strike in Canadian history.

The book is different from the other accounts of the strike because Kramer and Mitchell re-write the story of the strike keeping the Citizens’’ Committee of 1000 at the heart of the events and making A. J. Andrews the leader of the anti-strike Committee.

The book presents that Andrews and two other colleagues Isaac Pitblado and Travers Sweatman, were lawyers but they had very close connection to the elite business class of Winnipeg.

Therefore, Andrews and the other’s neutral professional background helped them to pull a façade and helped in imposing bourgeois hegemony during the strike.

Andrews was a sharp trial lawyer, respected and feared, not so much because of his legal knowledge – which, as we will see, was sometimes faulty – but because he understood people.

Winnipeg’s leading businessmen would buttonhole him, looking for advice. When the General Strike dropped on Winnipeg, it wasn’t surprising that the acting minister of justice, Arthur Meighen – a lawyer … friendly with Andrews and Pitblado – would soon buy Andrews’s analysis of what sort of hell had broken out.

The intervention of the lawyers during the strike occurred at different levels. It was ideological, legal, as well as political and it was through the book it can first be observed that the success of the Committee, and mostly Andrews was in intervening in prosecuting the strikers and ending it.

The Committee achieved their goal of crushing the strike and prosecuting the strike leaders. Therefore, it reaffirmed the triumph of capitalism in a state economy.

The previous books on Winnipeg Strike of 1919 have usually been told through the point of view of the strikers and had focused mainly on workers, the leaders of the strike, and politicians.

This book shows how a strong elite public Committee (opinion) could manipulate the end of the strike. The Committee was a largely influential, but hitherto, unknown force in demonstrating the power of influence of the elite in negotiation with the strikers.

The Committee, which was previously an unknown side in the 1919 strike history, emerged as an important figure in the multi-sided interaction and communication between the federal government, intelligentsia, police, courts, and the strikers.

The book also shows that though the Committee was called Citizens’ Committee of 1000, there only a handpicked few who really enjoyed the real power and say in decision-making, and one of them was Andrews.

The book shows that in order to deal with a politically volatile situation it is important to undertake manipulation of the people with whom the real power vests; in this case, it was the two federal ministers Meighen and Gideon Robertson.

Andrews actually led a delegation to the Fort William and told the Meighen that a socialist style revolution was being staged at Winnipeg.

Andrews even persuaded Meighen to revise the Immigration Act to deport the British born strikers. The book recounts numerous stories of the Committee taking an active role in manipulating and influencing the decision against the Winnipeg strikers.

Are the claims of Kramer and Mitchell that the Citizens’ Committee of 1000 was the key influence to deal against the strikers overstated?

Probably note, as the members of the federal government were eagerly waiting for lobbyists and elites like Andrews and they secretly shared the same views.

The book presents the ideal setting for understanding lobbying, ideology, rhetoric, and power and how these can be successfully employed to negotiate with a striking community.

The book therefore, makes a compelling case of the state not managing the affairs of the bourgeois, but the other way round. They present a lot of primary sources to make a convincing story of the Committee successfully manipulating the government.

The Committee is demonstrated as a secret weapon of the business class elites who, through the core members like Andrews influenced the government and public opinion against the strikers.

This was done through the loose power vested by the government on a few members of the Committee who used it to demonstrate the strike to be a disorder, which was actually a “fictitious” fabrication.

The book closely relates to the course module as it presents a new way of looking at labor history in Canada. The book presents the real villain of the 1919 strike through the authors refuses to call Andrews as the villain as he worked with immense manipulative intelligence and insight.

The book presents a new light into the role played by lobbyists like Andrews who helped the business houses to meet their desired end by manipulation. The book is important for the course as it helps in unearthing the true story behind the relationship between the labors and business class elites.

Works Cited

Kramer, Reinhold and Tom Mitchell. When the State Trembled: How A.J. Andrews and the Citizens’ Committee Broke the Winnipeg General Strike. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. Print.

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