Helen Jury Armstrong was a union activist, feminist and anti-war leader who rose to fame during the 1919 Winnipeg general strike. Born in 1875 to a father who worked as a tailor and was a member of the Knights of Labour, Helen “Ma” Armstrong spent her life advocating for working-class women, unions, minimum wage and social security.
In the early onset of World War 1 in 1917, Helen revived the Winnipeg Women’s Labor League and became its president. She successfully campaigned to set minimum wage legislation for women in Manitoba in 1918, and she led the organization of unions for women workers – which included the Retail Clerks’ Union (organized in 1917), the Hotel and Household Workers’ Union and Housemaids’ Union (organized in 1918), and the biscuit-factory workers, laundry workers and knitting machine operators (organized in 1919). She was also appointed to the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council – the council’s only woman.
On May 1, 1919, unions representing Winnipeg’s metal and building trade workers went on strike for the right to form an umbrella union and grow their collective bargaining ability. Two weeks later, leaders from across the labour movement proposed a general strike, leading approximately 30,000 workers to walk off the job on May 15. About 10% of those 30,000 workers were women, who – along with general workers’ rights issues – were fighting against gender-based discrimination and advocating for equal pay.
Helen played a prominent role in the 1919 strike, serving as one of two women on the male-dominated strike committee. Not only did she convince women workers to join the strike as they arrived at their jobs each morning – she established the Labour Café, which provided women strikers with three free meals a day. She was arrested three times during the strike, for disorderly conduct and for her actions to prevent strikebreakers from selling newspapers.
Later in life, Helen and her family moved to Chicago, mostly due to her husband being blacklisted for his role in the strike. By 1929, however, Helen and her family had returned to Winnipeg, continuing the fight on behalf of women and the working class.
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