On June 18 1935 a combined force of Vancouver police, Provincial police, and special constables led by police chief and former Shipping Federation director W.W. Foster attacked approximately one thousand striking longshoremen and unemployed workers peacefully marching to Ballantyne Pier to protest the employment of strikebreakers. The mounted police clubbed the dispersing workers off the dockside railway tracks, chased them through the back alleys and side streets of the downtown east side. pursued them into the homes of private citizens and eventually tear gassed a first aid station set up by the longshore women’s auxiliary.
The incident was the climatic moment in a bitter strike-lock out that broke the Vancouver and District Waterfront Workers Association (VDWWA). For the second time in twelve years the Shipping Federation had resorted to simple power to crush legitimate representative militancy on the Vancouver Waterfront.
Twelve years earlier in 1923 waterfront employers managed to win a bitter strike and break the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in Vancouver. Weary of the labour radicalism that had dominated the post W.W.1 period, the Shipping Federation determined that the post strike port would not include an independent workers union. As part of the open show drive that dominated the west coast ports in the 1920’s they created the VDWWA as a compliant company union. Under the open shop plan longshoremen endured wage cuts, speed ups, blacklisting, arbitrary dismissals, production at the expense of safety, labour spies and constant hiring of workers outside the Association and the Collective Agreement. As a company union, the VDWWA was to carry information downward, complaints, discontent and militancy were to be short circuited in a collection of employer dominated joint committees. Despite the conditions, solidarity was not crushed. Members of the ILA who survied the blacklisting joined new workers who became militant as they absorbed the work place culture. Together they attempted to turn the VDWWA into a legitimate union. Throughout the 1920’s they consistently demanded increased autonomy, rotation dispatch, equalization of earnings and union control of the dispatch.
The agitation for rotation and equalization of earnings increased in the 1930’s as the depression brought with it a massive reduction in available work. The Federation reacted to the cirisis with a re-classification plan designed to reduce the work force by eliminating older and less “efficient” men. Unhappy with the union’s increasing display of autonomy, the Federation prepared for a strike when the Collective Agreement expired in 1933. As negotiations began, they created committees to oversee publicity and housing (for strikebreakers), riot insurance was proposed for all Federation buildings. At the negotiation table their pre-occupation with alleged communist influence in the union bogged the process down, while the union tried to deal with work place issues. Unprepared to fight an all out strike, the union settled the contract on terms favourable to the employer in November 1934.
Tension increased in 1935 when the union elected a more militant leadership with Ivan Emery as President. Committed to representative unionism, job rotation and a union dispatch, it was Emery’s second tenure as VDWWA President. Five years earlier he had resigned the office, unable to deliver on a promise to secure union control over the selection of gang personnel. This level of commitment and integrity did not go unnoticed by a wary Shipping Federation. Under Emery, the VDWWA joined Vancouver’s log handlers, coastwise workers, Vancouver Island and New Westminster longshoremen in the Longshore and Water Transport Workers Association, an umbrella organization created to protect all British Columbia’s waterfront workers. They demanded that wages and hours of work for B.C.’s longshoremen be brought into line with dock workers on the west coast of the United States. They supported relief camp workers with a one hour walkout in April 1935, shut down the port for May Day and supported a strike by Independent Long Handlers. When the Federation closed the casual section of the hall to union representatives and refused to case hiring workers from outside the union, the VDWWA announced that as of May 27, 1935 they would conduct the dispatch. The Federation responded by claiming that a change in union leadership and financial guarantees were necessary before they could retain an association with the union. The final catalyst for the 1935 strike came when the VDWWA refused to shift newspaper loaded on a barge in Powell River by non-union longshoremen to the “Anten”. The Federation declared the collective agreement with the VDWWA void, hired strikebreakers. created a new company union The Canadian Waterfront Workers Association (CWWA) and instructred anyone interested in longshore work to apply to the Federation.
The strike dragged on for six months, but the issue had really been settled by the Ballantyne riot and a subsequent ban on picketing. During the remainder of the strike as men drifted back to work, the “Citizens League”, a corporate vigilante group sponsored by the Federation kept up a propaganda campaign against the union’s leadership claiming they were under Moscow’s influence. In October the Federal government published a Royal Commission report exonerating the Federation while blaming the union for the strike and the Ballantyne incident. The union called off the strike in December.
It appeared the employer had won a complete victory, but it was not easy to turn back the clock to 1923. Longshoremen south of the border had won the right to independent unions, collective bargaining and union dispatch in a 1934 strike. Vancouver longshoremen remained conscious of the improved conditions and wages the resurgent ILA and later the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) were achieving for American longshoremen. Within a year members of the two new company unions, the CWWA and the Vancouver Longshoremen’s Association (VLA) were lobbying for equalization of earnings and rotation dispatch. Federation officials began to privately suggest that rotation and equalization of earnings may be the only way to prevent a return to “previous difficulties”. The political climate also began to change. The Federation gained government support in 1935 by claiming the longshore leadership misled the rank and file down the militant road. Governments assumed that the bulk of the striking longshoremen would be re-hired. When the blacklisting continued well after the strike and many longshoremen remained out of work, officials in all levels of government, private citizens and veterans organizations began to ask the Federation when they intended to re-hire the majority of ex-longshoremen. Their support in crushing any future militancy would not be as forthcoming as it had been in 1935. In 1941 the CWWA and the VLA amalgamated to present a unified body to the employers. They were joined by the North Vancouver Longshoremen’s Association in 1943. The new amalgamated union, the Vancouver Waterfront Workers Association (VWWA) was sufficiently autonomous to select new men without consulting the Federation. They began a drive to join the ILWU. the Federal Government provided the legal framework for the drive by passing legislation that guaranteed protection for union recognition and collective bargaining on February 17, 1944. On February 16 1945, Local 501 of the ILWU received certification in Vancouver.
In 2009 American Longshoremen commemorated the 75th anniversary of their 1934 strike. Portland longshoreman and historian William Pilcher claimed that the strike was like the American revolution for west coast longshoremen, as it provided them with a social charter. As the 75th anniversary of the Ballantyne riot approaches the incident has generally been regarded as a crushing defeat. Yet between 1936 and 1943, for the second time in twenty years, Vancouver longshoremen resiliently managed to build a militant represtative union out of a lost strike.
In this context Ballantyne Pier represents the limits of control based on raw power. When the exercise of power had to give away to industrial relations and labour management, the Shipping Federation was an intransigent employer unable to generate loyalty from a workforce they abandoned all responsibility for, once the last load hit the bottom of the hatch. An employer who failed to realize that the intermittent nature of the longshore work, injustice of the dispatch, threat of capricious dismissal and the collective skill needed to perform the job, left longshoremen no choice but to look to each other in militant solidarity.