Battle of Ballantyne Memorial – June 18, 2015
Battle of Ballantyne (2015) On June 18, this year we will see the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Ballantyne. It is important that we look back to that time so that we can learn from events 80 years ago that are still relevant today.
At 1 P.M. Tuesday June 18th, 1935, approximately 1500 longshoremen and their supporters, led by medal of Honour winner Mickey O’Rourke along with other world war one veterans wearing their medals, left the Longshore Union hall at 633 East Hastings to peacefully march to Ballantyne Pier with the intention of “talking down” the scabs that were working on the ships at the dock. In past struggles the Union had been fairly successful in talking to the scabs and convincing them of the error of their ways.
With a signed Contract, negotiated with the B.C. Shipping Federation, (The predecessor of the BCMEA) and signed in October 1934, the Union announced early in June 1935 that they were going to take over the despatch. The Federation locked out the Union on June 4th and employed the scabs that they had being recruiting for a number of months. The Union then declared a strike later that month.
The Shipping Federation was prepared, and as in past longshore strikes they organized, along with the Vancouver Citizens League, the Local, Provincial and Federal Governments, the Vancouver Police, the Provincial Police and the RCMP, who were all involved in developing a “plan” to deal with the waterfront situation. This plan, developed long before the Shipping Federation lock-out, included the hiring of scabs, police specials, and the co-ordination of the military and the official police forces to break up any demonstrations that would occur. They were trained in the handling of tear gas, light weapons and even had machine guns ready for use. The Shipping Federation was also paying for full time police and private investigators from eight different companies to spy on longshoremen at work and in their meetings.
When the longshoremen and their supporters arrived at the western entrance to Ballantyne pier they were met by hundreds of city police, with Provincial police hiding behind boxcars with Thompson machine guns and other officers mounted and carrying clubs. There were also three police boats filled with police officers anchored off Ballantyne Pier that were not used. The Vancouver Chief of police (who ironically was previously an officer of the Shipping Federation) met the marchers and ordered them to disperse. This didn’t happen immediately and the police fired tear gas, and charged into the crowd.
Mounted Police rode their horses through the marcher’s ranks, swinging their long clubs at the heads of the marchers and pursued them through all of the surrounding street and lanes, even riding up the steps of houses where woman and children were gathered. Private police were chasing down marchers with their cars trying to run them over. Rocks, bricks and anything else not tied down were used by the marchers to defend themselves. The Vancouver Daily Province newspaper described the melee as “the bloodiest hours in waterfront history”.
The Vancouver Sun newspaper for June 18, 1935 contained the following: “1:20 P.M. Tear gas bombs were fired by Royal Canadian Mounted Police over the heads of the crowd, mounted city and Provincial police charged them at full gallop and foot police swung into action with batons this afternoon when thousands of longshore strikers and sympathizers tried to break through the guard and march onto Ballantyne Pier”
There were approximately 100 longshoremen and their supporters treated for injuries in nearby hospitals and supporters home. Two of the supporters were treated for buckshot wounds in their hips and legs while swearing that the shots came from a police patrol car. 44 police were treated for their injuries at nearby hospitals.
From June 4 until October 25, 1935 over 500 criminal cases were prosecuted arising from the Battle of Ballantyne, resulting in 148 convictions. When the strike was officially called off on December 9, 1935 there were 18 longshoremen and seamen still in Okalla prison serving sentences from 3 months to 1 year. Over 800 longshoremen were blackballed and many never worked on the waterfront again.
The Shipping Federation broke the longshoremens union in 1935 just as they had broken the waterfront unions in 1909, 1912, 1919 and 1923. The Federation set up their own company unions, and each time the longshoremen ended up working within these company unions to turn them into militant organizations that worked toward improving the lives of their members, which in turn resulted in the Shipping Federation using the same tactics that they used in 1935 to destroy these unions.
Throughout the 1940’s the longshoremen, having learned some valuable lessons, worked to consolidate all the waterfront unions in the Province into one cohesive organization that could fight together to represent all waterfront workers and present a united front to the Shipping Federation. These independent waterfront unions in B.C. subsequently affiliated with the ILWU in the U.S., and built the Canadian section of the Union into what it has come today.
The Battle of Ballantyne has many lessons for us provided by those trade unionists in 1935 that would not be beaten by the Shipping Federation, who along with their cohorts in government used every dirty trick in the book to beat them down. The Battle was temporarily lost, but we owe the strong fighting and politically active organization that we have today, to those workers who refused to settle for less than good wages and safe working conditions for their members.
We must remember Ballantyne because they’ll do it again, and will be preparing right now if they sense any weakness in our organization.
Only by looking back and acknowledging the sacrifices of those that have gone before us can we prove worthy of the legacy that they have left us.
The monument erected at New Brighton Park in 2010 on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Ballantyne is a token tribute to those brave workers who faced down the Employers and their government to achieve better working conditions for us all.
Dave Lomas April 25, 2015