A short history and background of the 1935 dockers’ strike and subsequent bloody confrontation with police in Vancouver that became known as the Battle of Ballantyne Pier.
The story of the Battle of Ballantyne Pier can be traced back to 1912 when the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), began organising amongst waterfront workers in Canada, and alongside the Lumber Handlers’ Union in Vancouver. Going head to head with the employers association, the Shipping Federation, several strikes resulting in wage increases were won by workers in the coming years. Victories on the waterfront increased over the next decade, and by 1923 the Shipping Federation became determined to break the power of the ILA.
A strike, possibly provoked by the employers’ association, broke out in October 1923 which saw 1400 men joining picket lines at the Vancouver waterfront. However, provisions had been made by the Shipping Federation. The dockers were immediately met by 350 men armed with shotguns who had been housed on a nearby ship. This premeditated intimidation of the strikers, coupled with the fact that ships were still being loaded and unloaded by numerous scabs who had been drafted in, forced the strike to collapse two months later.
The 1923 strike destroyed the ILA, and it was soon replaced a new organisation, the Vancouver and District Waterfront Workers’ Association (VDWWA). Set up originally by the bosses as a company union, the VDWWA soon began to take a confrontational stance towards the Shipping Federation. By 1935, nearly every port in British Columbia had been organised by the VDWWA. Following the pretext to the destruction of the ILA, the Shipping Federation provoked another major strike in the spring of 1935, locking out 50 dockers at the port at Powell River.
The strike soon snowballed to bring other dockers across the region into the fold. Following a refusal to unload ships coming from Powell River, 900 workers were met with a lockout in Vancouver. Dockers across the border in Seattle also refused to unload ships coming from Vancouver and Powell River that were manned by scabs.
On June 18, several weeks after the original lockout, between 900-1100 dockers and their supporters marched through Vancouver towards Ballantyne Pier where scabs were unloading ships. The strikers were met at the pier by several hundred armed policeman. Attempting to force their way through, the dockers soon found themselves under attack from the police lines. Many marchers were clubbed as they tried to run to safety, while many others tried hopelessly to fight back, using whatever weapons they could find. Aided by Mounties who had been posted nearby, the police continued to viciously attack the strikers. The VDWWA union hall was attacked, with tear gas being used against members of the women’s auxiliary who had set up a first aid station inside. The battle continued for three hours, and ended with several hospitalisations, including that of a fleeing striker who had been shot in the back of his legs.
Dragging on until December, the strike lost much of its militant character after the fighting at Ballantyne Pier. The struggle to form a union completely independent of the Shipping Federation continued for another two years, when, in 1937, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was born.
The strike of 1935 failed. It did, however, lay the path for the future founding of a union for the dockers of British Colombia which was completely independent of the employers’ association. The ILWU participated in numerous disputes in the following years, and in the 1940s was integral in winning many strikes that lead to better pay and conditions for waterfront workers.