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The Battle of Ballantyne Pier was a clash between city, provincial, and federal police and Communist-led protesters on 18 June 1935 in the East End of Vancouver, Canada. It lasted for about three hours and was the climax of a strike by longshoremen. Local political and business leaders alleged that the strike was illegitimate because they believed it was part of an international Communist conspiracy to spark a Pacific coast Bolshevik revolution beginning on Vancouver's waterfront. The strike came on the heels of another Communist-led strike of relief camp workers that precipitated the On-to-Ottawa Trek, which was also understood to be motivated by seditious intent.
The Vancouver and District Waterfront Workers' Association (VDWWA) was established as a company union following a defeated longshoremen's strike in 1923, replacing the International Longshoremen's Association. Communist organizers with the Workers' Unity League (WUL) managed to seize control of the VDWWA's executive a decade later and transformed it into a militant union, which then began working towards strike action. A strike, or more accurately a lock-out, finally commenced on 27 May 1935. This was several months after an agreement had been reached between the union and the Shipping Federation of British Columbia, but the terms of which were unfavourable to the longshoremen. In late May, union membership voted to take over the despatching of work gangs on the harbour to load and unload ships as required. Despatching was a key issue for longshoremen, and prior to the 1923 strike had been carried out by the union. Longshoremen claimed that the Shipping Federation of British Columbia, an employers' association of waterfront-based companies and the main employer on the docks, unfairly discriminated against workers. Especially targeted were those considered sympathetic to an independent union or simply disliked by the despatcher, making the allocation of work a punitive mechanism and the job itself insecure. When the union unilaterally took over despatching, the Federation claimed it was a violation of their agreement and locked out the longshoremen. Replacement workers, known pejoratively as "scabs" by strikers, were mobilized along with hundreds of police specials recruited to break the strike.
Meanwhile, nearly 2000 relief camp workers flooded into Vancouver on 4 April 1935. These were unemployed men protesting the conditions of the federal relief camps that were set up as a stop-gap solution to the unemployment crisis by the Department of Defence. Camp inmates were also organized under the Workers' Unity League into the Relief Camp Workers' Union. Communist leaders were attempting to merge the two strikes and spark a general strike. The Shipping Federation and the police were aware of this plan, and claimed it was an attempt to start a Bolshevik revolution on the Pacific Coast. Thus, when the waterfront strike finally began, tensions were already high between anticommunists and strikers.
Despite Communist rhetoric and militancy, historians agree that both strikes were driven by legitimate grievances: abyssmal conditions in the relief camps and despatching and other workplace issues on the waterfront. Nevertheless, a massive mobilization that included all three levels of police, with specials attached to each police force, took place in anticipation of an attempted revolution. Specials trained at the Beatty Street Drill Hall under Brigadier-General Victor Odlum and Colonel C.E. Edgett and were coordinated by a group called the Citizens' League of British Columbia, a vigilante organization funded by the Shipping Federation. Militia units based in the Point Grey neighbourhood of Vancouver and in Victoria, British Columbia were also ready to be called to action on short notice. The Point Grey militia, however, consisted of inmates of a specially designated relief camp and many of them eventually joined the relief camp strikers.
The Communist plan to merge the strikes and spark a general strike failed, except for a one day demonstration commemorating May Day. On 3 June 1935, shortly after the waterfront strike began, the relief camp strikers left the city to begin the On-to-Ottawa Trek in an effort to take their grievance to the nation's capital. Nevertheless, the authorities persisted in conflating the waterfront strike with revolution, perhaps because they were alarmed by the waterfront strike in the United States the previous year that shut down most shipping operations along the American coast and which culminated in a bloody general strike in San Francisco.
On 18 June 1935, about 1000 protesters, consisting of striking longshoremen and their supporters, marched towards the Heatley Street entrance to Ballantyne Pier, where strikebreakers were unloading ships in the harbour.
Unlike earlier waterfront strikes, longshoremen were prevented from picketing the docks to discourage strikebreaking, and claimed that they were going to go en masse to talk to the scabs. They were led by Victoria Cross recipient Mickey O'Rourke and a contingent of First World War veterans and marched behind a Union Jack flag, to great symbolic effect. At the entrance to the pier, they were met by Chief Constable Colonel W. W. Foster, who warned the demonstrators that they would not be permitted to proceed. When they refused to turn back, protesters were attacked with clubs by the police guarding the pier. Within minutes, more police joined in the fight. In addition to the Vancouver city police, contingents from the British Columbia Provincial Police, who had been hiding behind boxcars, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, engaged with demonstrators. The police chased the dispersing crowd, continuing to club people even as they fled and fired tear gas. Many protesters fought back, throwing rocks and other projectiles at the police, while others that were attacked were simply trying to flee the scene. The ensuing melee continued for three hours and spread throughout the nearby residential district. Several people, both police and protesters, were hospitalized as a result of the riot, and one bystander was shot in the back of his legs by a police shotgun. Some reports indicated that the police had machine guns ready at the scene as well, but others deny this was the case. Offices of Communist organizers and the longshoremen's union were also raided, with tear gas shot through the windows to drive out any occupants before the police entered. Strike supporters set up a makeshift hospital at the Ukrainian Hall, and the police did the same for their wounded at the Coroner's Court on Cordova Street. In total, 28 out of the 60 injured were hospitalized and 24 men were arrested. Mayor Gerry McGeer declared that striking longshoremen would no longer be eligible for relief payments for themselves or their families.
The Battle of Ballantyne was the bloody climax of a very volatile year in Vancouver, but fell far short of the insurrection anticipated by the police and anticommunists. It was also a turning point in the waterfront strike, which, although it dragged on until December, lost its optimistic and militant character after the battle. Longshoremen, however, would continue to fight for the right to organize an independent union and to control despatching, and finally succeeded a decade later when they formed the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), Local 500.
It was also the last of WUL militancy that Vancouver would witness. That same year, the Comintern in Moscow abandoned its Third Period strategy, which entailed the creation of the Workers' Unity League and similar militant trade union organizations in other countries with the goal of building a radical labour movement separate from mainstream labour organizations. Under the new Popular Front strategy, Communists joined established unions and helped to build the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Moreover, Communist priorities shifted from the industrial to the political arena, where they fielded candidates and supported Cooperative Commonwealth Federation candidates, while others joined the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion to fight Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War.
While far more localized than the On-to-Ottawa Trek, the Battle of Ballantyne Pier was part of the fierce, and perhaps paranoid, anticommunist reaction provoked by the Communists and the militant workers' movement they led. Public attitudes shifted away from the Conservative government of R.B. "Iron Heel" Bennett because of its mishandling of depression-era unrest in such events, which paved the way for Bennett's defeat in the federal election that same year. Although machine guns were not used in the riot, another First World War technology was introduced in Vancouver policing that day: tear gas. Another major clash between the unemployed and the police took place in 1938. Relief camp workers returned to the city and were violently evicted from Post Office by means of tear gas bombs and police clubs (primarily the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in that instance).
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