Book review: Vancouver Working Class & Labour History Walking Tours

By Daniel Tseghay

Despite the mayor’s ban on street meetings in January of 1912, thousands of unemployed Vancouverites gathered to hear Richard Parmeter Pettipiece of the Socialist Party of Canada speak at the Powell Street Grounds.

Photo by: BC Labour Heritage Centre
Photo by: BC Labour Heritage Centre

When the police ordered their dispersal, the crowd remained on the Powell Street Grounds, later renamed Oppenheimer Park, after the city’s second mayor and the second largest property owner, David Oppenheimer. When the police arrested Pettipiece, the crowd protested.

Nearly a hundred officers, some mounted and others on foot, invaded the crowd, throwing their clubs and horsewhips around. 25 people were arrested while others ran. Some “went down like ten-pins before the irresistible onslaught of the officers”, according to a Vancouver Province report the next day.

Most of the protesters were members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an anti-capitalist union organizing miners, loggers and agricultural labourers – many of whom were migrants. This was a union which rejected the political system in favour of direct action.

The threat of continued action and the IWW’s call for an overthrow of capitalism and the political system that privileged the wealthy and entrenched hierarchies worried civic politicians. After the confrontation at the Powell Street Grounds, for instance, the border was closed to prevent a potential invasion of IWW members from the United States.

From that park, according to Vancouver Working Class & Labour History Walking Tours, you can see “the headquarters of the Japanese Camp and Millworkers Union, the first Japanese-Canadian union to be included in the BC Federation of Labour.”

It doesn’t exist any longer but, on Saturday, June 27, Vancouver residents had an opportunity to hear about it while at Oppenheimer Park, one of the many stops on a walking tour organized by the BC Labour Heritage Centre. It’s one of three tours taking place this summer, the others occurring on July 25, and August 29.

The booklet, put together by them, along with Simon Fraser University’s Morgan Centre for Labour Studies, the Pacific Northwest Labour History Association, and the Vancouver & District Labour Council, covers the city’s history of resistance.

The same year the IWW and the police fought, the recession, according to the booklet, was particularly ruinous for women. Two years later, Helen Gutteridge, the first woman elected to Vancouver City Council, opened the Toy Making Co-operative where 150 women would work and some unemployed women could find housing.

“By the time the co-op closed in February 1915,” reads the booklet, “it had found jobs for almost 500 women, and had helped another 700 obtain meal tickets. Despite its short life, it was an impressive example of early organizing for working women.”

But it wasn’t the earliest such example in the city of Vancouver’s history. Telephone operators, primarily women working for low wages and who often began as trainees where they worked without pay for up to six months, went on strike in 1902.

“In 1981 that militant legacy resurfaced when the union [Telephone Operators’ Union] locked out managers and chained the doors,” reads the booklet. “Workers ran the company efficiently and professionally until the “unstrike” forced BC Tel to sign a better contract.”

There were the 700 unemployed workers who occupied the Post Office in Downtown Vancouver in 1938 to protest the federal government’s role in deepening the effects of the Great Depression on workers. The occupation ended with RCMP stormed the building, injured 100 people, and arrested 23.

“Vancouverites were outraged at the treatment of the protestors,” reads the booklet. “More than 10,000 protesters gathered at the Powell Street Grounds. They moved from there to protest in front of the police headquarters on Cordova, denouncing “police terrorism” until armed police appeared at the windows and threatened violence to disperse the crowd.”

The history of the labour movement in Vancouver, however, was also shaped by widespread racism.

The anti-Asian riots in 1907 is only one of my instances exposing the racism that seeped into all facets of life, including the labour movement. 9,000 participants carried signs reading “Stand for a White Canada” and opposed Asian immigration.

The Asiatic Exclusion League played a prominent role in inspiring the riot. A number of unions, fearing their membership would be undercut by underpaid, migrant, workers, founded the organization and gave it its guiding spirit. Previously, BC’s first fishers’ union, formed in 1893, even actively excluded 1,000 Japanese and First Nations. And, although the union eventually worked “to build class solidarity across racial lines,” Vancouver’s racism continued to inform the workers’ movement.

In 1937, Vancouver City Council “prohibited white women from working in Chinatown, claiming the law was made to protect white women.” But, this time, rather than accept the prevailing attitudes and conform to them, workers resisted. 16 waitresses, according to the booklet, marched on City Hall, and, although they were ignored at the time, the ordinance was eventually reformed.

Many stories are left out from the, admittedly, slim book. There are the Chinese labourers displaced from Chinatown who found a home, and plots of land to farm, on Musqueam lands.

There’s the Vancouver chapter of the US-based Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, made of black car porters in the 1920s and 30s. They fought discrimination while agitating for better wages, job protections, and benefits in Strathcona, a part of Vancouver’s Eastside that was once populated by far more people of African descent.

Despite the inevitable omissions, the book and the tour helpfully situate the past in an enduring physical landscape. By doing so, both the present and the past inform each other.

One would hope these stories of past resistance, organizing, and struggles for more dignified and sustainable work will play a part in fueling our current battles for justice in the workplace.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Add Comment