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Citizen Docker: Making a New Deal on the Vancouver Waterfront 1919-1939

By Andrew Parnaby

Review By Gordon Hak

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 160 Winter 2008-2009  | p. 139-141

In Citizen Docker Andrew Parnaby explores industrial relations on the Vancouver waterfront during the interwar years. The analysis is linked to a broader consideration of the transition to the welfare state and the new industrial relations regime that emerged in the 1940s. Longshoremen have not been ignored in BC labour history: their stories have been told in a worker-produced history entitled “Man Along the Shore!” and in a scholarly 1974 article by Richard McCandless that documents the big 1935 strike. But Parnaby offers something new by locating the interwar history of dockworkers in the context of recent historical literature on citizenship, race, gender, and communism. 

In Parnaby’s account, the overall story is straightforward: Vancouver longshoremen were militant in the labour upheaval after the First World War, although it must be noted that, in dealing with the events of 1919, Parnaby is not very forthcoming. The narrative really begins in 1923, when employers smashed the union, the International Longshoremen’s Association, in a major strike. In the wake of this strike, employers restructured relations with their workers. Drawing on the model of North American welfare capitalism, waterfront employers sought to stabilize the workforce, getting rid of the casual labour market (in which workers were picked out of lineups to load and unload ships) and replacing this arrangement with an efficient, organized system that provided workers security and recognized them as participants with rights – citizens – in the industrial and social order. For their part, workers drew on the labourist vision of the crucial role of workers in society as well as on memories of the sacrifices that they had made in the Great War to develop a growing notion of entitlement and to demand fair treatment. The cornerstone of the new order was a company union, the Vancouver and District Waterfront Workers’ Association (VDWWA), which was initially composed of many strikebreakers. The BC Shipping Federation (BCSF), the organization that represented employers, carefully monitored the vdwwa, ensuring that radical, militant workers were barred. Since most of the work on the docks was reserved for the vdwwa members, “malcontents” were kept away. First Nations longshoremen, who had been a significant minority in the waterfront workforce, were also excised in the new order, which defined participation along racial as well as political lines.

The new arrangement produced harmony in the 1920s but collapsed in the Depression. The impact of the economic downturn was such that “40 percent fewer longshoremen plied their trade in 1932 than did so in 1928” (101). Employers, struggling to survive, broke the deal of the 1920s, returning to coercion. Within the vdwwa a cadre of militants with links to the Communist Party of Canada took a prominent role. As the VDWWA moved left, the waterfront union became enmeshed in the broader communist world of activism. The showdown came in 1935 in a brutal strike that included the bloody Battle of Ballentyne Pier. The workers lost and the vdwwa was eliminated. However, a new social and industrial order was on the horizon, and, Parnaby argues, it rested on the ideas associated with the earlier development of the company union that flowed from the First World War and the postwar upheaval: “the irony, here, is arresting. Crafted as a means to curtail working-class political action and deflect state intervention, welfare capitalism and decasualization helped, in the end, to produce a stronger political appetite amongst waterfront workers that, in time, underwrote the state’s very expansion” (165). 

Three themes are particularly interesting. First, Parnaby puts a somewhat positive spin on company unions. Rather than being a wrong turn for workers – collaborationist sellouts that deterred workers from radical action – they did not completely submerge protest, according to Parnaby, and indeed helped set the stage for the emergence of a new labour relations order and the welfare state after 1940. Second, Aboriginal longshoremen get a detailed history. Parnaby stresses the importance of their labour to the industry and their communities as well as the racial divide that separated their history from that of other longshoremen. Third, the book treats the Communist Party in British Columbia as being made up of individuals capable of independent action in response to local circumstances, not merely as a group of stooges slavishly following the line laid down in Moscow. Here Parnaby makes good use of Ontario archives to get at the internal workings of west coast communism.

This is not a book that sees worker action as a simple response to material conditions. The negotiated terrain of competing and changing ideas and understandings are at the core of Parnaby’s exploration. The discourse of citizenship informs the book’s title, posing questions regarding who legitimately belongs in the society and what is owed to these citizens. Within this construct, masculinity is important as employers sought to reshape its meaning in order to create stable, loyal, politically moderate employees. Real men were patriotic, sober, family-oriented, and dedicated to home ownership. Real men were also loyal to Canada and the British Empire. In the 1920s and 1930s, workers asserted their identity and needs in relation to their wartime sacrifices. Because they had gone to war they deserved a square deal at home. Finally, racism clearly distinguished the experiences of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers. In the 1920s, employers and union leaders drew on and shaped these embedded social and cultural discourses in the pursuit of different ends. In the 1930s, the cpc, too, mobilized senses of masculinity and the war sacrifice to forge a fighting union, while employers used the union’s association with communism to portray strikers as beyond the pale of citizenship and thus undeserving of better treatment. 

Here are a few quibbles. Major William Claude David Crombie was the employers’ labour manager, the man responsible for the corporate welfare program, throughout the interwar period, and his ideas are well documented. But the position of his employers, those who held the hammer, is less clear. The discourse of sacrifice and national loyalty emanating from the experience of the First World War is developed, but there is little on the ethnic makeup of the workforce or the wartime participation rates of dockworkers. Was it only war veterans of British descent who appealed to entitlement based on the wartime activities? The family-oriented, respectable masculinity that was apparently created also raises questions. Did the rougher version of masculinity disappear? One wonders, too, about the non-communist leftist discourse of the era, most notably the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which had a role in shaping political action and discourse in the 1930s. The party does not even merit a mention. Presumably the CCF is part of Parnaby’s larger category of moderates.

Overall, Citizen Docker addresses important historical questions. Understanding the arrival of interventionist governments and the circumscribed welfare state in the mid-twentieth century remains relevant in today’s political economy. Parnaby offers a coherent account of a complex story, and there is pleasure in reading his skilled engagement with the interlocking themes of family, work, gender, race, and class. 



International Longshore & Warehouse Union Local 500 Pensioners. 1975. “Man Along the Shore!” The Story of the Vancouver Waterfront as Told by the Longshoremen Themselves, 1860-1975. Vancouver: ilwu Local 500 Pensioners

McCandless, Richard. “Vancouver’s ‘Red Menace’ of 1935: The Waterfront Situation.” BC Studies, 22 (1974): 56-70.