On June 18, the VDLC was proud to join the International Longshore & Warehouse Union at its annual Battle of Ballantyne Memorial event at New Brighton Park in Vancouver.
The following is the speech presented at the event by VDLC President Stephen von Sychowski.
I’m Stephen von Sychowski, President of the Vancouver and District Labour Council, which brings together nearly 100 local unions and 60,000 unionized workers in the Vancouver area – amongst whom we are very proud to include ILWU locals.
I’d like to thank ILWU Canada for inviting me here to speak briefly this morning on the 84th anniversary of the Battle of Ballantyne.
As we are all aware, the Battle of Ballantyne occurred when police attacked striking longshore workers with tear gas and clubs, wounding at least 100 and arresting others.
They even attacked a first aid post established by the Women’s Auxiliary, smashing its window and hurling tear gas inside.
The end result was that the strike was defeated.
Or was it?
What lesson should we take from the Battle of Ballantyne?
It’s true that the workers did not win the right to take over the dispatch system, or to improved wage rates during the course of the strike.
But what happened next?
Longshore unions started to come together – to unite – and to build their collective strength.
Change could be delayed, but not stopped, because longshore workers continued to fight and ultimately the demands of that 1935 strike were achieved.
Not only that, but ILWU has grown into one of the largest and strongest unions in this province and beyond.
Like every other right and entitlement, we enjoy in this society, those things were won through struggle.
So, the Battle of Ballantyne was not a defeat, but a momentary setback, and one which helped show the way forward from defeat to victory.
It steeled the resilience and militancy of longshore workers to take the fight forward.
And it inspired workers both back in those days, and all the way up to the present – as is proven by the fact that we are all here remembering and commemorating it now.
When we fight, we win – and even when we suffer a setback, it can contribute to a future victory if we keep up the fight.
But while ILWU, and workers at-large have won many victories over the years and decades that have followed since 1935, some things remain the same.
We still live in a country operating under an economic system designed to put profits before people and dominated by political parties who are married to that system with no hope of divorcing it.
Nothing illustrates these facts more readily in the present moment than your struggle to put workers before robots.
What fight could be more just and easy to sympathise with that the fight to simply ensure that workers, families, communities are not abandoned and set adrift after years or even decades of service for no other reason that to be replaced by machines for the sake of increased profits?
This is the inhumanity lingering so slightly beneath the shiny surface of our capitalist system.
Wealth is created not by robots, but by labour – human labour.
Yet today in world of automated ports, self driving vehicles, self checkouts, automated tellers, the list goes on… we’re being asked to accept that wealth being hoarded ever increasingly by those at the top.
Today Canada’s 87 wealthiest families, who hold $3 billion in assets each on average, have as much wealth as the least wealthy 12 million citizens.
Another way of looking at it is that the net wealth of the richest in Canada is 4,448 time that of the average.
Meanwhile workers face deepening precarity with the proliferation of “gig”, casual, and contract work, and declining real wages – what you can buy with your dollar – in the face of ever-increasing unaffordability.
So your fight around automation is one that is relevant to working people all across our economy and globally as well.
Automation is of course not a bad idea in and of itself. It’s a matter of who controls it. It could be tremendously beneficial to us all, if put to work in the interests of people.
It could reduce the length of the workday without reducing pay. It could open the door to full employment with increased leisure time and increased production.
Instead those in power want to use it merely to increase profits, without regard for the impacts on those who do the work.
I’m sure you’ll agree the workers on Ballantyne Pier wouldn’t have accepted it, and neither will we.
That’s where the lesson of Ballantyne comes in. It might look tough. We might get knocked down occasionally. But if we fight, we win.
So again, I want to thank you for inviting me to join you in commemorating this important moment in the local labour history, the history of our class.
I want to leave you with a quote from Harry Bridges. He said “Labor cannot stand still. It must not retreat. It must go on, or go under.”
Attacked at Ballantyne, the workers fought back – they went on. Threatened with automation, you fought back. We will not retreat, we will not go under, we will go on.