Friday, August 14, 2015

Powder Keg

During this time, Vancouver had been free of labour trouble - remarkably. During the first decade of the 20th century, Vancouver had added a large number of British and European immigrants. These newcomers were highly conscious of economic theory and trade union practice.  Even though the cost of living had shot up 50 percent, wages remained at pre-war levels. And the work day, except for a privileged few, remained at nine or ten hours. There was no job security and modern benefits were unknown. A Workmen's Compensation Act was passed during the year but was as of yet, untried.

The city's rulers were blissfully contemplating the inevitable boom coming in 1917, unaware they were sitting on a powder keg.

The anticipated boom arrived on schedule. New businesses opened and the Board of Trade membership jumped 100 percent to 1000. Coughlans launched two steel ships and contracted for 14 more; Wallaces launched four schooners and contracted for 27 more wooden ships; the yards had 5250 men and women employed and a backlog of $31 million in orders.

Prices for essentials like milk, bread and meat soared partially because meat was so scarce, "meatless days" were decreed in August. Women were working everywhere, including the shell factories.

Vancouverites bought $7,250,000 worth of Victory Loan bonds and the Dominion was building a great military hospital in Shaughnessy. Mothers, church members and businessmen hailed the economic and social benefits sure to arise from prohibition, which was coming into effect on October 1. It was a very exciting time and people barely noticed an unusual epidemic of infantile paralysis (polio), which sent nine children to hospital during August.

Don't forget about the powder-keg though. It went "boom" and surprised everyone. In February, the boilermakers went on strike and won a wage increase. Two months later, in April, employees of the B.C. Sugar Refinery were out for 16 days. Employers growled and grumbled when, in May, the city - who had already been pioneers in establishing an eight-hour workday - increased civic wages. The same month, equal pay was won by police and firemen.

In July, the fishing industry was paralysed by a strike at Rivers Inlet; at the same time, a seaman's strike shut down coastal fishing from June 27 to July 16. On July 7, an alarming work stoppage of several hours was staged by city firemen. Apartment owners increased rents by 20 percent July 31, giving reason for the longshoremen's grievances. They walked out for a week and halted war shipments to Australia and Mesopotamia. In October, the Coughlan shipyards were struck.

Those labour struggles were minor compared to the one that turned the city on its ear. To learn more, you will have to tune in Monday.

Thanks to the book Vancouver, From Milltown to Metropolis by Alan Morley.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

Karen Magill

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