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The Battle of Timberland Road

May 12, 2012

The Timberland Lumber Company management had a reputation for running a very tight ship financially, but the onset of the great depression severely tested the profitability of the mill. During lean times JG Robson kept the mill operating at a loss to protect the jobs of its workforce. Yet even such progressive labour practices did not inure Timberland from labour unrest in 1932, when big city working class radicalism marched across the Westminster Bridge and into South Westminster.

Timberland aerial photo

Aerial view of Timberland Lumber Company mill opposite New Westminster- Canada Lumberman

Workers Unite

On Tuesday, September 13, 1932 an event occurred which set off perhaps the most dramatic scenes of labour unrest ever known to this district.

At about 10 in the morning a coterie of mill workers at the Timberland Lumber Company mill at South Westminster submitted a paper demanding an immediate increase in wages of ten per cent or they would cease work at 12 pm.

When enough workers to man a crew did not assemble for the afternoon shift,  Robson responded by shutting down the mill, throwing out of work 150 employees locally and the same number of workers in logging operations up the coast.  The Timberland booming grounds rang eerily silent as the large saws which had been running day and night for more than a decade,  spun to a stop.

In justifying his response, Robson argued that Timberland paid higher wages than any mill in Washington state, and more than most in this province.

“The mill has been working at a loss to provide work for our steady men, but although we have provided employment almost continuously for 20 years we must shut down indefinitely.”   –Vancouver Sun

The demands had come as a shock to management of the mill, far removed from the city centre.  As the account of events began to unfold, it turned out that some union organizers had travelled out from Vancouver and met with some day-shift workers on Monday night, urging them to press a demand for higher wages and recognition of a “shop committee.”

Robson’s position was to offer to run the mill, affording the existing rate of pay, but without recognition of the workers committee.  It was a flat refusal to accord to either of their demands.

Forming ranks – Standoff on the Timberland Road

With the Timberland mill shut down on Tuesday afternoon, the idled men formed themselves into a picket line across the road at the entrance to the plant.  Tensions increased when local and Provincial police arrived to keep an eye on the situation and prevent any interference with normal business.

On Wednesday the stand-off continued with a picket line of up to 125 men blockading the road to the mill premises, preventing trucks entering and leaving.  New Westminster police forces were bolstered by the arrival of Provincial police from Vancouver, in aid of keeping the peace.

The Reeve of Surrey Municipality was on hand daily to observe the actions of strikers. The mill, since its inception in 1910, had been one of the largest employers in the district. Reeve JT Brown was quoted as expressing support for the mill management and the police. He believed the pickets were mostly outside agitators and suggested the local men were more than willing to return to work.  He cautioned the men that no relief would be afforded them from the municipality if they remained on strike. Rather mysteriously, the Reeve suggested that the leader of the protest was an East Indian labour agitator.   Pickets “appeared to be mainly under the direction of a young Hindu graduate of the University of B.C.”

Pickets remained up and an uneasy truce prevailed during a fortnight of labour unrest at South Westminster in September 1932.  Meanwhile many workers were feeling the pinch and were anxious to return to work. This was a time when few other means of making a living were available and the men were without income.

When enough men were willing to resume work under the existing conditions,  word went out that the Timberland mill was prepared to resume normal operations. The stage was set for a confrontation.

Sticking Point:  The labour clash on Timberland Road

In the early morning of September 27th, with an autumn mist steaming from adjacent pastures, both sides amassed their forces.  Along the private road leading to the mill an assembly of close to 200 picketers had armed themselves with wooden clubs cut from the bushes, with a few sporting two by fours studded with spikes. Many carried stones or kept a supply of such ammo near at hand.

Timberland Lumber - strike map 1932

Timberland Mill labour action, 1932 – annotated map, Surveyor General,1923

A newspaper reported that the ranks of the striking workers were swelled by a vanguard of the Communist Party of 61 Cordova Street in Vancouver, who late Tuesday brought over a truckload of the unemployed on relief to spend the night in a makeshift shelter in the bush near the mill.

Cordova Street in the early 30’s was a hotbed of radical labour and workingmen’s organizations. The city directory lists the Communist Party affiliated “Lumber & Agricultural Workers Industrial Union of Canada” as having premises in the Sullivan Building, 61 West Cordova Street. Across the street, the rival “Industrial Workers of the World,” or “Wobblies,” were headquartered at 60 W Cordova.

Law enforcement authorities were not to be outdone.  Anticipating a confrontation, police had arrived from various forces, and were considerably better equipped for a battle.

Forty members of the British Columbia Provincial Police had been trucked in from local detachments throughout the lower mainland. A police boat from Victoria manned by another four officers arrived at the mill’s wharf on Fraser River.

A handful of New Westminster City police were on hand, as well as a few local police from Surrey, including Chief Alex Matheson and Constable Len Collishaw.
A clatter of horseshoes echoing out of the mist heralded the arrival of a contingent of 30 members of the  Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  Declining to charge the strikers on horseback,  RCMP Inspector TB Calkins ordered some of his members dismount and they joined the ranks of the police line, truncheons at the ready. A smaller number of mounted police were held in abeyance.

At 7:15 am the picketers and strike sympathizers were told the road must be opened up. BCPP Inspector John Shirras, in charge of the operation, advised the pickets they had two minutes to disperse or face the consequences.

The ensuing engagement was short but brutal.  Police charged with drawn batons, flaying those in their path.  Picketers in the way struck back with rough clubs, while those at a distance hurled stones.

The melee lasted but a few minutes. The first line broke and the picketers fled to safety.  Many  were bruised and injured amongst the pickets, while some policemen were struck by flying stones, but none wounded.

In the aftermath of the fray, some strikers dispersed into the bushes reacted with throwing stones from afar.  Others made their way in retreat toward the New Westminster Bridge. Mounted police galloped along the road adjacent to the railway tracks, scattering secondary groups of picketers into the brush.

As the dust settled, trucks under guard rolled up Timberland Road carrying more than 100 men who were prepared to return to work.

At 8:00 am, September 27, 1932, after a shut-down of 14 days, Timberland mill resumed sawing timbers.

The aftermath:  Milling and mopping up

JG Robson, President of Timberland Lumber Company, assured the men that all workers who applied could return to their jobs, including those who had resisted to the end. It was said that a minority of less than 50 workers had been in favour of striking from the beginning, aided by union organizers and militants.

The mill put on one shift to start, with plans to resume round-the-clock operations in the near future when staffing was back to normal.

The situation around the mill remained unsettled for a few days and police remained on duty. Following the skirmish on September 27th, the RCMP brought in hay for their horses, which were stabled on the mill premises. Thirty-five Mounted Police were billeted at the company bunkhouses. A further 25 Provincial Police were given quarters at the mill and sustained with meals brought in from New Westminster.

There remained some mopping up to do in the following days.  Camps of men in the woods nearby were cleared out by the police after a homeless 15-year-old boy told of being brought out from Vancouver by Communist organizers to “fight police” on the promise of free meals and shelter.

Twenty police officers on horseback patrolled the Timberland Road and Scott Road at South Westminster.  Isolated skirmishes erupted — a Timberland Lumber Company truck was jacked in New Westminster and its keys taken from the driver — but within a few days an air of normalcy was returning to the left bank of the Fraser River.  The night shift was resumed and by the end of the month two shifts were at work at Timberland, providing employment to around 150 men. In the woods up the coast, the logging camps that had been idled by the shutdown, once again sprung into the work of felling trees.

Timberland Road and Railway spur

Timberland Road and railway spur line

In 1933, Manfred McGeer, the “outside superintendent” at Timberland Lumber Company, and a member of one of Vancouver’s more prominent political families, was nominated as the Liberal candidate in Vancouver East to run for a seat in the provincial legislature. He lost to the left-wing Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) candidate.
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