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1900 strike of Fraser River sockeye salmon fishermen Ralston, Harry Keith


This study sees the 1900 strike on the Fraser River as providing the setting in which trade unions began in the fisheries of British Columbia, and analyzes both the strike itself and its background from that point of view. In the two decades to 1890, the Fraser River salmon canning industry grew relatively slowly, limited by the problems of developing techniques for processing, finding labor for packing, and accumulating capital from profits. In the 10 years to 1900, these difficulties had been mostly overcome, and fresh capital, attracted by sizeable profits, nearly tripled the number of canneries. This boom ended in a crisis of over-expansion, marked by strikes and company mergers. One unforeseen effect of license limitation in the seasons I889-I89I was a change from paying fishermen a daily wage to paying them at so much per fish, and consequently the start of a series of disputes between canners and fishermen over fish prices. Though in general prices rose throughout the 1890*s, the individual fishermen failed to benefit, partly because of price cuts and limits on deliveries during periods of a heavy supply of fish, and partly because of the increasing number of fishermen licensed in each succeeding year. In an attempt to increase their bargaining strength, white resident fishermen campaigned for changes in federal fishery regulations to restrict competition from Japanese and American fishermen, and to reduce the number of cannery licenses. The first fishermen's organization, formed in 1893 to further this end, did not survive its unrelated involvement in a strike that year against price cuts. The amendments to the fishery regulations in 1894 and, to an even greater degree, in 1898 reflected the success of this group in gaining their ends by political means. To try to redress the balance, the canners created in 1898 their own closely-knit organization, the British Columbia Salmon Packers’ Association. The difficulties of the seasons of 1898 and 1899, basically caused by over-expansion, led the canners to tighten their organization further by creating in January, 1900, the Fraser River Canners’ Association, a cannery combine with power to set maximum fish prices and production quotas for each cannery, and to levy fines on violators of its decisions. About the same time, and partly in reaction to the canners' move, separate unions of fishermen were organized, first at New Westminster, then at Vancouver. The Vancouver union tried and failed to enroll Japanese fishermen who formed in June, 1900, the Japanese Fishermen's Benevolent Society. The Canners’ Association refused to negotiate prices with fishermen's union representatives or to set a minimum price for sockeye. When the sockeye season opened July 1 the fishermen struck, demanding 25 cents a fish through the season. By July 10, the strike included all fishermen on the river—white, Japanese and Indian. After another week, the Canners' Association felt forced to negotiate and in a series of meetings the two sides came close to settlement. At this point, however, the canners broke off negotiations and made a separate agreement with the Japanese for 20 cents for the first 600 fish in a week and 15 cents thereafter. The canners then provoked an "incident" as an excuse for three friendly justices of the peace to call out the militia to Steveston. In spite of the Japanese defection and the presence of the militia, the remaining strikers held out for another week. Mediation by E. P. Bremner, Dominion Labor Commissioner, and Francis Carter-Cotton, publisher of the Vancouver News-Advertiser, secured them a negotiated settlement which, though not including any union recognition, guaranteed 19 cents throughout the season. This success led to the creation in January, 1901, of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia Fishermen's Unions, the first coast-wide fishermen's organization in British Columbia. The strike marked the beginning of continuous union activity in the industry and the start of a tradition of radical leadership that persists to the present day.

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