O. Powell Street Grounds/ Oppenheimer Park

Powell St & Dunlevy Ave
Vancouver, BC, CA

Category: Sites from the 'Labour, Work and Working People' booklet

Used in the following map:

Downtown Eastside Vancouver Labour History sites streamed live February 7th 2009 - you can add comments and supplementary information to this map

One of the earliest playing fields in Vancouver, the city officially dedicated this meeting round, and popular spot to gather and hear speakers, as Oppenheimer Park in 1902, naming it after Vancouver`s second mayor.

A highly controversial free speech demonstration took place at this site in 1912. RP Pettipiece, first secretary of the BC Federation of Labor, reported his unsuccessful attempt to get relief for the unemployed to an assembled crowd on January 20. The city arrested Pettipiece and imposed a ban on all public meetings. In response, the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) and the Socialist Party formed a committee to fight for free speech and an end to unemployment ( see site # 10)

The ban was broken in May when nearly 5000 people gathered at the park to listen to Salvation Army sermons and music. The Wobblies ``soapboxed`` in competition with the Salvation Army using the gathered crowd as their own audience, They also sang parodies of hymns to mock the fruitless promises of the churches. Labour activists used songs to reach a popular, often illiterate audience by writing political lyrics that they ``zippered`` into familiar hymns. Unionist Joe Hill rewrote the hymn ``In the Sweet Bye n` Bye`` as ``The Preacher and the Slave`` in 1911:

``And the starvation army the play/and they sing and the clap and they pray

`til they get all coin on the drum/then they tell you when you`re on the bum

You will eat, by and by, in that glorious land in the sky (way up high)

Work and pray, live on hay, you’ll get pie in the sky when you die (that’s a lie!)¨

The Full Joe Hill lyrics to 'The Preacher and the Slave'

On You Tube - Michael Hurley Sings Pie in the Sky (Preacher and the Slave)- The 'Starvation Army' instead of the 'Salvation Army....'

An online biography of Joe Hill (Joseph Hillstrom)

More on labour militant history and the various unions formed and merged is available here from

Industrial Workers of The World

The Industrial Workers Of The World (IWW) is an anti-capitalist union that has fought for revolution using direct action, and has a particularly strong history in Vancouver. Two miners from British Columbia, John Riordan and James Baker, attended the founding convention of the IWW in Chicago on June 27, 1905. The IWW was formed by militant workers, anarcho-syndicalists, socialists, and communists who saw the need to organize "One Big Union". The IWW set itself apart from the American Federation of Labour by organizing workers by industry rather than by craft or occupation. They refused to sign contracts with bosses, and rejected the dues check-off system, by which employers automatically subtracted union dues from paycheques. It was also one of the only unions of the time that organized all workers regardless of gender of ethnic background. One member declared that "all this anti-Japanese talk comes from the employing class." The IWW strategy is based on direct action as oppossed to electoral politics.
Tsleil-Waututh (Burrard) workers from North Vancouver formed Vancouver Local 526 of the IWW in 1906. Soon nicknamed the "Bows and Arrows", it was the first union on the Burrard docks. The Lumber Workers Industrial Union Local 45 (LWIU), the Lumber Handlers Local 526, and the Mixed Local 322 had been established by 1907, and had organized hundreds of workers. The Vancouver LWIU won the eight-hour workday for its members, removed tiered-bunks in logging camps, and forced companies to supply bedding. The IWW then went on to organize teamsters, miners, and railway workers. They had organized 9 locals in British Columbia by 1913 and led 6 strikes involving some 10,000 workers. The IWW also organized transient workers, the unemployed, and recent immigrants, many of whom lived in the squatter jungles in the city; people that other unions looked down upon. Many of the founders of the Vancouver IWW had been active militants in the Socialist Trades and Labour Alliance (STLA).
The IWW denounced political action at a 1908 congress, and excluded known Socialist Party members. Along the west coast, and in Vancouver in particular, there was a strong movement among the IWW for regional autonomy and against the General Executive Branch. IWW members in Vancouver were strongly opposed to politics and parties. When the Socialist Party of Canada urged workers to vote for them in the 1909 elections, the IWW pointed out that only 75 of their 5,000 members were even eligible. This was because women, Asians, and non-residents or property owners had no voting rights at the time. IWW members felt that all governments served the ruling class and capitalism, and said that "a wise tailor does not put stitches into rotten cloth." The Socialist Party of Canada (SPC) denounced the union as "so anarchistic, and therefore reactionary, as to clearly stamp it as an enemy of the peaceful and orderly process of the labour movement towards the overthrow of capital and the ending of wage servitude."
It was in Vancouver that the nick-name "Wobbly" originated. A local Chinese restaurant keeper supported the union and would extend credit to its members. He pronounced IWW as "I Wobble Wobble", and it quickly caught on.
The Wobbly Hall was at 112 Abott Street. Other meeting places included 61 West Cordova and 232 East Pender.
By 1912, the IWW boasted 10,000 members in B.C.
The IWW fought a "free speech" fight in 1912, against a ban on public meetings, leading to the repression of many of its members, but also a lift on the ban. Vancouver police regularly attacked the Wobblies public meetings, and several riots broke out. Wobblies rented a boat and spoke to crowds off English Bay through a huge megaphone. In February the IWW called for a convergence in Vancouver and threatened a General Strike to oppose the ban on free speech. Wobblies warned that "the worker's weapon - sabotage" would be put to use. J.S. Biscay declared in public meetings and to the press that "if they want to drown free speech in Vancouver they will have to bury us with it." Towards the end of the struggle for free speech more than 10,000 people gathered to hear the Wobblies speak at the Powell Street grounds.
Listings for the IWW disappeared from Vancouver directories in 1912 after police and government harrassment began in response to the IWW attempts to organize transient, forestry, and railway workers and open advocation of sabotage and class struggle. The IWW was banned in Canada between 1918 and 1919 under a "war measures act" as a seditious group, but members kept the organization alive underground.
Vancouver Wobblies re-opened a general membership branch in January of 2000.


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