Frank Rogers

reprinted from BC HISTORICAL NEWS – VOL. 36 NO. 2 2

by permission

by Janet Mary Nicol

ON 18 April 1903, as a heavy rain fell, the longshoremen’s union led more than eight hundred mourners to the old city cemetery above the blue inlet and overlooking mountains around Vancouver. They came to bury union organizer Frank Rogers, placing an anchorshaped wreath with the word “martyr” inscribed at his grave. The funeral was the largest gathering of trade unionists the city had experienced. Rogers was only thirty years old when he was shot late at night on a waterfront picket line a few blocks from his rented room. He died two days later in hospital. A strikebreaker hired by the Canadian Pacific Railway was arrested for his murder but later acquitted in court. Rogers’s murder remains unsolved.

Many aspects of Frank Rogers’s life are a mystery. No photos exist of him, and details of his personal life are sketchy though his exploits as a union organizer made the front pages of local newspapers. His next of kin are not recorded in
official documents and his funeral, which was paid for by union members, was not attended by family. Rogers immigrated from Scotland to the United States as a young man. He was a seaman in the American navy and merchant service. In 1897 he followed hundreds of eager male adventurers to Vancouver, most en route to the Klondike in the last great gold rush of the continent’s history.

Rogers chose to stay in the city, moving in and out of rented rooms in its oldest section, Gastown, and working seasonally at the Burrard Inlet docks. Over the next six years Rogers helped build the longshoremen, fishermen, and railway unions. He appeared like a shooting star to the city’s labour movement; his entrance coinciding with a burst of new organizing and his death followed by its temporary collapse. The working port attracted a diverse and unconventional group of labourers: “all of that breed of men the world nails to its crosses,” observed an anonymous writer in a March 1911 British Columbia Magazine article.

These workers including French, Swedes, Punjabis, Asians, and First Nations, “ knew the harbor and its ships as a suburbanite knows the houses on his own street.” Longshoremen formed a union in 1888 and had been on strike ten times by the century’s turn, yet their basic rights were far from assured. It was this world Rogers first entered at age 24. A fedora shading his eyes, Rogers walked to work, we can imagine, along a wood-planked sidewalk, dressed in grey pants with wide suspenders and a long-sleeved white shirt. Passing hotel saloons, shooting galleries, and warehouses, he turned off Gore Street, crossed the CPR tracks and joined a long queue of men standing on the wharf beside a moored sailing ship. The head stevedore selected men for the day’s work at 35 cents an hour. If Rogers made the cut, he fell in with the chosen gang, unloading cargo from the ship’s hold, ropes and pulleys creaking. A foreman’s whistle directed the gang’s movements. The Alhambra hotel saloon, situated in Gastown’s oldest brick structure still known as the Byrnes Block, was a popular place for waterfront workers after a tenhour shift. Surely Rogers would be there, leaning against its bar, holding a beer, and talking union. Longshoremen moved exotic, difficult, and dangerous cargo. They unloaded bales of silk off ships from Asia to train cars heading for New York. Two workers were needed to lift a single sack of sugar.

“ There were a lot of men who couldn’t stand up to that kind of work,” according to retired stevedore Harry Walter in an oral account, “Man Along the Shore.” “[Sugar] was worse than lead and lead was tough too.” Handling sulphur could be hazardous and so was exposure to dust from wheat.“ A lot of grain boys died from that wheat,” retired longshoremen Frank McKenzie remembered.“ Used to use handkerchiefs around their mouths and nose[s].”

“ At first we had nothing,” Axel Nymen recalled of his time in the longshoremen’s union. “It was a ship side pick.” The foremen arbitrarily selected men for a day’s work and assigned tasks unevenly. “ We had a union with the general cargo people,” Alex said, “but it all went haywire when they shot the president of the Fishermen’s Union [Frank Rogers].”

Mike Vidulich was a young fisherman when he met Frank Rogers on the picket line in 1900. He described him to labour historian Hal Griffiths as “stocky” and “quite short but broad in the shoulders, with a strong, open face and dark hair beginning to grey at the sides.” “He was a good speaker, but quiet, not like Will MacClain [another strike leader] who used to shout and storm when he spoke,” Vidulich recalled. “Rogers was an organizer, one of the best the fishermen ever had. The canners could never buy him.” Vidulich said Rogers wasn’t ambitious for himself but committed to the rights of the rank-and-file workers.

“ He believed in unions and socialism,” he said. Cannery employers took a different view, calling Rogers an outside agitator and socialist from the United States who wasn’t even a fisherman by trade. But their accusations were no match for a socialist’s passion. Rogers was hired by the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada in the winter of 1899 to organize the Vancouver local of the BC Fishermen’s Union. When the salmon season opened the following
July, fishermen voted to strike against cannery owners for union recognition and a uniform price on fish at 25 cents each. Rogers helped unite more than four thousand immigrant European and Japanese as well as a few hundred First
Nations fishermen in seven union lodges along the rivers and inlets of BC. An old farmhouse served as key union headquarters in Steveston, then a distant village from Vancouver on the Fraser River.

Rogers sensed which groups would withhold their labour, as reported in the Daily World: “Secretary Rogers said that there would be 1000 white fishermen and all the old-time Japanese who would not go out at all.” First Nations groups
supported the strike but the vast majority of recent Japanese immigrants, organized separately in a benevolent society, were less sure, knowing they had few employment options in a racially antagonistic province dominated by citizens of British origin. With the help of a translator, Rogers worked hard to convince Japanese fishermen to withdraw their labour.

During the first three weeks of picketing all were united. Strikers in patrol boats carrying a white flag with the number “25” in red, effectively cleared the Fraser River of strikebreakers. The canners in turn threatened to evict strikers
in Steveston bunkhouses and withhold food. The union retaliated by organizing Vancouver shopkeepers to donate bread, potatoes, and tents. Japanese strikers were permitted limited fishing and the union urged all citizens to purchase their catch as a show of support. But on 20 July Japanese fishermen broke from the strike, agreeing to 20 cents a fish and returning to work. Asamatsu Murakami defended this action in the book Steveston Recollected, A Japanese- Canadian History. “We are settled fishermen,” he said, “and if we are left without any link with the company, each family will be as helpless as troops without provisions.” Murakami said those who defied the union had their nets cut, sails torn, and their life threatened. “At 6 AM,” he recalled,“ two white men came to the wharf and spoke to K. Maeda on his boat. He could not speak any English and they beat him up.”The government agreed to call out the militia to protect the returning Japanese fishermen so the canneries could re-open. This was the third time in the province’s history the militia was used in a labour dispute. It was likely no coincidence that Rogers was arrested and jailed in Vancouver overnight on picket-related charges just before the militia arrived in Steveston on 22 July. As a testament to Rogers’s leadership, strikers were at a loss until he was released on bail the next day and travelled the fifteen miles to Steveston by stage along forest-lined Granville Street. The union stubbornly continued negotiating for another week despite the show of force. They settled at 19 cents a fish and did not win union recognition, returning to work 30 July. Though their gains were intangible, for a short time a diverse group of workers had felt a collective strength. The union membership elected Frank Rogers president. No clues indicate a woman in Rogers’s life.

Romance did find his political ally, William MacClain. With Rogers’s help, MacClain was the first socialist to run (unsuccessfully) for office in BC in 1899. He married local woman Mary Ellen Dupont the same year. She volunteered by MacClain’s side as he helped lead the fishermen’s strike—a role that cost him his job as a machinist with the CPR. The couple left the province sometime after the dispute ended, possibly moving to MacClain’s previous residence in Washington State.

The next summer, union fishermen were ready to strike again. The canners pounced, arresting Rogers 12 July with eight other fishermen on picket-related charges. The press noted with alarm some of the accused men were well known in the city and had families. Justice Drake was less sympathetic, calling all the strikers “thieves” and “robbers”, making special reference to one black and two Chilean strikers as “foreigners” not familiar with “British ways.” While Rogers was in custody the union settled and its members were back fishing 19 July, still without gaining union recognition. Meanwhile, the Vancouver Trades and Labour Congress set up a defence fund and faithfully brought food to the nine strikers in the New Westminster county jail. Four months later all but Rogers were tried, acquitted, and released from their prison ordeal. Rogers was last to be let go on $10,000 bail with his trial held over to the next spring, at which time charges were dropped.“ I am going off for a week’s recreation now,” he told a Daily World reporter after his release. The reporter observed Rogers was as keen as ever in speech but crunched up slightly in appearance. “I am going to have a little sport shooting and then shall come back to work here for the winter,” Rogers said. Rogers returned to the rank and file of the longshoremen’s union and kept a low public profile until the winter of 1903 when railway workers walked off the job 27 February after a clerk was fired for organizing employees into the United Brotherhood of Railway Employees. The CPR vowed to spend a million dollars to break the picketers, employing special police and spies. Also undermining strikers were the railway craft unionists who refused to strike in support of less skilled workers. But across western Canada, workers in other unions boycotted “scab” freight. Rogers helped organize a sympathy strike of longshoremen as the dispute moved into spring.

The fateful night of 13 April began innocently enough. Rogers finished eating a late supper at Billy Williams’ Social Oyster and Coffee House and stepped out onto Cordova Street around 11:20 PM, breathing in fresh night air cleansed by an earlier rainfall. Turning on Water Street, he met up with two acquaintances, also labourers, Antonio Saborino and Larry O’Neill. All were heading to nearby Gastown lodgings. As the trio approached Abbott Street, they saw figures in the darkened distance beyond the railway tracks. Interested in the CPR picket activity, the men decided to investigate. Less than an hour earlier a fist fight had occurred between CPR strikebreakers and strikers.

The strikebreakers fled to the moored steamship, Yosemite, a makeshift sleeping quarter provided by the CPR during the labour dispute. Two of the strikebreakers had lost a hat and umbrella and were returning to the tracks just as Rogers, O’Neill, and Saborino appeared. The men were accompanied by a pair of armed special police hired by the CPR. Also in the vicinity was a lone strikebreaker in a small office shed, who spotted Rogers standing near the tracks directly beneath a light and pulled his gun. As shots rang out in the dark, the two special policemen responded by firing
their guns several times.

Rogers was hit by a bullet almost immediately and fell to his knees. O’Neill and Saborino ran for cover, then seeing Rogers fall, they rushed to his aid and pulled him back to the street. Passers by helped them carry the wounded Rogers to the Great Western Hotel on Water Street. Rogers was laid out on a table until a hack arrived and he was driven to the old city hospital at 530 Cambie. Rogers survived the night bandaged with the bullet still lodged in his stomach. The next morning he told the police: “I did not have any trouble or row with anyone that night, neither did Larry O’Neill, nor the other man who was with me, that I know of. I do not know who shot me, but I think it must have been someone off the Yosemite or some of the special police. I had had no trouble with anyone for some time past. I did not see anyone else going down on to the wharf with us. When the shots were fired there were others [people] who came running to the end of the street. I do not know where they came from.” Rogers told news reporters he would recover as he was young and strong. The doctor later disclosed the wound was inoperable. Rogers
died the next afternoon, 15 April.

Members of the VTLC executive recognized “ the high esteem in which the late brother was held by organized labour in this city and that the cause has lost a useful and ardent worker and faithful champion of unionism.” They arranged a funeral service at the Labor Temple and burial at Mountain View Cemetery. An anonymous “intimate friend” of Rogers told a DailyWorld reporter: “ His was a daring soul, but he evidently was born under an ill-omened star, as he seemed to get into trouble very early—and on a number of cases innocently.” And the editor of Winnipeg’s labour newspaper characterized Rogers as a “warm unionist.” Tuesday night following the funeral, union members and sympathizers crowded the old City Hall auditorium to protest Rogers’ murder. Speakers condemned the CPR and called on the government to forbid employers from arming strikebreakers.

The VTLC posted a $500 reward for Rogers’ murderer. Two CPR strikebreakers were charged. One was released and the other, James MacGregor, a strikebreaker brought in from Montreal by the CPR to work as a clerk, was tried three weeks after the shooting in a New Westminster court. Conviction depended on a key witness, strikebreaker William F. Armstrong, who had been one of the men returning to the tracks with two special police. At the preliminary hearing Armstrong testified MacGregor admitted to firing the fatal shot from the office shed in the direction of Rogers.

However at the trial, Armstrong changed part of his testimony, which cast doubt on his entire statement. MacGregor was acquitted by a jury 7 May, due to lack of evidence. A news reporter observed the accused had not been the least anxious throughout the trial. The CPR had hired a top lawyer to defend MacGregor, and some say the employer paid MacGregor to leave town after the trial. The coroner’s report concluded Rogers was “murdered by person or persons unknown.” The union movement was outraged justice was not served. For a time, employers in the city held the upper hand and when the UBRE strike ended two months after Rogers’s death, the union failed to achieve recognition or employer guarantees to hire back strikers. Other unions involved in sympathy strikes were dismantled, including the longshoremen’s.

Trade unionists acknowledge Frank Rogers’s contribution, hopeful the province’s first—but not last—labour martyr will be remembered. In 1978 a local labour history group placed a commemorative stone at Rogers’s grave. It reads, “Frank Rogers / Murdered by a Scab / In Strike against CPR / Died April 15, 1903 / Union Organizer and Socialist.” This epitaph tells us how Rogers died. His life tells us what he dreamed for working people.