They said it couldn’t be done
More than four decades later, the people of the fishing society are still proving them wrong.
When Father Des McGrath called Richard Cashin in 1970 to suggest the formation of a Fishermen’s Union, the price of fish was 2.5 cents per pound, and fish plant workers - excluded by law from the protection of the provincial minimum wage, were actually paid less than the minimum wage.
Other than a small number of unionized fish plants on the Bonavista Peninsula and the south coast, the people of the fishery were unorganized. The Newfoundland Federation of Fishermen, a creation of the provincial government which was totally dependent on government funding for its existence, was on its last legs.
The prevailing attitude toward people in the fishery was that they were not capable of running their own affairs.
Those "in the know" said a province-wide industrial union in the fishery "couldn’t be done".
It started in Burgeo
It was in 1971 that the pivotal strike in Burgeo took place. After a narrow majority of fish plant workers - 105 out of 205 - signed union cards, the union was certified by the Labour Relations Board.
The owner of the fish plant, Spencer Lake, said he would never operate under a union contract. He said he was fond of the people of Burgeo, but they were not capable of running their own affairs. The strike in Burgeo lasted several months.
Ultimately the union prevailed, Lake left Burgeo, and the new government under Premier Frank Moores nationalized the plant and signed a landmark collective agreement with the Union.
The place in Newfoundland society of the people who work in the fishery had been altered for good.
The other major development in 1971 was the passage in the House of Assembly of the Fishing Industry Collective Bargaining Act giving inshore fishermen the right to bargain the price of fish. This was the last piece of legislation in the 23 years of government under Joey Smallwood.
Landmark trawler strike
The early 1970's were a time of rapid organizing and breakthrough collective agreements both inside and outside the fishery. But it wasn’t long before the Union faced it’s next ordeal by fire - starting back in Port au Choix.
The largest fish processing firm of the day, Fishery Products, still had not really accepted the idea of negotiating the price of fish with fishermen instead of setting it unilaterally. Fishery Products refused to offer even a modest price increase, and the fishermen in Port au Choix went on strike.
The strike quickly spread to the Fishery Products trawler fleet on the south coast. The dispute in Port au Choix was resolved fairly quickly, but the strike involving the trawlermen was another matter.
There was a temporary truce while a conciliation board headed by Dr. Leslie Harris of Memorial University attempted to mediate. The Board accepted the principle advocated by the Union that the trawlermen were employees of the company, not simply co-adventurers. The Union quickly accepted the conciliation Board report.
The trawler companies were furious. The battle lines were drawn. It took a three month strike, but the Union again prevailed with a landmark agreement that changed the face of the relationship between trawlermen and their employers.
It was another sensational victory for the fledgling union.
Challenging the fish companies
Organizing continued rapidly through the late 1970's, a time of renewed hope in the fishery as Canada extended it’s fisheries jurisdiction to 200 miles. Two daring new initiatives further established the prominence of the Fishermen’s Union on the political landscape of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Union ended centuries of total reliance on markets provided by the fish processing companies by selling directly to foreign markets through over-the-side-sales.
This provided vital outlets for the fishermen’s catch of squid and mackerel, as well as other species. Once again the fish companies were furious about the boldness of their adversary.
The Labrador Fishermen’s Union Shrimp Co.
The other daring step in establishing the ability of fishing people to successfully run their own affairs was the creation of the Labrador Fishermen’s Union Shrimp Company in 1979.
Under the bold leadership of Richard Cashin, the union lobbied hard and successfully to ensure the proceeds from the northern shrimp fishery were used to benefit the people of Labrador, not just line the pockets of some remote fishing company.
The federal government eventually granted the Shrimp Company two shrimp licences which provided the foundation for a revolutionary change in the way the affairs of the people of coastal Labrador were run.
Imagine - a fish company with fishermen elected to the Board of Directors, a fish company with employment, stable fish prices and the development of the Labrador coast as its principal goals.
The 1980 inshore strike
In 1977, the Union negotiated a collective agreement with the Fisheries Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (FANL) that included significant increases in fish prices - for example the price of large gill net fish went from 15¢ a pound to 17½¢ - and recognized the union as bargaining agent for fishermen throughout the province.
But within two years, storm clouds were gathering. International fish markets were sluggish, and many of the processors still resented the idea of negotiating the price of fish. In 1979, a strike by inshore fishermen was narrowly averted.
The following year, the companies declared war, unilaterally dropping the price of fish and cutting off deduction of union dues from fishermen. The Union responded with selective strikes that triggered a province-wide lockout.
The great inshore fishery of Newfoundland and Labrador was at a standstill in the middle of the summer.
Under intense pressure, the union held tough for five weeks until FANL eventually was forced to forget about its plans to reduce fish prices.
An agreement was finally reached which included modest price increases and reinstated the deduction of union dues. Meanwhile, fish plant workers won landmark agreements with Fishery Products and National Sea Products following lengthy strikes.
Workers’ compensation for fishermen
The other major breakthrough in 1980-81 was the successful campaign waged by the Union to win universal Workers’ Compensation coverage for fishermen. No longer would the widows of fishermen lost at sea have to rely on welfare.
A Bill passed by the House of Assembly in 1981 gave fishermen equivalent coverage to other workers with the fish companies - much to their disgust - obliged to pay the premiums.
The mid-1980's was a time of severe economic difficulties in the fishery which ultimately led to major restructuring of the deep sea fishery. Unity ‘84 was the Union’s rallying cry in fighting to protect jobs and communities, a foreshadowing of a greater fight to come.
Joining the militant and progressive CAW
From 1971 to 1987, the Fishermen’s Union was part of an International Union.
But a succession of mergers doused the militant spark in the former United Packinghouse Workers, and a virtual takeover by the Retail Clerks International Union to form the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) marked an irrevocable shift to business unionism that was totally out of sync with the bold militancy of the Fishermen’s Union.
Attempts to reform the International Union from within were stifled, and in 1987 Richard Cashin and the Executive Board led the members of the Fishermen’s Union on another bold new course - away from the UFCW and into the dynamic, militant Canadian Auto Workers.
Instead of accepting the inevitable, the UFCW treated their members as chattels, waging a campaign of vilification against the leadership of the Union in Newfoundland and frustrating the democratic wishes of the membership through endless litigation.
But the International Union could avoid the ballot box for only so long, and when finally given a chance the membership moved in droves to the new Fish, Food and Allied Workers, a chartered body of the CAW.
Strong National Voice
The involvement of the CAW led to significant breakthroughs at the bargaining table and gave the people in the Newfoundland fishery a strong national voice.
A vastly improved education program and greater opportunities for the women in our union gave a broader perspective to the union, as the FFAW dovetailed with the CAW’s tradition of social unionism.
The union is still referred to by many as the Fishermen’s Union, but by the 1980s it also included workers from other sectors including brewing, retail, manufacturing, metal fabrication and other industrial workers.
But by 1990, the growth and development of the Union was taking place under the darkening shadow of resource failure. Declines in fishing quotas led to fish plant closures in 1990 that sent shock waves throughout the province.
Once again, the Union was faced with a fundamental challenge to its very survival.
The problem was that no matter how great the pain inflicted on Newfoundland fishing communities and their people through quota reductions and plant closures, it would all be for naught unless Canada took dramatic action to put a stop to foreign overfishing of stocks that straddle Canada’s 200-mile limit.
The federal government tried to resolve the issue through diplomacy - foreign diplomats tut-tutted their way through meetings while their fleets fished far in excess of their quotas.
In March of 1992, in conjunction with others in the fishing industry, our Union organized a massive rally in St. John’s followed by a protest at sea in which a flotilla of fishery vessels sailed outside the 200-mile limit to symbolically claim the nose and tail of the Grand Banks as Canadian territory.
This led to a more aggressive national policy on foreign overfishing that culminated in the turbot war with the European Union in 1995.
Five-century-old tradition halted
The enormous crowd that gathered at the St. John’s waterfront to launch the protest at sea reflected the grimness of the resource situation.
Only a few months later, the Government of Canada called an abrupt halt to five uninterrupted centuries of fishing by declaring a moratorium on Newfoundland’s great northern cod stock.
Other closures followed, as the failure of Canada’s fisheries management regime became apparent. The impact on fishing people and their communities was devastating. Suddenly the Union found itself negotiating not with the fish companies over wages and the price of fish but with the federal government over a decent compensation program.
The innovation that had characterized the union’s earlier years came to the fore once again with the creation of 16 community-based Education Centres where elected local education committees hired staff and ran centres in which fishermen and fish plant workers could upgrade their education in a user-friendly environment.
Members of the FFAW even took to the stage to get their message across. The remarkable and highly popular Folk of the Sea took a message of hope to sell-out audiences on both local and national stages.
Times were very grim indeed but the spirit that allowed the inhospitable shores of Newfoundland to be settled in the first place was too firmly entrenched for people to just roll over and accept their fate.
Change at the helm
By this time, there had been a change at the helm of the FFAW. Richard Cashin retired after 23 remarkable years of leadership, to be succeeded by Earle McCurdy, previously the Secretary-Treasurer.
Staff member Reg Anstey moved into the position of Secretary-Treasurer, the equivalent of first mate of the FFAW.
The resource crisis in the fishery coincided with a crisis in public policy in Canada. Conservative and Liberal governments in Ottawa, spurred on by the Reform Party, set about to dismantle Canada’s social programs. Seasonal workers were singled out for attack in a major assault on the Unemployment Insurance program (now known as the Employment Insurance Program).
Ottawa badly underfunded TAGS, the compensation program for fishery workers put out of work by the closure of key fish stocks. In the summer of 1995, the government tried to arbitrarily roll back benefits.
The Union showed that the spirit of 1971 was still alive and well, staging massive, province-wide protests. Government backed off on the cuts. When Ottawa tried to shorten the duration and tinker with the TAGS benefits again in 1996, the Union responded by challenging the government in court.
As a result of this court challenge and a two-day demonstration at the federal Revenue Canada Building in St. John's in the spring of 1998, the federal government extended the TAGS program to its original five-year life.
Fishery begins comeback
While groundfish stocks have been slow to rebuild to historic levels, they have experienced growth. Since 1995, fish harvesters and science have worked together to collect and analyze data on the province's three main cod stocks. Cod fisheries have re-opened and quotas for offshore flatfish have increased slightly.
The shellfish industry has filled some of the gap left by low cod quotas. And for those who once said the fishery for our province was a thing of the past, the more than 20,000 people who earn their living from the sea know that the fishery is far from dead.
The struggle continues
For over three decades, the details of the struggle have changed, but the fundamental characteristics of the Fishermen’s Union in Newfoundland and Labrador has been a willingness to engage that struggle, to challenge the power structure and to insist on fair treatment and respect for the people of the fishery and their communities.
A new era
In November 2014, after 21 years as union president, Earle McCurdy announced his retirement. Two weeks later, Keith Sullivan was elected by union leadership as new president.
Keith is the son of a fish harvester (Lloyd Sullivan) from Calvert, the home of the great Kevin Condon. At 34 years old, Keith represents a generational change for the Union. He worked on the deck of his father's boat to pay his way through university.
Keith had been assistant to Earle McCurdy and has worked at the union for a number of years in a variety of roles. He grew up during the moratorium years, and brings deep fishing roots to his new role.