The Fisher’s Revolt
By: Ryan Young
Go take a walk around any wharf in outport Newfoundland and Labrador and ask the inshore fisherman how they feel about the Fish, Food, and Allied Workers Union (FFAW). For the last two summers I did quite a bit of that, and the reaction was always the same. Either a scowl and a curse at the very mention of the name, or a laugh and a shake of the head and the words: “The union don’t do nothing for us fellers.” That sentiment is common in all corners of the province, and this week it reached a fever pitch.
No matter how much the pundits spin will try to tell you that it was the other way around, a group of concerned fisherman decided they needed to do something and contacted Ryan Cleary and asked him to find out if anything can be done to separate them from their union. A few busy months of research and unsatisfactory answers culminated in a press conference in Petty Harbour on Monday to announce a series of meetings that will determine if there is enough interest among harvesters in the province to break away from the FFAW and form their own Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters-FISH-NL.
The meetings will be held on September 19th in Corner Brook and September 20th in Clarenville. According to Cleary, these meetings will determine the future of the movement to break away from the FFAW. The harvesters claim that the union operates in a constant conflict of interest and does not fairly represent their needs. Questionable federal funding, offshore operations, and lack of transparency are all major issues that the harvesters claim are negatively affecting their livelihoods.
The tension between harvesters and the FFAW grew considerably last winter when scallop harvesters brought the union to court over compensation payments and won. During the trial, the union’s lawyers tried to discredit the intelligence of the harvesters, which didn’t do very much for the already strained relationship between the two. In the end the harvesters got their lump-sum payment, but they also got the satisfaction of having it proved in a court of law that the union was doing them wrong. Now the battle is heating up again. One quote from the FISH-NL press release says: “The union has warped into a well-paid branch of the Government of Canada, more interested in feeding itself than representing the best interests of its membership.” If that kind of sentiment is the norm among harvesters, it looks like the FFAW might be in trouble.
FFAW President, Keith Sullivan, has avoided any admission of wrong doing and went on the offensive yesterday, questioning Cleary’s reputation and his motives. He says that the push for a new union is coming from a “vocal minority” of fish harvesters. That type of comment just goes to show how out of touch Sullivan is with the real concerns of people he is supposed to represent. A quick look to social media or a listen to the open line shows paints a very different picture, with support for Cleary and FISH-NL coming in from all over the province. Sullivan might be better off putting the offensive on hold and making himself available to harvesters to really hear their concerns and make promises to do better. I’m sure many feel it is too little, too late for that kind of action, but at least it would send a message that they are listening and willing to do better. By maintaining that the union is currently working in the best interest of the harvesters feels like a kick in the guts to the hard-working men and women who feel that their voices are not being heard. Union membership is mandatory and many feel that they are paying good money to shoot themselves in the foot.
Whether or not you like Ryan Cleary is irrelevant. As much as Sullivan and the FFAW would like to turn this around by attacking the messenger, the message is too important and too loud to be silenced. The harvesters that approached Cleary did so because the man knows the fishery. He has been writing or fighting about it his whole professional career and he has pulled no punches in trying to take the FFAW to task on their actions over the years. The fact that it is Ryan Cleary sending the message makes the media pay attention and that is good for the cause. As they say, any publicity is good publicity and Cleary has never been one to back down from a challenge. But it is important to note that there are no guarantees that Cleary will even be the eventual leader of the movement. They promise to be open and transparent and if a new union is formed the harvesters will have their own say in who leads them. Cleary certainly seems like a tailored fit for the job, but in the end that decision will be left up to the harvesters, as it should be.
No matter what happens at the meetings next week, I am encouraged to see a discussion emerging about the future of the inshore harvesters in Newfoundland and Labrador. Fishing is our very raison d’etre, in this province and if we want to get serious about rebuilding our rural communities, the fishery needs to be an integral part of our future plans. Maybe a separate union for our fish harvesters will be a positive thing, that will help facilitate the changes needed to bring the inshore fishery into the 21st Century. The harvesters certainly are not satisfied with the representation that they have now, and as our fishing industry continues to face massive challenges, maybe it is time that we started listening to them on some of the issues. Sure we need a union that works closely with government, but more importantly we need a union that represents and protects the best interests of its workers. If the FFAW can’t fulfill that mandate, maybe it is time for a union that can.