Low Roads and Low Blows
By: Ryan Young
If you thought that the Fish-NL vs FFAW battle was going to be simple and straightforward, you probably should have known better. The FFAW has always operated in somewhat of a shadow of controversy in the opinion of many fishers around the province and Ryan Cleary has never been a man to back down from a fight. Months of back and forth between both sides has lead us to what has been an eventful week in the ongoing power struggle to represent inshore fish harvesters in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Neither side has played the game totally clean. The FFAW and other labour factions have been guilty of resorting to personal attacks against Cleary, while on the FISH-NL side, flaring tempers have led to outbursts that have been perceived as threats, and much vitriol has been put forth towards current union executives. Little of that kind action and rhetoric is productive, but the struggle is leading to a growing divide that might be difficult to mend should FISH-NL prove to be successful in its card signing campaign. At the heart of the issue is the harvesters who just want to have a fair chance at making a decent living. The whole situation has taken a turn towards the negative and at this point, nobody can predict which way it will go.
I have tried to stay as much of a neutral observer as I can be. I am supportive of the labour movement and solidarity for workers, but I am also a rural boy who grew up in and around fishing boats for most of my life. I know that harvesters where I come from have felt left behind by the FFAW for decades, and in my own travels around the province I have heard the same concerns again and again. I am not a harvester and I am certainly not qualified to make any personal statements against the FFAW, its executive, or the work they do. I do know, however, that perception often counts for more than truth, and the overwhelming perception that I have heard in my discussions with harvesters points to a widening gap of dissatisfaction and distrust towards the FFAW.
The controversy this week started with the NL Federation of Labour using its triennial convention as a platform to publicly condemn Cleary for attempting to weaken the collective power of people working in the fishing industry and for using divide and conquer tactics to bring down the FFAW. Cleary countered by calling out NLFL President Mary Shortall and FFAW executives for being in a constant conflict of interest and for failing to listen to the concerns of harvesters. UNIFOR Regional Director, Lana Payne, has also been very vocal against the FISH-NL movement, and Cleary in particular, with a constant stream of personal attacks on twitter against the FISH-NL president. While that kind of rhetoric might play well within union circles, it is certainly not stringing a positive chord with the harvesters who are caught in the middle.
I have nothing but respect for leaders like Payne and Shortall, but they seem to be unable to separate their obvious resentment towards Ryan Cleary for his defection from the NDP last fall from the very real concerns that have been raised by inshore harvesters for years. In her most recent string of tweets, Lana Payne accuses Cleary of being a narcissist and a liar and accuses him of spending a lifetime advancing his own cause. To be fair, Payne had no problem with Cleary when he was serving the political agenda of the labour movement when the was an NDP MP, but now that the great defector has taken up the cause of the inshore fisherman he has been cast out as an enemy to the working class who is only out to serve his own interests.
Think what you will of Cleary, his personality is certainly one of the take it or leave it variety, but you cannot deny that the man has been a vocal advocate for the fishery for much longer than he has been a political figure. No matter what the unions may throw at him, his record of addressing the important issues in the fishery cannot be denied. By all accounts from the labour perspective, this battle has become personal and that is leaving a very bad taste in the mouths of harvesters who have been sitting on the fence.
Whether labour leaders want to admit it or not, the problems with the inshore fishery are very real. Harvesters across the province are expressing serious concerns with the amount of representation they feel they have been getting from the FFAW, and many are ready for a change. Ryan Cleary is not the heart of the FISH-NL movement, he is just the organizer of an idea that has been in the minds of many harvesters for years, if not decades. Cleary’s recent political history makes him a juicy target for rhetoric and personal attacks, and as a result, the labour side is missing the entire point of the FISH-NL movement. Harvesters are fed up and are tired of feeling like they are not being listened too. The FFAW and labour leaders can make all the claims they want about working in the best interests of fishers, but perception is everything and the word around the wharves is that the FFAW is on shaky footing.
While Ryan Cleary is driving around the province offering a sympathetic ear to frustrated harvesters who feel like they are getting a raw deal, the FFAW is spending union dues in expensive media ads and going out of their way to publicly discredit Cleary and FISH-NL through personal attacks. They continue to deny that there are any major issues with the amount of representation given to harvesters and instead of hitting the road themselves and hearing what fishers are saying and offering solutions to their problems, all they have done is make the issue a personal battle against Cleary. This tactic is not working and seems to be alienating an ever-growing number of harvesters.
FISH-NL are certainly not innocent from the mudslinging, but from an outsider’s perspective, they look like the only group that is talking about the issues. The FFAW and the various labour leaders have offered nothing but attacks and criticism towards Ryan Cleary and have offered no solutions to addressing the many issues that have been brought forth by harvesters. By focusing on Cleary, they are totally missing the point that thousands of fish harvesters are trying to make by taking a stand and supporting the Fish-NL movement. If the FFAW and people like Shortall and Payne can’t see past their loathing of Cleary to the real concerns of the workers that they have sworn to protect, then it is quite reasonable to expect that the FISH-NL campaign could very well be successful when the dust settles. The FFAW have had plenty of time to get out there and engage their members and convince them to stay, but instead they have decided to take the low road through personal low-blows and attempts to make the entire situation about one person instead of the many issues being faces by inshore fish harvesters.
If the Fish-NL movement is successful, the end result will see many of the players in this war of words have to eat a little crow and sit down together to work for the best interest of the workers. No matter how much they want to shut Cleary out, if they get enough cards signed to make the break, the other labour leaders will have no choice but to develop a working relationship in the best interest of the fishers. That is after all what the labour movement is all about, right? With so many personal attacks, one must wonder how that will be accomplished with out ego’s and tempers dominating the discussion. Labour seems to be all-in on a FISH-NL failure, but what happens when Shortall, Payne, Sullivan, and Cleary all have to sit down together to chart the best possible course for their members, the workers? I guess we can only hope that all parties involved will be willing to put personalities and political and personal agendas aside to accomplish the one thing that really matters, a better future for the fish harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador.