Since they came on the scene, the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador (FISH-NL) has been stirring up a call for a labour board vote on whether the long-standing Fish, Foods and Allied Workers union (FFAW) still deserves to represent the province’s fishers.
Maxwell Sexton has spent five decades fishing the waters of the Northern Peninsula. While he knows the common complaints, he says he’s never had any personal issues with the FFAW.
Sexton says leaving the organization for a new union could be a disastrous mistake.
“With our numbers, we’ve got a good organization and a big union,” said Sexton. “I’ve always been for the FFAW, I’ve always said that and I see no reason to change.”
He says with the benefits and support he’s seen in the past, the FFAW has been helpful for harvesters who were often scrounging for work and assistance before the union was around.
“If you’ve got a fine from Fisheries you don’t think you should have, they’ll back you up to the bitter end,” he said. “And they’ve done that for a lot of people.”
But Dan Reardon of Goose Cove, a fisherman who retired just this year, says he’s had a rough history with the FFAW and is completely fed up with the union.
“Ninety per cent of the reason I retired is because of them,” Reardon said. “They’re not doing anything for us and it’s time to get rid of them.”
A variety of frustrations led Reardon to the point where he says he couldn’t take it anymore and sold off his licenses. Reardon’s problems with the FFAW deal with several decisions he says were poor, mismanaged and not done with the fishermen’s interests at heart.
He says suggestions he’s offered of giving over-quota catches to charities, senior organizations or other boats have been denied, and instead he says he’s seen many caught species being thrown away at the behest of the FFAW.
Reardon was also upset about the recent treatment of crab fishermen in St. Anthony. The harvesters were ordered by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to throw away their final crab catch of the season because of a delay in taking them out of the water. As well, the fact that the first week of the cod fishery in St. Anthony and Goose Cove saw the fishermen without anyone to sell their catch further disappointed Reardon.
“They don’t care for the fishermen at all,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re after their own ends.”
With a strong lack of capelin in the Northern Peninsula this summer, Reardon says harvesters across the island have been calling for an end to the capelin fishery for years. He feels the reason the capelin fishery remains open is due to profits the FFAW can make from the fishery.
“They won’t close it because those draggers are paying in big money and big union dues,” Reardon said.
FISH-NL most recently put pressure on the Labour Relations Board in an Aug. 15 letter, calling for an immediate vote on union representation for the province’s harvesters.
In a response penned by lawyer Earl O’Dea, the FFAW has called FISH-NL’s allegations of the past malicious and unfounded. In the response, O’Dea says the burden of proof relies on FISH-NL to show it first has the support of the majority of fish harvesters before a vote can take place.
Dave, a working fisherman who wished to have his name and location kept anonymous due to fears of repercussions from the union, says while he has a long range of issues with the FFAW, he is uncertain if bringing his membership over to an organization like FISH-NL is really the solution.
Dave says he agrees with criticisms FISH-NL have made about the FFAW, but is sceptical because of who is preaching the criticisms. He says given the history of FISH-NL president Ryan Cleary’s involvement in different political parties, he worries Cleary is an opportunist and his concern for the wellbeing of harvesters is insincere.
Reardon says he understands there are some doubts and suspicions surrounding FISH-NL, but feels leaving the FFAW for the organization is a risk worth taking.
“We can’t do no wrong because we can’t get any worse than what we got now,” Reardon said.
Sexton says there’s nothing wrong with taking a vote to see how harvesters feel about a change in union, but he doesn’t suspect FISH-NL would win out. Sexton says the union’s strength is in its numbers, and a new union would cause a major division amongst fishers.
“I can’t see it working with a new union coming in,” Sexton said. “FISH-NL would have to amalgamate with a bigger union, because a smaller union wouldn’t get anything done. It’s hard enough to beat the DFO with the numbers we have now.”
The most common complaint from harvesters, Sexton says, is around union payments, but he feels those same payments will remain regardless of the union in place.
“People are better to hang on,” he said. “We’ve got good benefits and the union can help with whatever is needed.”
Whether a vote will go ahead has yet to be determined, but union-related opinion and debate among harvesters of the province appears to be growing stronger than ever.