No benefits, no pension, no right to strike, no free enterprise, no choice: FISH-NL takes story of inshore harvesters to B.C. unions

I gave the following speech in Vancouver, British Columbia on Saturday, Oct. 14, to representatives of a number of independent unions across Canada — including Jan Noster, President of the Canadian Maintenance and Allied Workers, the largest union representing construction workers in British Columbia. (From left: Richard Gillett, Jan Noster, and Ryan Cleary.)

 

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Good morning,

My name is Ryan Cleary, President of the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador or FISH-NL. 

With me is Captain Richard Gillett, Vice-President of FISH-NL. 

I’m a former New Democrat Member of Parliament, prior to that I was a journalist. 

As a young 24-year-old reporter with the daily newspaper in St. John’s, Newfoundland, I covered the 1992 northern cod moratorium — the biggest layoff in Canadian history, with 30,000 workers laid off in a single day. 

Needless to say, the moratorium had an massive impact on my life and career. 

Richard — Captain Gillett — is a fisherman from Twillingate on Newfoundland’s northeast coast, a sixth-generation fisherman. 

Richard, as his father John once told me, was born to fish. If you recognize Richard it’s because he starred on the show Cold Water Cowboys. 

In terms of fishing, Richard Gillett is a high liner — one of the best.  

To start, the first thing I want to say is thank you. 

Thank you for reaching out all the way across the country. 

I can’t tell you what this meant to our movement — and it won’t be forgotten.  

We may come from the other end of the country, and we may represent the inshore fishermen of Canada’s youngest province, whose culture and traditions are steeped in the fishery, but I’ve learned we have much in common with CEMA (the Canadian Maintenance and Allied Workers). 

When Jan Noster first contacted me a few months ago he described CEMA as the west coast bastards of the Canadian Labour Movement. Jan said it against last night. 

That would make us, FISH-NL, the East Coast bastards of the Canadian labour movement. 

Good to meet you fellow bastards of the Canadian labour movement. 

In all seriousness, I see CMAW as rebels who bucked the status quo, the same way that FISH-NL represents a movement to turn the status quo on its head. 

CMAW Canada was officially formed in 2007 following an 11-year struggle with their American-based International parent union — the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. 

I read on your website that CMAW wanted direct democratic accountability from your leaders on the ground right here in Canada. 

CMAW also wanted assurances that their elected leadership were, in fact, working on behalf of the membership — and NOT for themselves. 

B’y I’ll tell you, the inshore harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador can relate to that with their current union leadership  — the FFAW-Unifor — which has most definitely lost its way. 

I also read that CMAW still has its work cut out — considering only 20 per cent of construction workers are unionized. 

That’s not the case in Newfoundland and Labrador, where every last inshore fisherman is unionized … 

Every last one. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Let me start with an overview of why there’s an uprising amongst the inshore fishermen of Newfoundland and Labrador, and why FISH-NL was borne. 

Actually, I’ve described what’s happening back home as a salt-and-pepper revolution — salt and pepper representing the colour hair of most fisherman, the average being near 60. 

Captain Gillett here is a baby. 

The labour situation in the fishery is this: 

The inshore harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador have no benefits — no health, no dental and no pension. 

The only benefit available to them is a $30,000 death benefit, and then that’s cut off at the age of 70. 

Fishermen remain on the water long after that, mind you. 

And that one benefit — the death benefit — isn’t guaranteed. 

There was a case this past summer where a young fisherman died in a tragic car accident and his family was denied the death benefit because the young fisherman was late in paying his 2016 union dues by one day. 

By one day, I cannot make this up. 

FISH-NL fought for that family and they got the death benefit. 

So — no health, no dental, no pension. 

No free enterprise.  

Free enterprise is blocked for fishermen in that out-of-province fish buyers aren’t welcome in the province on an even playing field, so harvesters aren’t guaranteed the best possible price for their fish. 

In terms of cod, the average price back home is 60 cents a pound — what it was 30-odd years ago. 

By the way, the year 2017 also represents the 25 anniversary of the northern cod moratorium, and while a small-scale commercial cod fishery has resumed, Ottawa still doesn’t even have a rebuilding plan for that stock, and it’s been 25 years. 

But I digress, I’ll come back to that. 

The fishermen of Newfoundland and Labrador don’t have the most fundamental right of all unions — the right to strike.  

That was taken away years ago with provincial legislation that created a Fish Price Setting panel. 

If the current union, the FFAW-Unifor, and fish processors can’t agree on the price of fish, the fishermen don’t go on strike — instead, the fish price settling panel decides what the price will be. 

So, no benefits (health, dental or pension). 

No free enterprise. 

No right to strike. 

And no choice, but to be in the FFAW-Unifor and pay union dues, which are automatically deducted by the fish buyer when fishermen sell their catch. 

I would call the inshore harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador the most controlled labour group in the province, in the country, and in the Western World. 

I have another story you may find hard to believe. 

How often has a Canadian court ruled that a union deceived its members?

Not often, I can tell you that.

But such was the case with the FFAW-Unifor. 

This past June, the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, Court of Appeal, upheld an earlier court decision that the union had deceived its membership. 

The members were scallop fishermen, and to make a long story short, the fishermen were losing scallop ground to a power line being laid across the Strait of Belle Isle, between Newfoundland and Labrador. 

The FFAW-Unifor negotiated a $2.6-million compensation package for the fishermen, to be paid out over 30 years.

The union also paid itself $300,000 for its trouble. 

But the union didn’t tell the fishermen until after the dead was done.

The FFAW-Unifor distributed consent forms to the fishermen for permission to negotiate a compensation package, when the union had already done a deal.  

The fishermen took their union to court and won. 

The deal was scrapped and the fishermen have since been paid compensation directly. 

What were the repercussions to the FFAW-Unifor?

None. 

None. 

This is a direct quota from Lana Payne, Unifor’s Atlantic director, about that court decision: 

“Not all the time do courts understand how democratic decisions happen.”

You may find this hard to believe, but the situation gets even worse. 

Because inshore harvesters have lost their voice. 

The FFAW-Unifor no longer speaks for them. 

The FFAW-Unifor has lost its way. 

It’s long been said that the FFAW-Unifor doesn’t make money from fishermen, but through fishermen. 

What do I mean by that?

This year, 2017, it’s estimated that the FFAW will collect up to $3 million in union dues. 

But the FFAW-unifor will make more than three times that — well over $9 million this year alone — in fees charged to fishermen, and contracts/grants from the federal and provincial governments. 

The FFAW-Unifor controls dockside monitoring (which is against federal conflict of interest policy, but that’s yet another story). 

The union also controls grading, professionalization, and quotas of fish such as halibut in the name of science.

The union is even directly linked to a controversial crab quota that’s been worth tens of millions of dollars over the years. 

Fishermen say they can no longer tell who’s the fishery manager and who’s the fishery union. 

Fishermen question how the FFAW-Unifor can hold the Government of Canada to account — for things like this being the 25th anniversary of the northern cod moratorium and there’s still no rebuilding plan, no rebuilding targets.

How can the FFAW hold Ottawa to account when Ottawa is feeding the union?

Same thing with the Newfoundland and Labrador government, which has given millions to the union over the years. 

Same thing with oil and gas companies. 

There’s been a moratorium on oil and gas exploration off British Columbia since the 1970s — not so off Newfoundland and Labrador.  

Our oil and gas industry is full steam ahead (which has been a boost for our economy, make no mistake; Newfoundland and Labrador is a have province, even as we’re sinking in debt). 

But the FFAW-Unifor has been dead silent on the oil and gas industry’s impact on the fishery — especially with regards to seismic work. 

The oil and gas industry pumps money directly and indirectly into the FFAW-Unifor, but the union won’t reveal the amount. 

We say the union is bought and paid for. 

The conflicts of interest are endless. 

The Trudeau government has decided to make a section of ocean off Newfoundland’s south coast into a Marine Protected Area. 

Well done. 

Only while there will be no commercial fishing of any kind in that MPA, oil and gas activity —  including exploration and seismic work — will be allowed. 

How does that make sense?

The FFAW-Unifor only spoke up about it when FISH-NL publicly embarrassed them into it. 

Who’s standing up for the fishermen?

Not their current union — not the FFAW-Unifor. 

In terms of the fishery, the FFAW-Unifor represents fishermen, fish plant workers, and offshore trawlermen, which has been a conflict of interest from Day 1. 

The FFAW-Unifor is the province’s largest private sector union, with members in the hotel, hospitality, brewing, metal fabrication, and oil and industries. 

The FFAW-Unifor has mutated into the manager of different fisheries, collecting millions of dollars a year from outside sources — from governments and oil companies. 

The same governments and oil companies that it’s honour bound to keep in check. 

That’s what I mean earlier by saying the union has lost its way. 

Normal checks and balances that accompany a union-management dynamic can be compromised when funds change hands, potentially negatively impacting the entire fishing industry.

Given the score of potential conflicts (real or perceived), the ability of the FFAW-Unifor to represent inshore harvesters has been hopelessly undermined, with trust evaporating years ago. 

Most inshore harvesters believe that the FFAW-Unifor has mutated from a union into a corporation, more concerned with feeding itself than looking after the best interests of its membership. 

One year ago this month I offered to walk away from FISH-NL, to give it up altogether if the union agreed to an independent outside auditor to reveal all the money going in, and all the money going out. 

The FFAW-Unifor declined the offer, but then I knew they would — the union has too much to hide. 

On Dec. 30th, FISH-NL submitted our application for certification to the Newfoundland and Labrador Labour Relations Board. 

FISH-NL believes — to our core — that fishermen would be better off with their own union, just for them, no other workers.

Back to the basics. 

No conflicts of interest.  

A union that fights for fishermen and fishermen only. 

We have a situation in Newfoundland and Labrador today where fishermen from Quebec can fish crab directly off our shores, but we can’t. 

We have a situation in Newfoundland and Labrador today where fishermen from the Maritimes and foreign fleets outside the 200-mile limit can catch species like halibut and cod, but our fishermen have to throw them back dead in the water. 

We have a situation in Newfoundland and Labrador today were first access to stocks that are rebuilding — like redfish in the Gulf of St. Lawrence — are given to aboriginal groups with no connection to the fishery. 

We have a situation in Newfoundland and Labrador today where a new license is being given out for surf clams off the south coast, but the federal government had dictated that that licence MUST go to an indigenous group here in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Maritimes, or Quebec. 

And not our fishermen, who’ve suffered like you wouldn’t believe from cuts to lucrative species like shrimp and crab. 

Our fishermen should be at the head of the line. 

One of the things we’re fighting for is a change to the Terms of Union with Canada whereby the principle of adjacency — those closest to a resource must be the first to benefit from the resource — is made a constitutional corner stone. 

There’s no doubt, we have our fight cut out for us. 

The battle has been brutal, and it’s far from over. 

I’m know CMAW has been here before. 

One of our biggest hurdles has been where to turn when a union losses its way.  

FISH-NL wrote a letter last year to the Canadian Labour Congress, asking for an independent investigation into the FFAW-Unifor. 

The CLC turned its back on us. 

We went to the province’s Federation of Labour. 

They turned their back on us, too. 

We went to the Auditor General of Canada and asked for an investigation into the federal money that pours into the FFAW-Unifor. 

They turned us down. 

Where does the rank-and-file membership of a union turn when their union losses its way, when conflicts of interest are rampant, when the membership is dying out, and the resource is being given away, and they lose their voice?

The absence of a third party to probe the serious allegations levelled by inshore harvesters against their union shows a serious flaw in this province’s and country’s labour establishment. 

I don’t have an answer to that question: where do we turn?

But I do have hope. 

FISH-NL is not affiliated with any other union, locally or nationally. 

Which is why it meant so much when Jan and the CMAW reached out to us — the East Coast bastards of the Canadian labour movement. 

Our only financial support comes from inshore harvesters who are struggling as it is given the deep quota cuts. I mentioned crab and shrimp. 

Thousands more harvesters were set back even further this year by a delayed start to the fishing season as a result of severe ice conditions, the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades. 

While finances are obviously a growing concern, FISH-NL has been operating as a union for months, providing representation to an ever-growing number of inshore harvesters. 

Harvesters who have been vocal/public in their support of FISH-NL have been ostracized by the FFAW-Unifor. 

Other harvesters have permanently turned their back on the FFAW-Unifor, wanting nothing more to do with the union. 

On Friday morning, before I got on a plane to come here, I called a fishermen in Placentia Bay, another high liner like Captain Richard Gillett here, only a little older. 

His name is Peter Leonard and I asked him what he wanted me to say to you, to CMAW and the labour movement here. 

He told me to say the inshore fishermen of Newfoundland and Labrador are looking for support — a hand up, not a hand out. 

Peter told me to make sure you understand there’s no where for a grassroots membership to turn when their union turns on them. 

The one-time Newfoundland politician John Crosbie once asked, who hears the fishes when they cry?

The better question is who hears the fishermen?

I can answer that. 

Not the other local unions in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Not the federal or provincial government.

Not the provincial Federation of Labour or the Canadian Labour Congress or even the federal Auditor General. 

But the voice of our fishermen has been heard all the way across this country … right here in British Columbia, by CMAW. 

And so I end my speech the way I began. 

Thank you.