‘The perception amongst inshore harvesters — as well as the broader NL public — is that the powers that be are dragging their heels with FISH-NL’s application as a means to 'starve out' the new union.’
Aug. 15th, 2017
Chair, Newfoundland and Labrador Labour Relations Board
P.O. Box 8700
5th Floor, Beothuck Building
20 Crosbie Place
St. John's, NL A1A 4J6
Congratulations on your recent appointment as chair of the NL Labour Relations Board, but mind the fisheries fray.
As President of the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador (FISH-NL), I’m officially calling on the province’s Labour Relations Board to proceed immediately with a vote of inshore harvesters to decide which union they want to represent them.
Before outlining the specific reasoning behind that, I’d like to give a brief overview of the labour climate the province’s inshore fish harvesters find themselves in.
As it stands, inshore harvesters are the most controlled labour group in the province, country, and possibly Western World.
Inshore harvesters are mandated to pay dues to the FFAW-Unifor, while they have lost access to the most fundamental labour card — the right to strike. Free enterprise is blocked 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.
Inshore harvesters do not have medical, dental or pension benefits. In fact, the only benefit available to them is a small death insurance policy that expires at the age of 70, and there’s at least one recent example where eligibility has been misrepresented by the union to its membership.
The FFAW-Unifor is the province’s largest private sector union, with members in the hotel, hospitality, brewing, metal fabrication, and oil industries.
In terms of the fishery, the union represents inshore harvesters, fish plant workers, and offshore trawlermen, which has been a conflict of interest from Day 1.
Earlier this spring, for example, the FFAW-Unifor negotiated the price of cod with Icewater Seafoods, which runs a unionized plant in Arnold’s Cove, which the union also represents.
Besides dues, the FFAW-Unior receives funding from the federal and provincial governments that manage the fishery (the feds manage fishing; the province manages processing), as well as from the oil and gas companies whose offshore activity directly impacts the health of fish stocks. (More on that in a moment.)
Normal checks and balances that accompany a union-management dynamic can be compromised when funds change hands, potentially negatively impacting the entire fishing industry.
Indeed, it’s said that the FFAW-Unifor doesn’t make money from harvesters, so much as through harvesters.
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.
The union oversees dockside monitoring, fish grading, and professional certification, while also controlling various “science” quotas and programs. The FFAW-Unifor even has direct ties to a controversial crab quota awarded to a company with incredibly close ties to the union.
The FFAW-Unifor has presented itself as a manager of the lobster fishery, and had a direct hand in the development of the management plan for species such as Atlantic halibut.
Inshore harvesters often complain they can’t tell the difference between the FFAW-Unifor, and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
While FISH-NL has called on various groups from the Auditor General of Canada to the Canadian Labour Congress to the NL Federation of Labour to review the FFAW-Unifor for conflicts of interest, no entity has been willing to investigate.
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.
The FFAW-Unifor and two levels of government essentially act as a dictatorship over the inshore harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador.
In that context, I respectively ask for the Labour Relations Board to proceeded with a vote for inshore harvesters to decide their union representation.
From FISH-NL’s perspective, time is of the essence, and the delay has been unreasonable.
It’s been seven and a half months and counting since FISH-NL presented our application for certification to the Board — with no timeline for resolution in sight.
From a financial and representation perspective, the delay has placed an excessive strain on FISH-NL and our membership.
FISH-NL is not affiliated with any other union, locally or nationally, and our only financial support comes from inshore harvesters who are struggling given the deep quota cuts to species such as shrimp and crab.
Thousands more harvesters have been set back even further by a delayed start to the fishing season as a result of severe ice conditions.
To make matters worse, the FFAW-Unifor failed to ensure there were processors prepared to buy cod in August. While the northern cod fishery has been opened since Aug. 1st, most inshore harvesters on Newfoundland’s northeast coast have yet to take part in the fishery because there are no buyers, meaning harvesters have little income.
An untold number of inshore harvesters have tried to stop FFAW-Unifor dues from being deducted from their fish sales — with the funds redirected to FISH-NL — but the FFAW-Unifor threatened legal action against processing companies that do not remit dues.
Other inshore harvesters have been successful in having their union dues held in a trust account until FISH-NL’s certification application is dealt with.
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, with telephone calls and messages ignored. Other harvesters have permanently turned their back on the FFAW-Unifor, wanting nothing more to do with the union.
When FISH-NL presented our application for certification to the Labour Relations Board on Dec. 30th, 2016, the package included membership cards signed by 2,372 inshore harvesters from more than 300 communities.
Our support continues to rise, but there’s a downside in that the financial strain on the union is also increasing as FISH-NL deals with a rising caseload and limited resources.
Again, there’s no end in sight in terms of a decision on FISH-NL’s application for certification. What’s more alarming is that the Board hasn’t yet acted to ensure its orders are enforced.
On March 10th, the Labour Relations Board issued the following orders:
1) FFAW shall provide to the Board’s investigating officer its list of commercial inshore fish harvesters in the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, excluding the communities north of Makkovik who have been a member of FFAW from January 1, 2015 — December 30, 2016, as per FFAW’s consent to provide same;
2) ASP shall provide to the Board’s investigating officer its list of commercial inshore fish harvesters in the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, excluding the communities north of Makkovik on whose behalf members of ASP have collected and remitted FFAW union dues during the period of January 1,2015 — December 30, 2016.
3) FISH-NL shall provide to the investigating officer the information forming the basis of its conclusion in section 5 of its application that the bargaining unit it desires to represent contains approximately 4,500 members. FISH-NL shall identify for the investigating officer who it believes the members of the proposed bargaining unit are.
While FISH-NL has responded to Order 3, and the FFAW-Unifor has reportedly responded to Order 1, the ASP has indicated it does not plan to respond to Order 2.
According to Jody Saunders, the Board investigator assigned to FISH-NL’s application, ASP President Derek Butler refused to comply with the order, informing the Board in March he had “no authority” to order member companies to provide the information requested.
From FISH-NL’s perspective, the list from the ASP, which represents more than 65 fish processing plants in the province, is the only way to independently verify bonafide inshore harvesters.
The Labour Relations Board has the ability to retain counsel and make an application to the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador to enforce its order, but FISH-NL is puzzled as to why that wasn’t done months ago.
The perception amongst inshore harvesters — as well as the broader NL public — is that the powers that be are dragging their heels with FISH-NL’s application as a means to “starve out” the new union.
The Board’s failure to have the court enforce its March 10th order would seem to lend merit to that perception.
But other factors necessitate a vote as soon as possible, and should compel the Board to act as soon as possible.
On June 16th, the Court of Appeal dismissed the FFAW-Unifor’s appeal of a 2016 Supreme Court of NL decision that found the union had deceived its membership.
The FFAW-Unifor negotiated a compensation package with Nalcor for a power line across the Strait of Belle Isle to bring Muskrat power to the island.
The power line impacted scallop harvesters in that they could no longer fish in the area, but it was only after the compensation deal was done that the FFAW-Unifor asked harvesters for permission to negotiate on their behalf.
The FFAW-Unifor distributed consent forms, when the union had already done a deal.
Then there was the deal itself.
The FFAW-Unifor negotiated a compensation package to be paid out over 30 years, but only to active harvesters who could prove losses. Most scallop harvesters disagreed with that deal, wanting all active and inactive scallop harvesters compensated in a lump-sum payment.
The Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the harvesters — and against their union, which is unprecedented in the Canadian labour movement. “FFAW was clearly acting outside its usual role and did not appreciate the full implications of its behaviour,” the court ruled.
The ruling proves what harvesters have been saying for years: that the union holds meetings — not to consult its membership — but to tell them what’s already been decided.
Also necessitating an immediate vote is the FFAW-Unifor’s failure to reveal how much funding oil and gas companies pump into the union.
FISH-NL has accused the FFAW-Unifor of being “bought and paid for” regarding its silence over record seismic surveying in the offshore this year, and general silence in recent years related to oil and gas development in the NL offshore.
FISH-NL has called on the FFAW-Unifor to reveal details of its financial arrangements with the offshore oil industry to address conflict of interest charges.
To date, however, the FFAW has failed to do so.
From FISH-NL’s perspective, the FFAW-Unifor no longer deserves the right to represent inshore harvesters, who have lost faith, trust, and respect for their union.
The only recourse is to allow them to vote on their future.
MHA Al Hawkins, Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MHA Gerry Byrne, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture (GordonMacGowan@gov.nl.ca)
Premier Dwight Ball (ERoberts@gov.nl.ca)
MHA David Brazil, PC critic for Advanced Education, Skills and Labour (email@example.com)
MHA Lorraine Michael, NDP critical for Advanced Education, Skills and Labour firstname.lastname@example.org
MHA Keith Hutchings, PC Critic Fisheries and Aquaculture (email@example.com)