Skip to content

50 years of defying the odds

January 14, 2022

Lana Payne, National Secretary-Treasurer, Unifor

This article was originally published in the Winter 2021/2022 Edition of the Union Forum magazine. 

They said it couldn’t be done.

They were wrong. They are still wrong.

50 years ago the forces against a collective voice, collective bargaining, and a union for the fish harvesters and plant workers of Newfoundland and Labrador were powerful. They were wealthy. They were connected politically. They controlled the economy. The government. Communities.

And they grossly underestimated the will of 10000s of workers from 100s of communities scattered around thousands of kilometres of coastline.

They underestimated the smarts and outstanding oratory skills of Richard Cashin. They underestimated what happens when working people organize. And how one victory can lead to another and another and another. They underestimated how decades and decades of exploitation and injustice would be the catalyst for the building of something that became more than a union.

Years later when asked about the sheer audacity of organizing fish harvesters and plant workers into a province-wide union, Cashin would say the idea was like a match to a blasty bough. The fire was lit. That turn of phrase would stay with me decades later during all the times this union, my union, would have to reassert itself over and over again including defending workers and their livelihoods throughout the largest layoff in Canadian history – the 1992 closure of the northern cod fishery.

Throughout the last five decades, the union has withstood test after test. Some more divisive and complex than others. Some seemed insurmountable. And yet the knowledge that worker power, collective bargaining power was at its strongest when all workers in the industry came together has been the key to the success of the union that so many said shouldn’t have been.

Though they have often not received the credit they deserved, the women of the union were always there during the difficult moments, organizing, strategizing and in the thick of it. They were the glue. They were tough and strong and they changed the union. Made it stronger. And better.

Social unionism was their gift to FFAW. They understood their lives would not be fully better just with only collective bargaining. They needed political bargaining too. They also brought uncomfortable and difficult conversations to a place they had never been – the floors of meeting and convention halls. They spoke of equality, their treatment in the plants and on the boats. They fought for respect and equal pay. They brought the epidemic of violence against women out into the open onto convention floors. And they organized within the union to make the union theirs too – not merely the “fishermen’s” union, but a union for everyone.

When Premier Danny Williams introduced raw material sharing in 2004 – a disastrous scheme that would have suppressed fish prices – it was the women of the union who after more than 40 days of protests and court injunctions across the province who tackled the premier in the halls of Confederation Building. It was a day I will never forget. They were an inspired force. The next day, the premier who never blinked, blinked. Never doubt that women can get things done.

Despite all the challenges – fisheries closures, short-sighted government restructuring plans, resource crisis after crisis, market crashes, and corporate greed – FFAW and its members defied all of the odds.

They did it with great leadership over many decades. They did it with hard-fought solidarity. They did it by remaining relevant to their members. They did it by organizing every single day. They did it because the spirit of 1971 carries on in the members of today. The spirit of a fighting union, an organizing union.

They did it because of the incredible foundation laid by Richard Cashin and so many others.

A match to a blasty bough, indeed. The fire still burns in a new generation of trade unionists. Thank you for all you do and congratulations on 50 years of building trade union power. It has been a distinct honour to be part of it and during my 17 years working with you, you have never failed to inspire with your tenacity and kindness. Let’s remember this incredible union history the next time someone says: it can’t be done.

All my love and solidarity, Lana