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Message from the President: Tackling Our Economic Challenges Requires a Commitment to Good Jobs

April 30, 2018

This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 edition of the Union Forum, written by Keith Sullivan, FFAW-Unifor President.

The current state of our provincial economy has its challenges. Many would say a “good job” is increasingly hard to come by. There is talk of bankruptcy, unemployment rates are expected to hit 20% and we have some serious demographic issues resulting from an aging population.

In the midst of the current sea of doubt, however, I see a bright future for Newfoundland and Labrador.  We are a driven, hard working people and if we act together, with a collective vision and fortitude, we can have a vibrant economy with good jobs. But these actions must start now.

We need to examine what a good job entails if we want to encourage young people to stay in the province and attract people to come home. A good job is not precarious – it must provide a good income and consistent work. It takes place in a healthy and safe working environment and it allows workers to contribute to their community and the economy.

The good news here is that our province has the ability to provide this for young people. And it is desperately needed considering the aging demographic that is most obvious in rural regions of the province.

It’s because of these economic and demographic challenges that the recent decision on the arctic surf clam quota has been so frustrating. The Government of Canada has decided to limit the amount of work for FFAW members in Grand Bank and provide an even smaller amount of work to workers in the Maritimes. This decision makes absolutely no sense as an economic development strategy and amounts to removing economic sustainability from one area and turning it into sharing shortages of work in two areas.

The challenges presented by the surf clam decision are indicative of the larger challenges that your Union faces and the province faces. We are in the midst of a transition on many different fronts – our marine environment is changing, our markets are changing, the province’s economy is changing, our communities are changing, and our demographics are changing.

Through these transitions, we need to demand and expect that our natural resources, like minerals, oil and fish, attain maximum benefit for our people and our communities. All of these changes bring different perspectives and potential solutions. But all of these changes can be eased, and even solved, with more and better paying jobs. It is not good enough that we receive a “good” price for unprocessed fish or we just get “reasonable” royalties from our offshore oil reserves.

The terms and spirit of the Atlantic Accord must be followed. We cannot have skilled trades workers being laid-off and under-employed while contracts for oil and gas projects in Newfoundland and Labrador are given to companies in New Brunswick, the U.S., and Norway. The oil and gas sector is not just about providing a royalty to the province; oil and gas is a dividend in which workers deserve a large part.

The people of our province deserve good value for the resource on our shelf. We need to fight for every single job. Not just the jobs that we currently have, but every job that we’ve lost or was not provided to us because a promise was not kept or a policy or plan was not followed.

When Voisey’s bay was being developed, Premier Brian Tobin said, “not one spoonful of ore” would leave the province.  This is the right attitude, we cannot sell ourselves short.  Like all major projects, it had speedbumps, but we now have a world class nickel smelter supplying good jobs in Long Harbour and adding value to the product mined in Labrador.

On the Agreement on Internal Trade, we need to ensure that exemptions for the brewing and bottling of beer are maintained and not regularly undermined. Our breweries provide good paying, secure jobs. These jobs cannot be lost so that Molson can make even more profit through job killing decisions couched in soft, friendly terms.

We need to secure an increased share and better access to the abundant fisheries off our coast.  The federal government must demonstrate its commitment to the people of this province, just like they did with the commitment to the first 115,000 Mt of northern cod for inshore harvesters. We need access to more halibut on both the west and south coast and we need a greater share of the turbot fishery on the northeast coast. And we need DFO to apply some common-sense to the rebuilding of the northern shrimp fishery. The current low quotas cannot be justified by historical environmental facts.

It is time for processing companies to think outside the box and to start looking at harvesters as partners and not just the providers of raw material. Processors operate in near total secrecy, not just from harvesters but from each other. For some reason, they think this is good – that maintaining secrecy in how they operate gives them an advantage. It does not. It actually holds everyone down because there is no exchange of ideas to foster improvement. Harvesters want processors to get paid – why would harvesters want to bankrupt those that pay them? If there was a partnership, we could work together to be more successful. The fishery does not need corporate vertical integration; it needs intellectual vertical integration.

Processing companies also have to engage harvesters as partners in the marketing of fish from this province. Harvesters have a role to play in marketing products that is not just confined to maintaining quality. We have tried for years to work with companies on the marketing of lobster and have been largely rebuffed. Meanwhile, the Chinese market for lobster has exploded and our companies are without a marketing strategy or brand to introduce into China. We are still offering companies the opportunity to partner on marketing, and this is an offer they should not refuse.

Whether we process fish from wild fisheries or aquaculture we have a responsibility to attain the best value and this includes focusing on by-products and full utilization.  There is much room for improvement especially when we see those working in aquaculture struggling to get reasonable weeks of work.

Processing companies also need to improve how they operate. Harvesters sell thousands of tons of fish to processors each year, giving these companies the ability to operate in the increasingly lucrative global fish market. There is no excuse for poor wages to continue among fish plant workers. Wages of $15 an hour should be the basement wage, not a lifetime achievement. Plants also need to provide a better work environment. Nobody working in a fish plant should be getting sick from conditions they were subjected to at work.

Our future is dependent on a shared vision of success in every corner of our province, including coastal regions. In recent months I’ve met with thousands of our members and at each of those meetings I am reminded of what we can accomplish with a united voice. Together, we have negotiated good prices, defeated bad policies and secured a better future for our members. Now, as we stand at the cusp of establishing a new sort of fishery and a new sort of economy for our province – one that is fairer, worker-oriented and sustainable – there are more bold steps to take and battles to win.