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Sisterhood Column: Shattering Glass Ceilings

January 6, 2022

This article was originally published in the Winter 2021/2022 Edition of the Union Forum Magazine, and was contributed by Tina Pretty, FFAW-Unifor Executive Assistant/Women’s Advocate Coordinator from 1979 until her retirement in 2020.

Back in 1971 when the union was formed by Richard Cashin and Fr. Des McGrath, I was just 11 years old and oblivious to happenings in the fishery. However, I’m pretty sure I heard of Richard Cashin as it was hard to ignore his fiery condemnation of the merchant class or of government inaction blaring from the TV set during the evening news.  Little did I know in seven short years I would start my working career at the Newfoundland Fishermen’s Union.

During a career that spanned 41 years from 1979 to 2020 – and several name and affiliation changes – I’ve witnessed a lot of history, the growing involvement of women in the union and how they helped shape the organization we are today. There could be volumes printed on women in the union and perhaps that would be a great project for someone to undertake in future. However, this article will be a bit of history and more importantly, a tribute to the activism of strong FFAW women who stepped up to mentor and lead the way for women’s equality and improved working conditions for all members. Whatever fears they faced – lack of confidence, inexperience, judgement – they fought anyway.

To begin, you need a sense of where women were in 1971. At that time only 44.8% of Canadian women were in the workforce compared to 95% of men. There were no women officers in the RCMP, no women pilots and women who worked as flight attendants (known as “stewardesses” at the time) had to resign from their jobs after they married. Women did not hold top leadership positions in politics, unions, or universities and no women had yet to be a Lieutenant-Governor in the whole British Commonwealth. I give these examples so younger women understand the progress made in the intervening half century.

At the formation of our union there were very few women fish harvesters. Many women were involved in the inshore fishery doing the land work of making the fish and helping their husbands, but this was unpaid labour. During the 1970s, as groundfish plants opened and salt fish fell out of favour, many women went to work in fish processing plants while their husbands continued to fish. While there was also a viable trawler sector that fished offshore, no women were ever employed on the trawlers.

In our inshore fishery there were a number of changes that occurred that led to women joining their husbands and fathers in the fishing boats. Perhaps the biggest change occurred when Rosanne Doyle from Witless Bay successfully challenged the Unemployment Insurance regulations (known today as Employment Insurance) in the 1980s which denied benefits to wives of fishers. Women were deemed to be “helpers” and as such were ineligible for benefits. This recognition of women’s contribution to the enterprise helped pave the way for more women to enter the occupation. This change, coupled with women opting to have smaller families meant, out of necessity, women took to fishing to consolidate the family income by not having to pay crew members from outside of the family unit.

Today, women fish harvesters make up 23% of the industry and 8% are Level II certified harvesters. Over 100 women currently own and operate their own Core enterprises. According to the PFHCB, the number of women enterprise owners is on the rise and accounts for nearly 10% of all fish harvesters pursuing professional Level I and Level II certification upgrading. Even the Marine Institute is seeing the percentage of female participants rise in Fishing Masters IV courses offered. As an occupation of choice, it’s becoming obvious that fishing is a viable option for women.

Inshore women have made many inroads within the union it would be a disservice if I didn’t mention Mildred Skinner. Mildred, since retired, was an inshore fish harvester from Harbour Breton who was the first woman elected to our Inshore Council in 1986 to represent her area. She went on to serve on the union’s Executive Board in an affirmative action seat for numerous consecutive terms. She was for many years the co-chair of the Women’s Committee and a trained Women’s Advocate who continually made space for other women to get involved. In our Inshore sector we currently one-woman representing fish harvesters and on our Inshore council women hold a total of four seats.

Women working in our Industrial/Retail/Offshore (IRO) sector, primarily in fish processing plants, have also come far. In 1970, a year before our founding, the minimum wage for women was set at $1.00 an hour as compared to $1.25 for men – a blatant case of discrimination. By 1972, the wage gap increased further as women earned $1.10 an hour to a man’s $1.40. It would be another two years before the government of the day introduced a single minimum wage for both genders setting the bar at $1.80 per hour. These were still extremely low wages and well below the Canadian average for this sector.

Doretta Strickland made union history in 2018 by being the first woman ever elected to the position of Vice President, Industrial Retail Offshore. Doretta is now serving her second term in the position. Considering the high percentage of women working in fish processing, it should be no surprise that most elected unit chairperson positions are held by women.

With that brief history taken care of I’d like to share some of the victories of the women in our union. These are but a sampling and there are countless more that could be written.

In the inshore, I recall women harvesters like Mildred Skinner, Denise Grandy and Loretta Kelly telling of how they and others had to earn their place in the fishing boat and win the respect from their male counterparts. Mildred recalls once she was elected to the Inshore Council she had to gain her respect there as well and had to carve out a space for herself. That made way for women like Nancy Bowers, a fish harvester from Beachside and a newly minted Executive Board member who chased down a Member of Parliament on the highway so she could lobby to get a wharf for her town—her pursuit was successful.

In the industrial sector you have trailblazers like Bernice Duffett, a plant worker from Port Union who challenged the status quo in her plant when she wanted to apply for a watchman position, a job traditionally held by a man. She filed her grievance and won and opened the eyes of other women to what was possible. Next there was fearless Irene Ploughman who worked at Shawmut Fisheries in Witless Bay. She cornered Diane Finlay, Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, in a bathroom to make her pitch on what was wrong with the Employment Insurance program and how it could be fixed. The Minister was in St. John’s for meetings, and someone had the bright idea that it was a good photo opportunity to be seen at a fish processing facility, but they did not expect to have Irene waiting for them.

Women of the FFAW took on safety in their workplaces, like Occupational Shellfish Asthma, which is a cumulative disease predominantly impacting women in the plant. A group of dedicated union sisters lobbied ministers and officials and were eventually successful in becoming a subcommittee of the Manufacturing Safety Sector Council where concerns can be raised and addressed.

FFAW women have been vocal on issues of gender-based violence and have a network of Unifor-trained Women’s Advocates in all areas of the province. From 2009 to 2016, thirty women have stepped up to receive the 40-hour training to help coworkers and women in their communities.

Over the past 50 years, so much change has taken place that the workplaces of 1971 are no longer recognizable. Gone are the days when women had to give up careers because of marital status. We see strong women coming to the fore and offering themselves for not only union elections but for municipal and provincial offices. These days FFAW women are represented on many industry boards, and I have to say it has been very rewarding to see in the past year the hiring of three women for Staff Representative positions – Miranda McGrath, Dwan Street and Alyse Stuart.

For five decades women in our union have been fighting for change and taking their place as equal partners in their respective workplaces. With additional engagement with our women members, I can see even more glass ceilings being shattered over the next 50 years.