This article was originally published in the Winter 2021/2022 Edition of the Union Forum Magazine, and is written by Alyse Stuart, FFAW-Unifor Staff Representative.
In our union history it is often the strike at Burgeo that marks our first test and victory. But it was certainly not to be the last.
In 1980, we faced major adversity in our union against a company trying to break the organization by pitting plant workers against harvesters.
After years of progress in negotiations in the late 1970’s there was considerable pressure to stagnate these gains due to inflation and hardline bargaining by companies who were unwilling to pay fair wages or improve working conditions. Despite efforts by the union to bargain fair deals, negotiations broke down and there was a vote at Fishery Products International (FPI) plants for a strike mandate. On July 8th, 1980, 2300 plant workers from FPI held a legal walk-out with the support of 38 tied-up trawlers and 500 crewmen.
Only days later amidst the ongoing turmoil in the inshore fishery and subsequent lack of productive negotiations with processors, who claimed to be suffering from a hard year with minimal profits, harvesters also held a strike vote. The union’s intent was to have targeted actions throughout the province to pressure companies to negotiate fairly while maintaining an active fishery for members. However, the response from the Fisheries Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (the ASP of 1980) was swift and catastrophic as they moved to shut down all major fish plants in the province instead of negotiating with the union.
This move by processors was a direct attack on all workers as it would threaten the ability of harvesters and plant workers to access the life-saving UI (unemployment insurance) benefits. The intent was clear: to splinter plant workers and harvesters while threatening economic stability for thousands in the off-season. Additionally, and quite diabolically, companies unilaterally dropped fish prices as a tactic to stop deducting union dues to further destabilize the FFAW’s ability to organize workers.
It was a tumultuous time to say the least, with companies unwilling to negotiate and the fishery stuck at a standstill during the most profitable time of the season. Thousands of lives hung in the balance during what became a 13-week strike that tested the foundations of the Union, most notably, the resolve of union brothers and sisters to stand in solidarity against companies looking to exploit their vulnerabilities.
Yet, we know all too well that our members are not afraid of a fight!
In the end, FFAW was victorious. Plant workers negotiated increased wages and workplace protections, harvesters won a price increase, and together they sent a strong message to companies that they could not be divided.
This tradition of unity between plant workers and fish harvesters would be the framework for push back during one the darkest times in our province’s history—the moratorium. Without the united front of tens of thousands of harvesters, plant workers, and community members in the wake of the largest lay-off in Canadian history, you can guarantee the government would not have provided the same scope of benefits package. These supports were only possible due to the union fighting for all members whose organized revolt forced the government to recognize the community impact of the closure.
More recently, with the proposed reductions in crab quotas in 2019 we once again saw the message our members can send when they stand together. If not for the hundreds of plant workers who joined harvesters on the steps of Seamus O’Regan’s office in downtown St. John’s, chanting for fair allocations and our rural economy, we would not have seen the changes necessary to sustain our inshore fishery that year.
We know that there are still many fights at our doorstep as we demand fair wages, better employment insurance, more protections for workers, and the sustainability of rural NL. But we also know that none of these battles can be won without solidarity with all sectors of our membership. Companies like FPI and those that have come since, want nothing more than to divide us in an attempt to fracture our greatest strength and control workers for their own profits.
To that we will always respond with raised fists, “workers’ rights are under attack, what do we do—stand up, fight back!”