'I'll get you a union, but I'll break your GD necks if you don't back me up'

Aaron
Aaron Beswick
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The birth of the Fishermen's Union in Port au Choix

Holding his granddaughter Megan Taylor in his big hands, Joseph Plowman gives the impression of a man satisfied with life.

He should be - the Port au Choix fisherman raised a family, turned over his 65-foot dragger Challenger 88 to his sons and spends his days in the shed or at the garden.

Desmond McGrath has retired as a parish priest and lives in Stephenville. He still keeps up some duties with the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union. Photo by Aaron Beswick/The Northern Pen

Port au Choix -

Holding his granddaughter Megan Taylor in his big hands, Joseph Plowman gives the impression of a man satisfied with life.

He should be - the Port au Choix fisherman raised a family, turned over his 65-foot dragger Challenger 88 to his sons and spends his days in the shed or at the garden.

He hauled a good life from the sea, but he and the other fishermen of his generation had to fight for it.

"Father McGrath?" he laughs when asked for his memories of Port au Choix's former priest. "He'd make a good revolution leader. A rough old customer, he'd back down from nobody."

Ready for revolution

A cloud of dust followed Father Desmond McGrath's battered Volkswagon as it banged its way up the gravel road toward the 33-year-old Catholic priest's first parish. It was 1968 and the six-foot-two-inch, broad-chested, chain-smoking priest was bringing new ideas to a fishing people ready for change.

Port au Choix had no electricity or telephones, and the men who came each summer from Labrador and the rest of the Northern Peninsula to the beating heart of Western Newfoundland's fishery were largely uneducated.

"I never had the chance to go to school, but I never worked much for anybody else either," remembered Plowman, who was in his early 30s at the time and fishing from the 30-foot longliner he'd built, the Madonna and Jean.

"But the younger ones had their grades 10 and 11 - and they wasn't gonna work for nothing."

The 100 or so boats landing at the Port au Choix plant were getting two to four cents a pound for their cod and large foreign draggers were steaming through their gillnets, destroying hard-gotten gear.

The issue came to a head that fateful summer when the United Maritime Fishermen (UMF) started buying scallops and trucking them to the mainland - a price war started between the New Brunswick buyers and the Port au Choix plant, driving the price up from 15 cents a pound to 75 cents.

Fall came and a local scallop dragger tied up to the wharf just as the last (UMF) truck of the year left town - the price went back down immediately to 15 cents.

Outrage ensued - the fishermen had learned the companies could afford to pay more but wouldn't unless forced.

Built-up frustrations festered over the coming winter. During the summer of 1969, McGrath was in the wheelhouse of Robert Spence's boat hearing about the injustices of the fishery, about being ripped off and the need for a union.

"I boastfully said, 'I'll get you a union, but I'll break your GD necks if you don't back me up,'" remembered the priest.

Organizing

They started holding meetings, but a bit of research showed that legislation in Canada would forbid the organizing of independent fishermen - calling it a "cartel." Newfoundland had no legislation.

If they were going to organize without getting arrested, they would need legal help.

On a cold February night in 1970, McGrath called an old school chum from St. Francis Xavier University, known as a hotbed for left-wing thought and social organizing. Richard Cashin got in his car the next morning and drove more than 1,000 km to reach Port au Choix.

The St. John's lawyer/politician and the Catholic priest were about to spark a revolution that would turn the entire province's fishery on its head.

On April 25, 1970, some 200 fishermen met in Port au Choix and voted to form the Northern Fishermen's Union (NFU), adopting a constitution drawn up by Cashin. George Lavers of Port Saunders was elected president and Port au Choix's Fintan Gould secretary. Committees were also established in Bartlett's Harbour and Anchor Point.

The stated aims of the NFU were to: "... promote economic interests of fishermen; to work with and promote other organizations ... working for the betterment of fishermen ... to develop, in conjunction with the Northern Regional Development Association, a comprehensive development plan for the region to make arrangements for the purchasing of fuel, gear and other goods on a collective basis."

But the province's legislation didn't allow for independent fishermen to form unions - the NFU's only option was to get FPL to voluntarily recognize them as the bargaining agent for fishermen. After being ignored by FPL, Port au Choix's fishermen tied up their boats on June 10. At 9 a.m. plantworkers walked out in support.

They got their meeting with the company, but FPL wasn't budging - they wouldn't negotiate fish prices and grievances procedures with the NFU.

If the fishermen wanted to overturn an economic/political alliance that had kept power and money from their hands for centuries, they were going to need support. They got it - while the local executive mulled how to force FPL's hand and fishermen across the province asked to join the NFU, McGrath and Cashin flew to Chicago to sign up with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union.

They returned, having promised to add 10,000 Newfoundland and Labrador fishermen to the ranks of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, already representing 600,000 food workers across North America. In return they got $50,000 for organizing and more if needed.

It turned into a lot more.

'Supporting an idea'

"In the summer of 1970, Newfoundland fishermen were not so much joining a union as supporting an idea," Gordon Inglis said in his book, "More Than Just a Union." "It was an idea they all shared, but it rested for the moment on two men arguing in a car."

The two criss-crossed the province, arguing for hours on end over how the union should be organized and strategies to get there. In the churches and community halls of the countless harbours of this province's ragged coast, the two preached and heard the need for the union from thousands of fishermen. Back in Port au Choix, the arguments would continue at Ralph O'Keefe's supper table.

One topic of debate was that by merging with the Associated Meat Packers they were also accepting plant workers into the union, now known as the Fish, Food and Allied Workers' (FFAW) union.

"Our rationale was that you couldn't have three unions all fighting for labour, the draggermen or the price of fish at the same time," said McGrath.

The interests of fishermen and plant workers are often opposed - an example being the recent debate on whether buyers from off the Northern Peninsula should be allowed to compete with local fish plants. It could mean a better price for shrimp for fishermen but would also take work away from local plant workers. The FFAW hasn't taken a stance.

When the question was put to Plowman, whether the union can adequately represent plant workers and fishermen at the same time, he went quiet before coming to the same conclusion as McGrath.

"Two unions? It's a job to tell ... Nope, the thought of it, two unions fightin' with one another. No good."

While the arguments of the spring and summer of 1970 continue today, membership at the time still increased. The union grew, sorting out structure on the fly, but it still had to prove itself - had to prove it could better the lot of its members. It needed to be recognized by buyers as bargaining arm of fishermen, had to get provincial legislation changed ... the FFAW had plenty on its plate.

Part 1 of a Northern Pen series.

Organizations: Union in Port au Choix, United Maritime Fishermen, St. Francis Xavier University Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union Northern Regional Development Association Allied Workers

Geographic location: Port au Choix, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northern Peninsula New Brunswick Canada St. John's Northern Fishermen Port Saunders Bartlett Anchor Point Chicago North America

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  • Maggie
    July 02, 2010 - 13:19

    Every person worth their salt knows Father McGrath is the hero of the working man in Newfoundland...and an interesting person to talk to!

  • Maggie
    July 01, 2010 - 20:02

    Every person worth their salt knows Father McGrath is the hero of the working man in Newfoundland...and an interesting person to talk to!