Community dealing with plant closure’s fallout

Daniel MacEachern
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Shuttered plant sends economic ripples through Port Union

First in a three-part series

The shrimp plant in Port Union isn’t the only area business closing its doors for good.

The Dollar Plus store in neighbouring Catalina — with the prices on much of its merchandise cut to even less than the normal buck or two — is shutting down.

That’s what happens in a small town when one of its biggest employers puts the locks on the doors.

Ocean Choice International announced earlier this month that its plant — inactive since it was battered by hurricane Igor almost a year and a half ago, and only operating a fraction of the year before that — would not be reopening, leaving about 170 workers to seek employment elsewhere.

But those job losses affect more than the people getting pink slips, points out Brendan Peters, the mayor of Port Union, where about a third of the plant’s workforce came from.

The lost purchasing power contracts the economy elsewhere, forcing the corner stores to lay off employees, the Seaport Inn to delay opening for breakfast until 10 a.m. instead of its traditional 8 a.m., and shuttering the Dollar Plus.

“When a town can’t even keep a dollar store open …” Peters said, shaking his head.

He didn’t finish his sentence.

The dollar store will likely close some time in the new year, says the store’s manager, who declined to be interviewed.

Asked why the store is closing, she offered a resigned, “The economy, I suppose.”

In the months since the plant closed its doors, workers have considered their options, including looking for other work within the province or elsewhere in Canada.

But the demographics of the plant’s aging workforce — who worked there before Ocean Choice bought the plant from Fishery Products International in 2007, before the 1992 cod moratorium ended the days of year-round work — make retraining a daunting prospect. The union says more than 120 of the laid-off workers have more than 35 years of experience.

And many — despite the year-plus delay since Igor — had been holding out hope that the plant would eventually reopen for even the 14 weeks of work they had before it closed.

Paul Stead started working at the plant in 1980, and lost his job, and his seniority, when the cod moratorium caused the plant to close, putting about a thousand people out of work. He’s been getting by with make-work projects around the area, hoping to return to the plant.

“We had doubts that it would reopen, but of course we were all hoping it would,” he said. “That was our livelihood. It’s all we’ve done around here.”

For Stead, that hope is gone, despite his union — the Fish, Food and Allied Workers — vowing not to concede the need to close either the Port Union or the Marystown plant, which got the axe in the same announcement. For him, Ocean Choice’s announcement was the equivalent of the plug being pulled on a terminal patient, and he thinks the union needs to focus on the future.

“I don’t think it’s going to open anymore. I think they should just look after the workers, now. I don’t what that means, if it’s a lump sum payment they can help us to move on with our lives … the plant, the fishery is history anyway. I don’t think it’s worth being into anymore.”

Stead’s not sure what he’s going to do; he’s filed an Employment Insurance claim to get through the winter, but beyond that he doesn’t know what next year will bring. He also counts the blessing that his job wasn’t his family’s sole income, though; his wife works for a home-care provider.

In many cases, the job lost was a family’s sole income. In others, both husband and wife worked at the plant.

“My wife, she works, thank God,” said Stead. “So she’s bringing in the income, which is great. I’ve got a special-needs daughter; that takes extra income. She needs 24-hour care, and that’s not easy, so we’ve just got to chug along and do what we can do.”

And while some critics of Ocean Choice’s decision have slammed the announcement’s timing — less than a month before Christmas — Stead’s more bitter than surprised.

“I didn’t expect anything else from OCI,” he said. “They never did treat us right. I don’t know why they would start now. I never did expect anything else.”

The timing does mean that the workers are scaling back their Christmas plans.

David Dalton of Little Catalina worked at the plant for 36 years. He’s hoping to find work in Alberta but in the meantime is making do with odd jobs like repairing the garage door at the town’s fire hall. He said he’ll be spending much less this Christmas.

“There’s no money. It’s only me. My wife don’t work, so it’s only me. I’m only getting now $10 an hour and I got to live on that. Pay your bills, I’ve got payments. I just can’t afford to do it,” he said.

When he started at the fish plant, he said, he thought he’d work there until the day he retired.

“I started there when I was 17. I quit school and went there,” he said. “It was a good living there, at the time, because of the codfish and everything, the multi-species. I was making about the money then that I made now, because I got a lot of overtime.”

It’s a common story: the plant’s workers, young men at the time, say they had no reason to think work would be anything but plentiful there.

Graham Reid of Little Catalina, working on the garage door with Dalton, remembers, as do most of the workers, when the plant employed 1,200 people, and there was so much work that employees had to fight to get Saturdays off and some extra time at Christmas.

“You had the northern cod and everything, the flatfish. Everything was coming in up there,” said Reid, who started working at the plant 37 years ago. “And it was 12 months around then.”

And even though Ocean Choice says the Port Union plant was damaged too extensively by the hurricane to make reopening it feasible, Dalton’s not buying it. He says the plant’s economic troubles are the company’s fault.

“When OCI took it over, everything just went downhill from that. FPI, we was doing pretty good, actually. We were getting a bit of profit-sharing and everything,” he said.

Dalton’s also bothered by the possibility of Ocean Choice taking any insurance settlement received as a result of the hurricane damage and investing it outside of Port Union, such as in a new crab plant in Bonavista. He said that if Ocean Choice is pulling up stakes in Trinity Bay North, then the least they can do is get the plant back into working condition in the hopes that someone else wants to buy it.

“Due to that storm, that plant should be put back to the way it was,” he said. “Not take the money and run, that’s what they’re doing, and leave we fellows out in the cold, I’ll tell you that.”

When it’s pointed out that Dalton is still wearing an Ocean Choice baseball cap on, he whips it off. “I’m trying to wear it out,” he says, as his co-workers laugh. “I’m saving me good caps.”

When the laughter subsides, though, Dalton says he’s resigned to leaving his hometown to find work. With the effects of the plant closure rippling through Port Union and the rest of the area — the rest of Trinity Bay North, Elliston, Five Coves — he and the other laid-off workers may have few other options.

“I’m going to have to move away, sooner or later. I’ve got the resumés sent out, to the mainland and everywhere,” he said. “Soon as I can get a job — if I can get a job. I’m 53, I don’t know who wants me and who don’t — if I can get a job, I’m gone. I’m jetting out of here. Quick as I can.”

In Friday’s Telegram: Marystown workers keep up the vigil in front of the shuttered Ocean Choice plant, while feeling pitted against workers in nearby Fortune., Twitter: TelegramDaniel

Organizations: Port Union, Dollar Plus, Fishery Products International Seaport Inn Employment Insurance claim

Geographic location: Catalina, Marystown, Canada Trinity Bay North Alberta Bonavista

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Recent comments

  • Seamus
    December 22, 2011 - 11:04

    Couldn't agree with you more redrantingtory. And might I add that at 50+ years like the majority of these workers are, if they had to see the writing on the wall during the moratorium and changed there lives when they were in there early 30's which still gives you almost 35 years of work elsewhere if you retire at 65? What drives me nuts about this, is that these so-called "resourceful" people in the outports have never bothered to try anything to save there own towns instead of crying out for Government assistance. Then they complain that all the tax money goes to St. John's when if you look at the figures more money is contributed per person to the outports then anywhere else in the province.

  • redrantingtory
    December 22, 2011 - 09:31

    Stead says he's worked at the fishplant since 1980, giving him 31 years seniority and experinece. Up to 1992, the start of the Cod Moratorium he worked full time and that would give him 12 years full employment. Since that the work as been seasonal. So say 20 weeks work per year since, at 19 years would give him 380 weeks or 7.3 years work. Out of the 31 years work experience he actually as 19 years with the rest being laid off. I say this because these fishplants have been stamp generators since 1992. Barely keeping people going with enough work to qualify for EI. All the other people claiming 30 to 40 years working on the plant the same numbers apply. This is not to degrade anyone but to show how this system as been working since the cod failure. There as been talk since 1992 of downsizing the fishery but everyone kept on as if all was normal. They have been scraping the bottom of the barrel for years trying to get enough work to qialify for EI. Now these plants are closing the hard way, through ecomomics. Say what you like, the day of every town having it's own stamp generator is gone and there will be regional plants that provide more work for longer periods all be it with less people. Which was what the moratorium was supposed to help do. These plants operating for 12 or 14 weeks a year are just not viable and never were. They were there to keep peoples false hopes alive. You had to see the writing on the wall. Many saw it and got out. They are the lucky ones today.