Marystown workers maintain vigil at plant with their futures still in limbo
Former Marystown plant workers in Marystown have maintained a 24-hour guard over the plant gates to prevent Ocean Choice from removing any equipment, after the company announced earlier this month it was closing the plant for good. — Photo Daniel MacEachern/The Telegram
Second in a three-part series
Ray Nolan sat in his Dodge Caravan, parked just off Marystown’s Atlantic Drive in a spot overlooking the now-closed fish processing plant that employed him for 25 years.
Nolan is from the Mooring Cove area of Marystown. He’s 45 — which makes him “the young guy” at the plant — and like many of the people he grew up with, working at the plant is all he knows, and all he ever expected to need to know.
“I grew up just up the street. Started down in the plant back in the mid-’80s as a casual (labourer), and got a bit of work here and there in the summers as I went to school,” he said. “I remember going to high school and probably spending six or seven hours on night shift as a casual. A lot of my buddies worked at the plant. Most of them quit school and stayed at the plant or went on their own merry way.”
Nolan, though, stuck it out and graduated from high school — but never thought he’d need more than that, with plentiful work at the plant opened by Fishery Products International in the ’60s.
“I look back on it now, and I guess you give yourself a good boot in the arse, but I finished Grade 12, and nothing ever, ever considered me at the time to go and get a trade. I wasn’t no big brain in school, but I got my Grade 12,” he said.
There was a good living to be made at the fish plant down the street, he said, so that’s where he went, and where he worked until earlier this month when Ocean Choice International — which bought the plant in 2007 from FPI in 2007 — announced that the money-losing plant would be closed for good, along with the shrimp plant in Port Union.
“Back in the ’80s, it was good times. Lots of work, steady work, 40, 50 weeks a year, a bonus system,” he said.
So in February 1986 he signed on as a permanent employee. And a quarter-century of good times and bad times has left Nolan today — with eight children — no better off than he was when he started.
“I find myself at the bottom of the seniority list, just barely hanging on there,” he said. “Actually, there was a while there, about a year and a half ago, that I was basically a permanent call-in employee. About this time last year, I got back on a permanent job again, because some people moved on and a few jobs opened up. So I stayed, and I stayed, and I stayed.”
Details of a workforce adjustment plan for the 240 laid-off workers in Marystown (and the 170 in Port Union) still need to be worked out, although the Fish, Food and Allied Workers’ union, which represents workers at both plants, isn’t conceding the closures yet. Their workers — two, three, four at a time — are maintaining a 24-hour vigil at the gates of the Marystown plant to prevent the company from removing any equipment, while scrap wood is burned in a barrel to keep them warm while they stand guard.
Phonse Rowlands, taking an evening shift on guard this week, is still optimistic that work might be had, even though the union turned down an offer from Ocean Choice over the summer of 18 weeks’ work every year for the next three years.
It wasn’t that they didn’t want the shifts, the workers guarding the gate say, but that it was tied to Ocean Choice being allowed to ship more unprocessed fish out of Newfoundland than they thought was fair. Rowlands said there’s enough fish to give workers more work while letting Ocean Choice ship more out to meet demand for whole fish in Asian markets.
“We’ve still got hope that this fishery, there’s enough fish in the water. We got 40 million pounds of fish, and we can have fish for the fish plant in Marystown and fish for the plant in Fortune also,” said Rowlands, who has worked at the Marystown plant for 36 years. “Forty million pounds of fish, you still can have about 50 per cent to ship out.”
Ask 20 people who’s at fault for the closure of the fish plant, and you’ll get 20 different answers that assign varying degrees of blame to the three main players here, depending on your point of view: the provincial government, either for not being involved enough to ensure the future of the fishery (the workers’ view) or for overregulating the industry (Ocean Choice’s view); the company, for putting its own profit ahead of the province’s economic health; or the workers, for expecting to be employed at a money-losing plant for a fraction of the year while collecting Employment Insurance the rest of the time, year in, year out. Rowlands, for one, doesn’t believe the recent audit by Deloitte and Touche that said Ocean Choice has lost $10 million over the last three years in Marystown.
“I don’t think they are (losing money). I don’t think the whole story’s out there yet,” he said.
Wayne Kelly, also on shift watching the gates, said the government should have done its own audit of Ocean Choice’s losses instead of contracting the work out to Deloitte and Touche.
“I do believe that there should have been more investigation by our government to see how far the losses extend,” said Kelly, who has worked at the plant for 33 years. “It’s hurt people, and I don’t think that we should be laid off at this time — naturally, any loss of job is hard on anyone.”
With Ocean Choice announcing a plan to invest in nearby Fortune, a move the company says would create 110 year-round jobs, some of the Marystown workers feel like they’re being pitted against workers in other towns.
“We got nothing against the other plants. We’re all in this together, as far as I’m concerned,” said Rowlands. “Once that fish is gone, out of the water, it’s gone for good. If it keeps going the way it’s going, OCI will have control of all the fish. Right now, I’m 60 years old, and where’m I going?”
Bruce Grandy, 61 with 33 years at the plant, is wondering the same thing, and remembers the boom times at the plant.
“Marystown, to us, was our plant, and we had everything you’d need here,” he said.
Nolan says the fact he’s worked there for so long and is still, essentially, the new guy, is indicative of what even Ocean Choice will acknowledge is a major problem with the fishery in general and Marystown specifically: its aging workforce.
As technology improves, enabling plants to do more with less — and as quotas decline, meaning there is less to do in the first place — fewer workers are needed in the fishery. And younger workers opt for paths other than the ones their parents and grandparents took — into trades, into technology, and in many cases out of the province, lured by jobs that promise year-round, less backbreaking work.
“I find myself now, 45, at the bottom of the seniority list, with 25 years’ service to this fish processing plant. And it’s ironic that I am the young guy at this plant, at 45, with 25 years,” he said.
For the workers, shivering outside the plant’s gates as the sun sets and a frigid December wind swirls up, the timing of the announcement — less than a month before Christmas — is a final kick in the teeth. Unlike in Port Union — where the plant had been closed since it was buffeted by hurricane Igor more than a year ago — the announcement of the Marystown closure was more of a surprise than an inevitability.
“I think that was harsh,” said Rowlands. “That was harsh on the people. Nobody expected it at the time. They never gave us no indication that that was the case.”
But just like in Port Union, the closure means a much more subdued holiday celebration this year, said Rowlands.
“Everybody’s holding back on the bit of money they’ve got,” he said. “Right now most everybody’s filing more claims on EI, and I think it’s really affecting everybody.”
Grandy, with two sons and four grandchildren, says Christmas will still be Christmas, despite the closure. “I was never one to believe that you splurge at Christmas. Not that I’m a Grinch or anything,” he said. “My children tell me, ‘Dad, you enjoy this Christmas. We’ll take it one day at a time.’”
While Fisheries Minister Darin King weighs Ocean Choice’s Fortune proposal, Grandy, like many of the other workers, is hoping for better news in the new year.
“I made a living while I was there, and the good lord willing, in the new year I’ll find something to keep me working until I’m old enough to retire,” he said. “There’s always someone a lot worse off than me.”
In Saturday’s Telegram: Beyond the workers — How the broader communities of Port Union and Marystown are dealing with the plant closures.
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