Tension mounts between OCI, union as workers blockade vessel
Fishermen stand at the dock in Bay Roberts on Monday. More than 50 unionized crew members from the fishing trawler Newfoundland Lynx have been locked out by Ocean Choice International. — Photo by Terry Roberts/The Compass
Tension between the fisheries union and Ocean Choice International (OCI) has reached new heights as a standoff unfolds on the dock in Bay Roberts and an escalating war of words is waged by officials on both sides.
Some 30 unionized crew members — most of whom are from the Burin Peninsula — of the fishing trawler Newfoundland Lynx initiated a blockade of the vessel Sunday after the company locked out the workers and attempted to bring in a replacement crew.
The replacement workers were being transported to Bay Roberts aboard taxis Sunday, but they turned around after being stopped by the RCMP and notified of the blockade.
The locked-out workers are vowing to prevent “scab labourers” from boarding the trawler, and say they’ll continue their blockade for as long as it takes.
Union defying injunction: company
The company, meanwhile, says the union is defying an ongoing court injunction by blockading the vessel, and is asking authorities to enforce the injunction so it can carry on its business.
It’s the latest flare-up in an industry dominated in recent months by controversy and uncertainty in places such as Marystown and Port Union.
The Lynx, which is owned by OCI, is an offshore shrimp trawler that offloads its catch in Bay Roberts and has about 52 unionized employees on two crews.
The workers, who go to sea for up to 60 days each time, have been without a contract for about six years.
On Friday, the crew voted unanimously to take strike action, and informed the company job action would begin Monday.
But the company pressed ahead with plans to sail the vessel Sunday, and mobilized a new crew of “regular, professional fishermen who have been fishing on boats like this their whole lives,” OCI chief executive officer Martin Sullivan told the media Monday.
But there were no signs Monday morning union workers were willing to budge. They had erected a heated tent on the dock, and vowed to stand their ground in order to protect their jobs.
“They’re not letting it go. It’s as simple as that,” stated Roland Hedderson, a staff representative with the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) union. None of the workers would agree to an interview.
The union claims the company is attempting to remove the shrimp quotas from the Lynx and have the catch harvested by a non-unionized vessel.
What’s more, it says the company wants the Lynx to harvest redfish, which is lower in value and could result in a loss of earnings of up to 40 per cent.
The company is in negotiations with the provincial government, hoping to export unprocessed redfish outside the country for processing.
FFAW president Earle McCurdy described the company’s actions Monday as “the most anti-union attack I’ve experienced in my time with the union.”
Both sides have accused the other of acting recklessly and being out of control, with Martin calling the union’s actions as “pressure tactics to try to bring us to our economic knees.”
Sullivan said the dispute was “much larger than the Lynx,” and was linked to the company’s decision not to reopen plants in Marystown or Port Union, and efforts
to export unprocessed fish products.
OCI even went so far in a news release Monday as to accuse the union of trying to bring down the company.
“It is clear that the union has moved on in an effort to destroy this important fishing company because of their refusal to negotiate an agreement on the Lynx,” said the release.
But Sullivan said the company has a responsibility “to the over 1,000 people who work with us to continue with our business.”
McCurdy accused the company of having an agenda to “corporatize” the fishery, to the detriment of workers in this province.
Meanwhile, an RCMP official said it was not yet clear whether an injunction brought down by the court last fall is still valid.
To clarify the situation the FFAW launched an application in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador on Monday asking for direction on the matter and the right to continue its picket.
The RCMP also took the unusual step Monday of issuing a pre-emptive news release specific to the situation — basically voicing its hope that it will remain peaceful.
“The RCMP is committed to ensuring the public’s safety and keeping the peace during any protest in Bay Roberts. All parties are allowed to negotiate in good faith and the RCMP looks forward to a quick and peaceful resolution to this matter,” stated the release.
The situation has also prompted backlash from politicians and labour leaders. Both opposition parties slammed OCI’s move to hire replacement workers.
Liberal fisheries critic Jim Bennett suggested in a news release that the company’s move was nothing more than a distraction tactic.
“One has to question why this company would be engaged in such a brazen move when they are trying to secure a positive decision from the province on fish export exemptions,” said Bennett.
“I would suspect that they are trying to create a diversion to take attention away the plant closures in Marystown and Port Union and from their request to ship out whole yellowtail and redfish.”
Meanwhile, in addition to criticizing OCI, NDP fisheries critic Christopher Mitchelmore and labour critic Dale Kirby called on the province to introduce anti-replacement worker legislation.
“This aggressiveness is what people in the fishing industry have come to expect from OCI,” says Mitchelmore.
“This company puts profit ahead of everything else, and it may be time for government to take community-based solutions more seriously.”
The Newfoundland and Lab-rador Federation of Labour re-leased a statement echoing the NDP’s call for “anti-scab labour” legislation.
Federation president Lana Payne stated that OCI’s behaviour “is giving labour relations in our province a black eye.”
Fisheries Minister Darin King is in transit back to the province and was not available for comment.