Angry Fortune fish plant workers urged the union Monday to sign off on a proposal from Ocean Choice International (OCI) that would create 110 jobs, but send 75 per cent of its yellowtail catch out of the province unprocessed.
Two buses carried about 45 workers and their supporters to rallies in St. John’s, at the Confederation Building and at the headquarters the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union (FFAW). Union management does not support Ocean Choice’s proposal, arguing it ships out too much unprocessed fish, opens the door for foreign vessels fishing groundfish, and is a short-term solution for the people of Fortune at the cost of union members elsewhere in the province.
At the Confederation Building on Monday morning, Fortune Mayor Charles Penwell accused the union of treating the workers, who voted last week in support of Ocean Choice’s proposal, as pawns.
“You people are the people who will be working at OCI, and the people who will be out of work if this proposal does not go through,” he told the crowd. “It’s your livelihood. A chance for 110 basically full-time, year-round jobs is nothing to be laughed at in rural Newfoundland.”
Union local president Karen Caines said workers need government support to get Ocean Choice’s proposal accepted.
“We want to stay home,” she said, her voice breaking noticeably through the megaphone she used to address the crowd on the steps of the Confederation Building.
“We do not want to have to leave our homes, our families, our friends, to go elsewhere to get employment when we’ve got an employment opportunity in our own town, and we are good workers, and we can make that company work for Ocean Choice International. All we want is the opportunity to do so.”
Plant worker Winston Matchim said people in Fortune just want to get back to work, and the Ocean Choice proposal — which would see 75 per cent of yellowtail shipped out unprocessed, with the remaining 25 per cent to be processed in Fortune — would let them do that.
“It seems like the union doesn’t agree with shipping out the yellowtails, but there’s other species of fish that’s being shipped out besides, like turbot, and redfish and other species, so what’s the difference in shipping out yellowtails?” he said.
At times, emotions ran high. NDP fisheries critic Chris Mitchelmore was jeered when he told workers the OCI proposal is a bad one that could mean foreign fishing trawlers with foreign crews shipping more unprocessed fish out of province.
“You put yourself in our position, and I hope someday you will be able to come back to me and say, ‘Now I’m in your position,’ with no job after 39 years working in the friggin’ fishery, and now I got no job?” yelled plant worker Marie Grandy. “You come back to me, honey, when you’re down to where I’m to today.”
Grandy told The Telegram the jobs would be wonderful for Fortune and the Burin Peninsula, and that’s why she got heated with Mitchelmore.
“He don’t understand or he don’t want to understand the position that we’re in. When you’ve got a small amount of EI coming in and you’re trying to live on that. Three hundred dollars a week is better than $200 a week.”
Mitchelmore said people’s jobs are on the line, and not just in Fortune.
“Being the New Democratic Party, the party for the worker and for people, I felt as the fisheries critic on this huge issue I should come down and at least give them the opportunity to know that I am concerned of what’s happening, and to hear their views,” he said. “We can have a better deal than what’s currently being done.”
Former Fortune resident Vera Miller, who now lives in St. John’s, attended the rally in support of the workers.
“I support the deal, hoping the deal will be signed so they can get back to work and have a future for themselves,” she said.
Grand Bank resident Katherine Pierce — who works in Fortune — said workers are fighting to save the livelihood of the town.
“Some families have to go away to look for jobs, which it shouldn’t have to be, where the plant is in Fortune,” she said, adding that 110 jobs would mean a lot to families in the region. “They’ve got children going to school. They’ve got children in university. So if the plant is not open, what are they supposed to do? Social services is not going to do nothing. Social services is only starvation.”
A delegation of workers and supporters, including Grandy and Penwell, met with new Fisheries Minister Derrick Dalley — his first official job in the portfolio since last week’s cabinet shuffle — and former fisheries minister Darin King, as the MHA for the Grand Bank district on the Burin Peninsula. Workers want the provincial government to agree to the Ocean Choice proposal, but King and Dalley both said the government will make that decision only if an agreement can’t be reached with union management.
“I was very clear from the beginning that we felt that if we could arrive at a consensus to the decision, it would be an easier spot for the government to move forward, instead of the criticism we’re probably going to get anyway,” said King. “It would have been my hope, and expectation, personally that Fortune workers would have been treated identically to the Marystown workers. When Marystown workers were given a proposal, they voted. If they had accepted, it would have went forward. In this case, they rejected.”
King said the government has fought harder for Fortune workers than the union has.
“We’re the ones that are trying to move forward in the best interests of the workers. The point on the union is that they’re standing on principle, so they claim,” he said. “We all saw what happened when they stood on principle in Marystown — 250 jobs gone. So are we going to stand on principle in Fortune and lose 110 jobs? What’s next? Do we stand on principle in Arnold’s Cove and see the close of that groundfish facility? Do we stand on principle out in other fish plants? What’s the value of your principles when you’re going to just take people’s lives and throw it to one side and say, ‘I can’t help you, I’m standing on principle?’ There has to be a compromise at some point in time.”
Dalley, who has meetings scheduled soon with both the union and the company, said the decision will be made “in coming days.”
“I’ve been on the job for a couple of hours now, and for me it’s a great opportunity to hear their concerns and some of their history,” he said. “I’m looking forward to meeting with OCI and meeting with the FFAW and hear it from them as well directly, and from there we’ll take a look at the whole issue and see what kind of decision we’re going to make.”
Union president addresses workers
Things were no less heated when the workers rallied at the Hamilton Avenue offices of the union in the early afternoon, where union president Earle McCurdy stood in front of the crowd of angry workers, who accused him of not caring about their jobs.
Angus Stacey, a Fortune businessman — who angrily shouted that if the union doesn’t accept the deal that McCurdy should stay on the St. John’s side of the overpass — said Ocean Choice’s proposal would revitalize the region.
“A hundred and ten jobs would put Fortune back on the map, sir,” Stacey told the Telegram. “Our infrastructure and all the things in the town are getting so bad, and those people haven’t got the money. They’re watching all this Alberta money come, but they’ve got to stand by their plant to keep this plant open.”
Those people who can’t move away for jobs elsewhere need jobs in Fortune, he said.
“If you’re living in a fishing town for the last 40 years, and slowly and slowly and slowly you’re watching your industry die, and you’ve got those people that are making the decisions for you, telling you what you can and can’t do? Sure, they’ve done that now for the last
30 years, and that’s why we’re in the position we’re in.”
Some of the placards held by workers and supporters called into question Earle McCurdy’s leadership.
“He’s not willing to listen. McCurdy is not willing to listen,” said Stacey. “If he can’t do any better job than what he’s doing, he should go. That’s my opinion. He’s washed up.”
McCurdy said union management is being unfairly scapegoated for the lack of an agreement, and that Ocean Choice has no flexibility on its proposal.
“Their position was all they wanted to hear from us was yes or no, we’re either for it as it is or we’re against it,” he said. “We didn’t just simply say we’re against it, we said here’s ideas we think as to how and try and deal with what is obviously a very difficult situation.”
McCurdy said chartering a Canadian vessel for Ocean Choice’s proposal would be fine, but the proposal makes it too easy to turn to foreign vessels if a Canadian vessel isn’t available. Workers can’t be against foreign fishing vessels and in favour of Ocean Choice’s proposal, said McCurdy.
“If a company can say that if times are tough we’ll bring in foreigners to catch fish, then thereafter it’s only a matter of degree,” he said. “The door is open, and quite frankly, I think open permanently.”
A request for comment from Ocean Choice CEO Martin Sullivan on Monday afternoon was not returned.