For the fish plant workers of Marystown, it is line-in-the-sand time. No more race to the bottom.
Their stand has exposed what has been a long-festering issue in Newfoundland and Labrador society — the rural/urban prosperity divide.
Last week, they protested for days, often in the wet and the cold, on a wharf in Bay Roberts, preventing one of their employer’s trawlers from departing for an offshore redfish trip. But it was not just this protest that has brought attention to this issue of sharing economic prosperity.
It was the determination and, yes, the struggle etched in the faces of these workers, so many of them women, who have toiled for decades at their work while the various owners of their plant made a handsome living, and then some.
And now said owners no longer need their labour.
They can make more money shipping our fish across the planet to be processed by Chinese workers, who earn a fraction of the Marystown workers — who, in turn, earn less than they did a decade ago.
But there they stood: 55-year-old and 60-year-old women with 40 years of work under their belts — decades of working on cold and wet concrete fish plant floors. The kind of work that ages you before your time. The kind of work that breaks a person’s body — repetitive strain injuries, back pain, stiff joints. The kind of work that doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
Know the fight
These workers know all about struggle and hardship and fighting back.
They know all about defending jobs for their rural community.
This isn’t the first time they’ve had to do so.
They know what it’s like to punch a hard day’s work; to raise a family; to send kids to university or college on a fish plant worker’s wages. And to take pride from their work; to hold their heads up high. They know this, too.
They know all about fish merchants and corporate power. They also know they are in for a tough battle. Their employer carries a lot of debt. Past lessons tell us that the fishery and debt just don’t mix. It makes the economic downturns more difficult to weather.
For workers, it has never been a good mix.
They always get stuck with the consequences or the economic hardship associated with bad management, bad decisions, currency fluctuations and globalization.
The owners, on the other hand, always seem to come out relatively unscathed.
Time for a change
The race to the bottom on wages and jobs, the workers say, must be stopped.
And who can blame them? They have given a multitude of concessions to their employer in the past decade and it is never enough. The company just keeps coming back for more and more and more.
The employer, Ocean Choice International, wants another special exemption from the provincial government in order to export for processing to China and the United States about 80 per cent of the entire yellowtail quota the company has been given a special privilege to catch. OCI is already exporting 50 per cent of the yellowtail quota and all of its redfish allocation. The workers agreed to this condition in exchange for a promise of decent employment in their plant. A promise the employer no longer wants to keep.
Not just an election slogan
The workers argue our province’s resources, including fishery resources, should be used to maximize economic benefits right here at home or leave the resource in the water. No more giveaways, they say, cannot be just an election slogan.
They believe that government does have a public policy role to play in the fishery and in working to develop a strategy for a viable and prosperous fishing industry and, in turn, a viable and prosperous rural Newfoundland and Labrador.
The future of coastal Newfoundland and Labrador cannot be left to the marketplace or debt-ridden fishing companies.
And, yes, a little oil wealth can go a long way in defending rural Newfoundland and Labrador. After all, for generations in our province the wealth from the fishery supported almost everything else.
Premier Kathy Dunderdale might remember a similar time, a similar battle — a time when she was a community leader. A time when the workers, the town council and the citizens of her town also drew a line in the sand or dug a ditch around their fish plant preventing the owner from taking equipment.
In the end, the workers and the town won. They won because they drew a line in the sand. They stood up to corporate power.
It may have been 30 years ago, but the circumstances are not a lot different. Perhaps what these stories tell us is we need a different development model for the fishery like the co-operative-based model at the heart of the Labrador Fishermen’s Union Shrimp Company. It was a bold and progressive decision in the 1970s and it would be a bold and progressive move today.
But that means putting the people’s interests ahead of corporate interests.
Lana Payne is president of the
Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at
Her column returns Oct. 8.