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Russell Wangersky: FISH-NL goes cap in hand

['FISH-NL reached its GoFundMe goal to raise $16,000 after five days this afternoon. Fish-NL president Ryan Cleary said the breakaway group continues to receive support from around the province.']
['FISH-NL reached its GoFundMe goal to raise $16,000 after five days this afternoon. Fish-NL president Ryan Cleary said the breakaway group continues to receive support from around the province.']

It’s a drop in the bucket. If the breakaway union FISH-NL raises enough money from its supporters to fight this round in its labour battle with the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW), it’s not really the end of the fundraising. They’ll probably have to come back for more.

Russell Wangersky

You don’t have to be a union expert to see what’s happening: the FFAW’s starting strategy, most likely, is to use inertia to financially grind down their new rival.

Earlier this week, FISH-NL went public with the fact that they are nearly broke, asking people to cough up between $50 and $150 apiece to keep the fight going.

“The bulk of funds raised will be used to pay for legal fees, which could reach well over $100,000 during the potentially months-long certification process,” FISH-NL said in its news release. “Funds will also be used to operate FISH-NL’s office until the conclusion of the certification process, at which point the union will be fuelled by membership dues.”

They definitely need the money.

Labour relations hearings are a long and expensive process; if Cleary and Co. get the $100,000 they want, it will be gone faster than anyone thinks. Just one day in front of this province’s Labour Relations Board can cost thousands of dollars, once you factor in legal fees and, witness pre-interviews and preparation time.

But that’s only the beginning: you can expect that the FFAW will fight the wannabe breakaway fish harvesters every step of the way.

Even if Cleary’s crew doesn’t recognize it yet, the FFAW knows exactly how much it costs to be a successful breakaway union.

In 1987, when the FFAW broke away from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and joined the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), the UFCW alone estimated its costs of fighting the battle at $12 million, just between 1987 and 1989 (that’s in 1989 dollars — equivalent to $20.3 million in 2016 dollars).

And that’s before the court costs started to pile up.

Because after that, the UFCW fought the FFAW and Richard Cashin in the courts for another 12 years — the court of appeal called it “perhaps the longest civil trial ever in this province.”

The difference here, of course, is that the FFAW had the full support of the CAW from the very beginning. As a judge in the court case wrote, “The first step in the attempt to disaffiliate Local 1252 was a meeting between Cashin and Robert White, president of the CAW, on Feb. 23, 1987.” Shortly afterwards, White “offered his organizational support for Cashin’s move to take Local 1252 out of the UFCW and to obtain a charter from the CAW.”

Cleary, meanwhile, hopes to win the fight on donations from fish harvesters who are already strapped for cash.

To use an old turn of phrase, he may have bitten off more than he can chew.

And while we’re on the subject of turns of phrase, here’s one last point.

Cleary apparently has a love of turns of phrase, which is probably why FISH-NL’s fundraising call is named “Fish or Cut Bait” and the group calls itself “the salt-and-pepper revolution” — even though most of its membership is probably more comfortable in baseball caps than in the knitted salt-and-pepper hats of days past. Sometimes, Cleary’s takes can be a little convoluted, like “The FFAW is a conflict of interest wrapped in a mystery inside a huge puzzle with pieces missing, the missing pieces being fish.”

While union fights are often down and dirty, one of Cleary’s more common turns of phrase is not only offensive, but is one that I’m surprised hasn’t led to court action.

Cleary has taken to characterizing the FFAW as “the salt-water mafia.”

Cleary is a former reporter and editor who understands the implications of libel law. It’s surprising he would risk his own  — and his organization’s — shaky fiscal foundation by giving the FFAW another opportunity for court action.

Cleary is saying that the FFAW is an organized criminal enterprise — he says it publicly, and his organization puts it in writing in news releases.

The mafia has been implicated in everything from drug running to prostitution to murder.

The FFAW? None of the above.

It’s not cute, it’s not funny, and it would be interesting if Cleary had to answer for it.


Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at — Twitter: @Wangersky.

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