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It’s dues or die for breakaway Newfoundland fish harvester's union

Ryan Cleary, president of the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador, speaks to reporters in St. John’s Wednesday.
Ryan Cleary, president of the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador, speaks to reporters in St. John’s Wednesday. - Joe Gibbons

FISH-NL says it can’t continue fight for certification to represent inshore fishermen without collecting membership dues

The time has come to see how serious inshore fish harvesters across the province are about turning their complaints on the wharf into real action for change, says the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador (FISH-NL).

And that means putting their money where their mouths are.

FISH-NL says it plans to move forward with a second application to the province’s Labour Relations Board for certification in 2019, but it cannot do so unless inshore harvesters agree to pay monthly membership dues — $24 per month.

Without a minimum of 500 fishermen and fisherwomen paying monthly membership dues, FISH-NL will have to fold.

And that, says FISH-NL president Ryan Cleary, would bring to an end the best opportunity fish harvesters had in decades to have a union that properly represents their interest.

“Inshore harvesters have had a glimpse of what an accountable and a transparent union with only their interests at play can mean for them,” Cleary said Wednesday. “The (Fish Food and Allied Workers’ union — FFAW-Unifor) remains a union that has lost its way. That hasn’t changed from when FISH-NL began this two years ago. The FFAW remains entangled in too many conflicts of interest to even begin to untangle … The FFAW is so conflicted that inshore harvesters are rock-bottom on the union’s priority list.”

Late last month the Labour Relations Board dismissed FISH-NL’s certification application.

FISH-NL had argued that the real number of working inshore fish harvesters in the province was about 4,500 — a number that meant the 2,372 union cards signed by FISH-NL supporters would be enough to call for a formal vote among fish harvesters for who they wanted to represent them.

The FFAW had argued the bargaining unit has closer to 10,000 members, to which the labour board agreed.

In a news release at the time, FFAW-Unifor said the board’s decision “confirmed FFAW-Unifor's longstanding assertion that there are nearly 10,000 inshore fish harvesters in our province, which clearly shows that FISH-NL did not have adequate support to warrant a vote."

Cleary said while FISH-NL disagrees with the Labour Relations Board’s decision, what it does is set the rules of the game for a second application.

“I know that there’s support at the wharf. Everyone knows there are massive problems with the FFAW-Unifor,” Cleary said. “But the time has come to either do something about that or watch the fishery continue to slip away.

“We may not agree with the rules of the game as set by the Labour Relations Board or the vote process, but at least we know what they are. We have Goliath where we want him. But FISH-NL can’t do this for fishermen, we can only do this with fishermen.

“It is up to inshore harvesters to decide. The ball is back in their court. FISH-NL’s first application for certification was funded by donations from harvesters and their families and their friends, and from concerned citizens. There were two GoFundMe campaigns. A second application cannot be funded that way. We cannot do that again.”

Cleary said members of the FISH-NL executive and volunteers have begun calling harvesters to invite them to pay monthly dues to keep FISH-NL working. By the end of the month, if there’s insufficient support, FISH-NL will have to tie up for good.

Twillingate fish harvester Richard Gillett, vice-president of FISH-NL, said rural communities around Newfoundland and Labrador are fighting for survival and inshore harvesters in those communities need a union that will stand up to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to push for more and better fisheries science, and challenge what they believe are decisions detrimental to the inshore fishery in this province.

“One of the troubling things we are seeing on the wharf and in the communities is they’ve been under this regime, I’ll call it, for decades where you try to get something done, you try to fight, and you get on deaf ears,” he said. “It seems like the people’s spirit is broken. You beat your head against the wall once you realize you are going to get hit. We are not listened to. That’s where FISH-NL spawned from. We were trying to get things done.

“I think for one last time fishermen need to get that hope, that spirit, that fight back into them and see if we can’t change this. This is our last stand.”

Southern Harbour fish harvester Peter Leonard said they need an organization just for fish harvesters.

“You can complain all you want when this is over, but this is a one-time thing,” Leonard said in a message to fellow fish harvesters. “And if you truly want something different, something concrete, something transparent, something for the fish harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador, you are going to have to make a financial contribution. But if you choose not to contribute now, FISH-NL will have to fold.”

Related story:

Board dismisses FISH-NL certification application

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