'They're not relevant': Fisheries union boss says Ryan Cleary desperate for a headline

The war of words is heating up once again between rival unions fighting to represent inshore harvesters in Newfoundland and Labrador.

FISH-NL president takes credit for recent decisions in the fishery, says he's now receiving a paycheque

The two faces of a protracted labour battle in Newfoundland and Labrador are FFAW president Keith Sullivan (left) and Ryan Cleary, president of FISH-NL. (CBC)

It's been nine months since a bare knuckles battle began over the right to represent inshore harvesters in Newfoundland and Labrador, and both sides say they want a deciding round to start soon.

The upstart Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador (FISH-NL) is waging a fight to bust up the powerful Fish, Food and Allied Workers union (FFAW), and there's no end in sight to this very public feud.

FISH-NL has applied to the labour relations board for a certification vote so harvesters can decide once and for all who they want to represent their interests.

We have a situation where you've got 2,500 harvesters who are connected to FISH-NL who are invisible to the FFAW. That is a ridiculous situation.- Ryan Cleary

But that process has dragged on for months, with the board only saying that it's an ongoing matter.

"We have a situation where you've got 2,500 harvesters who are connected to FISH-NL who are invisible to the FFAW," said FISH-NL president Ryan Cleary.

"That is a ridiculous situation. That's why we've been saying the labour relations board has to call a vote as soon as possible." 

FFAW president Keith Sullivan agrees, but his take is that 75 per cent of voters rejected FISH-NL, and its application should be rejected.

"I think the labour board should move quickly," he said. "Sooner rather than later would be in everyone's best interest."

Fishery limping from crisis to crisis

It's all playing out as the fishing industry limps its way through crisis after crisis — including drastic quota cuts that some suggest will lead to bankruptcies, disputes over prices, desperate pleas for financial aid, and ice conditions not seen in generations.    

In one corner, FISH-NL and its outspoken president are acting like they already represent harvesters, and say they are getting results.

FISH-NL president Ryan Cleary is shown delivering membership cards to the labour relations board in St. John's in December 2016. (CBC)

"They bring me problems and we help solve their problems as best we can. We are a union right now," said Cleary, who added that his lobbying efforts have also helped influence recent decisions such as ice compensation for harvesters and an extension to the crab season.

Cleary is also running a busy media campaign, with regular news releases as part of a no-holds-barred crusade to try and discredit the FFAW.

The latest dust-up involves the FFAW's links to the oil industry, with Cleary alleging the union is in a conflict of interest over a recent escort contract for Hebron, and suggesting the FFAW is "bought and paid for" for its silence relating to record seismic surveying in the offshore.

"Thousands of kilometres of ocean is going to be experiencing seismic activity and you don't hear a peep from the FFAW," Cleary alleged.

Sullivan says FISH-NL 'not relevant'

In the other corner is the FFAW, the powerful fisheries union affiliated with Unifor, Canada's large private sector union.

The FFAW represents inshore harvesters and those who work in the processing sector, but a successful campaign by FISH-NL would radically alter the labour landscape in the industry.

Keith Sullivan is the face of the union, and the man trying to prevent that from happening.

He's trying to make accusations of conflicts just to get a headline. Get out in the media, prove they're relevant when most people see they're not relevant at this moment.- Keith Sullivan

He said Ryan Cleary's latest attack is nothing more than grandstanding.

"I think it shows Ryan Cleary's ignorance of the importance of the fishing industry and, in some ways, the oil industry in this province," Sullivan said.

"First of all, he's certainly trying to make accusations of conflicts just to get a headline. [He wants to] get out in the media [and] prove they're relevant, when most people see they're not relevant at this moment."

FFAW has 'serious concerns' with oil industry

Sullivan denied that the union is too cozy with big oil, or that it's too quiet when it comes to oil exploration.

"We've had serious concerns with seismic for some time, and have expressed them at many, many different venues. We've been successful in having seismic operators move away from areas that are sensitive fishing grounds and spawning areas. We certainly have serious concerns about that and anyone who's paying attention for a number of years would have seen this," said Sullivan.

Sullivan said it's important that the union work with oil companies to ensure there are no negative interactions between two very important industries in this province.

He said that's a big task, often with big costs.

"What's his response? That we charge our members?" Sullivan asked.

Cleary on the FISH-NL payroll

This high octane labour conflict appears destined to carry on for months, begging the question: how long can this bare-bones upstart continue the fight against the powerful and well-funded FFAW?

It was just three months ago that Cleary and company issued a desperate plea for financial help from harvesters, with one leader saying the group was "weeks away" from financial collapse.

It's not clear how much money was raised, but it was certainly enough for FISH-NL to keep the lights on, and even to begin paying Cleary a salary.

Cleary said times are hard, but harvesters have come through.

"I put my whole life into this, into what we're doing right now, and I get a small paycheque," he said.

"I have to pay the bills, just like everybody else. I'm paid twelve hundred dollars a week. That's what I make."

About the Author

Terry Roberts

CBC News

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.