Nfld. & Labrador

'David vs. Goliath': FISH-NL applies for union status, mum on numbers

Representatives of a breakaway union for fish harvesters in the province applied for certification Friday, but FFAW says they don't have the support.

Breakaway union still won't release specifics on membership numbers

FISH-NL President Ryan Cleary, along with harvesters Peter Leonard (far left) and Jason Sullivan (far right) held a press conference Friday morning following the submission of the breakaway union's application to the Labour Relations Board. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Ryan Cleary led the charge as FISH-NL, a breakaway faction of FFAW members, applied to become the certified bargaining agent for Newfoundland and Labrador's fish harvesters Friday morning, but he is still refusing to give hard numbers on the level of support for his group.

The Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, meanwhile, is questioning whether the upstart union has the numbers to proceed with certification.

"We feel we have the support of all inshore harvesters that we know of," Cleary told reporters in St. John's Friday.

Refusing to reveal how many people lined up behind his organization, he instead highlighted in general terms the support he received at meetings — some of which were sparsely attended.

"We certainly have the support of more than 80 per cent of all harvesters we encountered, but there are few certainties in this process."

Cleary, a former NDP MP and Progressive Conservative candidate in the last provincial election, is president of the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters, or FISH-NL, which has been harshly critical of the FFAW.

Thursday was the deadline for harvesters to submit signed FISH-NL membership cards.

Cleary arrived at the Labour Relations Board's office at the Beothuck Building shortly after 10 a.m. Friday, with a wooden saltfish box full of cards signed by fishers from across the province.

Lacking numbers: FFAW

Failing to provide membership numbers "is a clear indication to us that they don't have the support," said Dave Decker, FFAW secretary-treasurer.

The FFAW represents fish harvesters and fish processing plant workers in Newfoundland and Labrador, and is one of the most powerful unions in the province.

Cleary, who has repeatedly attacked FFAW leaders for a lack of transparency, has refused to provide specific details on his campaign, only saying FISH-NL has received "thousands" of signed cards.

He said they would not share the exact number because the FFAW would not share its numbers, so they don't know exactly how many harvesters there are.

But Decker said 10,800 harvesters are registered within the province and FISH-NL has known that for a long time.

FFAW Secretary-Treasurer Dave Decker says FISH-NL does not have enough support from fish harvesters to form a breakaway union. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The future of the fledgling union now rests with the province's Labour Relations Board. Over the coming days and weeks, the board will review FISH-NL's application and verify the membership cards.

Cleary said in order to apply, his organizers needed to be confident they had support of 50 per cent plus one of FFAW members, but a vote on creating the new union could be triggered with 40 per cent support. 

FISH-NL filed a single application to represent all fish harvesters Friday, although it had said it could submit multiple applications in an attempt to represent harvesters who sell their catches to certain companies.

"What we're attempting has been described, not as a raid of another union, but as a full-fledged revolt," said Cleary. "David versus Goliath." 

'Taking advantage'

​Decker said there's no doubt this is a challenging time for many people in the fishing industry. 

"Ryan Cleary right now is taking advantage of these kind of stresses and strains," he said. 

"When people have difficult times, they're going to look to somebody who says, 'Oh, I can make life better,' but let's be clear; they have not offered any alternative, anything that points to how they would, in a sense, make life better." 

For harvester Peter Leonard, a member of FISH-NL, whether or not they form a union is not the point. 

"Win, lose or draw after this, the harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador have gotten a victory."

Leonard said over the past decades there have never been as many people at meetings as there have been at FISH-NL's recent meetings, nor has the FFAW ever tried to engage with members to the extent FISH-NL has. 

"So it's a victory for all and I really am proud I am a part of it."

With files from Terry Roberts