Nfld. & Labrador

Clock ticking on FISH-NL's 2nd certification drive

The upstart union's second membership drive wraps up Friday, when they'll need 4,000 members to prompt a vote on certification and the chance to unseat the FFAW as the inshore fishing industry's bargaining unit.

Breakaway harvesters union needs 4,000 members by Nov. 8

FISH-NL needs 4,000 members to trigger a certification vote. (Jane Adey/CBC)

Time has almost run out for FISH-NL.

The Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters-Newfoundland and Labrador has until Friday to sign up enough members to trigger a vote on whether it should be the union to represent the province's inshore fishermen.

Union president Ryan Cleary says collecting cards has been a covert operation because people are worried about repercussions from the Fish, Food & Allied Workers union — the union FISH-NL is looking to unseat as the inshore industry's bargaining unit.

"I've had to kind of almost sneak up the garden path to go to their home to sit down in their living room and hear what they have to say … because they don't want other people in the community even to know that they're talking to FISH-NL," he told CBC in late September, when he was travelling across the province to sign up members.

The upstart union needs 4,000 signed cards by Friday to submit a certification application to the Labour Relations Board, but in a recent press release it said it's not close to that mark. It's the second attempt at certification for the union; its previous attempt fell short when it collected 2,372 cards, and the Labour Relations Board rejected its first application for a certification vote. The current drive started Aug. 12.

FISH-NL's second certification drive, which started Aug. 12, wraps up Friday. President Ryan Cleary, centre, said recently if the union doesn't get enough votes to trigger a certification vote, he'll step down. (Jane Adey/CBC)

Cleary said harvesters have reason to be fearful.

"We already know there have been repercussions. Anybody who signed a card in 2016 wasn't allowed to run for the executive of the FFAW when they had their elections."

But FFAW president Keith Sullivan says FISH-NL is having trouble because breaking up a union is not a decision most harvesters would take lightly.

"I think it's been a lot of empty promises, and people got to think very clearly about what it took years and years for harvesters in this province to build up," said Sullivan.   

"I think the only people who think that it's better to have a smaller fragmented union would be FISH-NL, and maybe fish companies, but that that's about it."

'Big issues'

Boyd Lavers, who fishes out of Port Saunders on the Northern Peninsula, signed on to FISH-NL at the very beginning. Lavers's own grandfather, George Lavers, was the very first president of the FFAW, when it was called the Northern Fishermen's Union.

"I dearly loved the man, and I'm here trying to basically tear down something that he helped create. If he was still alive today I think he'd be here side by side with me helping me do it."

Fisherman Donald Spence, right, fishes out of Port au Choix on the Northern Peninsula. He's backing FISH-NL to be the union representing inshore harvesters alone but says many fishers are afraid to go against the FFAW. (Jane Adey/CBC)

Lavers said he's watched the fishery get less and less profitable under the FFAW's leadership.

"Four or five years ago I was pushing around 1.3 or 1.4 million pounds of shrimp to catch. Right now I'm down to 300,000. So I mean there's big issues, big investments here," he said. 

The FFAW represents both fish harvesters and plant workers, and Lavers said a union for inshore harvesters alone would provide better representation.

The FFAW represents both inshore harvesters and plant workers. (Jane Adey/CBC)

In nearby Port au Choix, fisherman Donald Spence agrees. The trouble, he said, is most harvesters are fearful of rocking the boat.

"A lot of them are frightened to go against the FFAW because if they do, they're frightened they're going to be penalized," said Spence.

But fisherman Eldred Woodford says he can't understand why any harvester would want to divide plant workers and harvesters. He said it would just create more strife in already struggling rural communities.

"There would be times, I would imagine, that we'd be fighting against one another. I think the more we can support each other the better off this industry would be."

If it fails, Cleary steps down

While Fort Amherst fisherman Glen Winslow admits to being frustrated by diminishing fish resources, he wants plant workers and harvesters to stay united and says he's happy with the leadership from the FFAW too.

Fisherman Glen Winslow supports the leadership of the FFAW. He says harvesters are frustrated by big financial losses in the fishery but are misguided in blaming the FFAW instead of the changing environment. (Jane Adey/CBC)

"We don't have the fish to catch anymore. The fish that we want is not in the ocean anymore," said Winslow. "You can double the crab quota here but it's not there to catch." 

He said a lot of the anger directed at the FFAW is misguided, and thinks many harvesters who are under stress because of the changing ocean environment are just looking for someone to blame.

No matter who's leading harvesters, Winslow said, some issues are beyond any union's capabilities.

"If you're going to get me more fish to catch, tell me where you're getting it from. If you're going to get me more money, tell me how you're going to do it," said Winslow. 

Cleary has said that if this drive is unsuccessful, both he and vice-president Peter Leonard will be stepping down from their positions.

An end can't come soon enough for Woodford. 

"The sooner the better that this is done and dealt with once and for all," he said. "Let's move forward, because there's too much time getting wasted with dealing with the controversy between the two organizations."

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