The following are my comments at a news conference this morning (Sept. 12th) at the Fishermen's Centre in Petty Harbour.
Thank you for coming out.
First off, I want to send our condolences to the families of the four fishermen lost last week from Shea Heights.
Such horrendous tragedies are all too common in Newfoundland and Labrador.
We grieve, as the family of Shea Heights grieves, as the entire province grieves.
My name is Ryan Cleary and I called this news conference as a result of growing unrest within the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery.
I'm here with Jason Sullivan, a fisherman from Bay Bulls, and Richard and Joyce Gillett, a fishing family from Twillingate.
There’s been unrest in the fishing industry for a generation — since the collapse of the northern cod fishery in 1992, and well before that.
But the unrest today amongst fish harvesters specifically is escalating — today it’s higher and more widespread than I’ve ever seen it.
Fishermen from one end of the province to the other have had enough.
They’re desperate, at the end of their rope, and ready to revolt.
Too many fishermen are at their breaking point with nothing to lose.
Fishermen are at the breaking point in terms of their ability to make a living from the sea — quotas are down and government and union fees are constantly up.
They’re also at the edge in terms of representation (or lack thereof) from their union — the Fish, Food and Allied Workers.
That’s specifically why you’re called here today — unrest within the FFAW.
Fishermen say the FFAW does not work for them.
They include scallop harvesters from the Great Northern Peninsula and southern Labrador who actually took their own union to court (and won) over a compensation fund for lost fishing grounds in the Strait of Belle Isle.
They include harvesters from the south coast who say the union failed to represent them in regaining access to scallop beds on the St. Pierre Bank.
The union hasn’t fought for them.
They include fishermen from the northeast coast who are still shaking their heads over the rules governing this year’s cod fishery.
The rules don’t work for them.
Worse, the fishermen say they weren’t consulted.
There is no consultation, and what little there is seems to be a formality for decisions that already have been made behind closed doors.
There is no transparency, and too many fish harvesters fear repercussions for speaking out.
What good is a union that doesn’t represent its members?
That’s the question fishermen are asking themselves.
The FFAW has warped into a corporation heavily sponsored by the Government of Canada, to the tune of millions of dollars a year — a company more interested with feeding itself than representing the best interests of its membership.
The FFAW has lost its way.
The FFAW represents most of the province’s fishery workers — fishermen, fish plant workers, and trawler men.
Which has always been seen as a conflict, a delicate balance.
The FFAW is a conflict of interest wrapped in a mystery inside a huge puzzle with pieces missing — the missing pieces being fish, of course. (Apologies to Winston Churchill for fiddling with his quote.)
The FFAW receives untold millions of dollars a year from various federal departments to administer fisheries programs in the province.
At the same time, the union is expected to hold Ottawa to account for its day-to-day management and overall policy decisions.
That’s a conflict of interest that doesn’t work for fishermen.
There’s too much suspicion, and no trust.
The conflict undermines the faith of thousands of fishery workers in — not only their union — but the entire industry.
Normal checks and balances that accompany a regular union-management dynamic can be compromised when funds change hands between the two, negatively impacting the entire fishing industry.
The federal Auditor General was asked to investigate federal funds directed to the FFAW, but his office declined, referring the concerns to DFO auditors.
The Canadian Labour Congress was also asked to investigate one of its member unions, but they have yet to respond.
There is no entity in this country charged with policing unions — besides the unions themselves, in this case the FFAW.
Another conflict — a long-standing sore point — is the awarding of a controversial crab quota in the mid-1990s to a company with extremely close ties to the FFAW.
Just how close those union ties are to the FFAW was only leaned in recent months through an ATIP request.
The then vice-president of the FFAW’s deepsea sector wrote DFO in 1995 asking that priority access to the developing offshore crab fishery be given to struggling trawler men.
The trawler men didn’t get a quota in 1995, so Ches Cribb wrote again the next year asking again for a snow crab quota.
But that time he asked — not as VP of the FFAW’s Deepsea sector — but as president of a private company, Offshore Fish Resource Harvesters.
And he got a crab quota.
That company initially presented itself to DFO as a co-operative, but the description would appear to be a misrepresentation.
The company's crab quota has been renewed every since since 1996 and profits over that time would be in the millions of dollars.
Where have those profits gone?
Who knows, fishermen don’t know.
Transparency is another huge issue with the FFAW — there is none.
The FFAW’s revenue sources include a hell of a lot more than union dues.
Just last week it was learned that an FFAW-controlled company responsible for overseeing the provincewide Dockside Monitoring Program paid the union almost $5.7 million over 10 years for “shrimp grading and crab research fees."
That’s even though the Fish Harvesters’ Resource Centres (or FRC) is a not-for-profit company created in 1993 strictly to verify fish landings.
Further, the bulk of the FRC’s revenue comes from fishermen, who are charged a fee for dockside monitoring based on species and catch.
The news raises the question whether fishermen have been overcharged for dockside monitoring, which is mandatory as a condition of licensing.
The FFAW has yet to respond to any of these charges.
I have been contacted for months by fishermen around the province who’s asked me — who’ve pleaded with me — to investigate whether they could break from the FFAW and form their own union.
A union for fish harvesters only.
A union whose function isn’t to administer the fisheries, a union whose function isn’t to manage the fisheries.
But a union solely responsible for representing the interests of its membership.
I’ve consulted with the Labour Relations Board and such a move is possible.
It would be a monumental challenge — a David vs. Goliath challenge — but it is possible.
This news conference is to announce two public meetings for fish harvesters interested in the formation of a new union — specifically for them.
The first public meeting will be held on Sept. 19th at the Corner Brook Legion, with the second meeting scheduled for the next day, Sept. 20th, at the Clarenville Inn.
I’ve consulted with hundreds of fishermen around the province, but now it’s time to fish or cut bait, it’s time to be counted.
The message delivered at those two public meetings — in terms of the turn out and message — will determine whether we move forward from here.
If fish harvesters want their own stand-alone union, then come to those meetings and say so.