The Fishermen's Protective Union and Politics
The political arm of the Fishermen's Protective Union was Newfoundland and
Labrador's first class-based political party. Founded by William Coaker in
1908, the FPU attempted to provide fishermen with a greater share of the wealth
that their labour produced. The Union itself was a democratic organization,
with branches in local towns electing local executives, which then chose
regional delegates to the governing body, which in turn elected the executive
officers. Rural Newfoundland and Labrador may have lacked local government,
but fraternal organizations such as the Orange Lodge provided many fishermen
with experience in working within a democratic structure. The FPU built upon
||William Coaker (1871-1938), n.d.
Coaker founded the FPU in 1908.
From Richard Hibbs, Who's Who in and from Newfoundland
1930, 2nd ed. (St. John's, Newfoundland: R. Hibbs, 1930) 65.
The FPU engaged in many economic activities that were intended to better
the lot of fishermen and loggers, and Coaker realised that if the FPU was to
achieve lasting social and economic reform it would need influence within the
government. It had its own union newspaper, which provided members with
information about the union's activities, as well as news that would enable
fishermen to bargain with merchants from a stronger position. Even before
many of the Union's businesses became established, the Union ran candidates
for election to the Assembly.
The political ambition of the FPU was on the one hand wide enough to
include adopting policies on fisheries reform and social programs, yet narrow
in the sense that the FPU strove to be an influence upon government, rather
than form a government itself. The Union chose to put forward only enough
candidates to win a block of seats in the Assembly, not a majority which would
have enabled it to form the government. By maintaining a substantial presence
in the Assembly, the FPU could choose to support either of the main parties,
depending on which pursued policies that were in the best interest of
fishermen. While the political arm of the FPU could be influential, this
decision meant that the Union could never become the government.
|The Flag of the FPU
From Richard Hibbs, Who's Who in and from Newfoundland
1930, 2nd ed. (St. John's, Newfoundland: R. Hibbs, 1930) 307.
To a certain extent, the policy of trying to hold the "balance of power"
was a recognition of a political reality. The FPU was strongest on the north
east coast of the island, an area where men often worked together each winter
in the lumber woods, the spring seal fishery and the Labrador fishery. Men
working together were able to discuss their common concerns and shared a
collective experience of exploitation. On the more populous Avalon Peninsula,
the FPU had difficulty organizing branches and did not have the support of
many voters. Fishermen and workers on the Avalon lacked the common work
experiences of the men from the North, and the Roman Catholic Church
discouraged Catholics from joining the Union. The Church hierarchy was
socially conservative and condemned the "materialism" of union movements.
Furthermore, many of the branches of the FPU had been organized at the
Protestant Orange Lodge halls, adding to the Church's suspicion that the FPU
was secretly anti-Catholic. With the combined opposition of the merchants of
Water Street, the Roman Catholic Church and the working class of St. John's,
it is unlikely that the FPU could have formed a government.
In 1912 the FPU produced a wide-ranging set of political objectives, known
as the Bonavista Platform. This radical document proposed reform in three
areas: the fishery, social policy, and governance. The FPU advocated
cooperative marketing and government-controlled fish grading, for example,
to benefit those who earned their livelihood from the fishery. On the social
front it proposed such things as improved old age pensions and reduced tariffs
upon staple foods. The Union also advocated legislative reform which would
have made politics more democratic, such as the suggestion to provide for
recall of members unpopular with their constituents, and increasing members'
pay, so men without an independent income could more easily serve in the
In 1913, in the first election in which it ran candidates, the FPU entered
into a strained alliance with the Liberals. Both of these parties had the base
of their support in the same geographic constituencies, and did not want to
split the opposition vote. Yet split the vote they did - reducing the Liberal
seats and electing eight out of nine FPU candidates who ran. The People's
party took the Avalon Peninsula seats that had Roman Catholic majorities and
many of the swing seats in Conception Bay, forming a government with a reduced
majority. The political wing of the FPU was now the largest opposition party,
but Coaker allowed the Liberal party to put forward the official leader of the
opposition. It would remain difficult for the FPU to break out of its power
base in the north.
||Port Union, n.d.
Port Union was the home of the FPU.
From Michael Condon, The Fisheries and Resources of
Newfoundland, (St. John's, Newfoundland, 1925) 296.
As in many countries, politicians thought that an "opposition" to the war
effort was unpatriotic and might give comfort to the enemy. With this in mind
a National Government was formed in 1917. Coaker was brought into this
government as Minister of Fisheries and was in a position to advance some of
the FPU's platform. Extraordinary wartime conditions and the opposition of the
country's fish exporting firms prevented much of the Bonavista platform being
enacted into law, however. More seriously, Coaker, as a cabinet member,
supported conscription despite the opposition of most FPU members. This hurt
Coaker's credibility, at the same time as his business and government
responsibilities created a great distance between him and the rank and file.
The political fortunes of the Union had peaked, and were now on the decline.
After the war ended the coalition dissolved, and Newfoundland's political
life entered a turbulent period. In the face of a formidable anti-union
coalition that emerged after the war, Coaker reluctantly joined the Liberal
government of Richard Squires in hope of advancing his agenda. As Minister
of Marine and Fisheries, Coaker was able to enact measures to modernize the
fishery and most importantly force Newfoundland's fish exporting firms to
cooperate in setting prices so they did not undercut each other in the
fiercely competitive fish markets. The exporters' opposition to government
interference in business, and hostility toward Coaker, led them to circumvent
the policies that had been meant to aid them. With the collapse of the "Coaker regulations",
the FPU leader became less energetic in his political
activities, and increasingly managed the Union's businesses in the same way as
any other merchant. Coaker's one-time populism and social reform agenda had
given way to an autocratic leadership style.
The FPU had been built upon Coaker's charismatic leadership, and it never
recovered its momentum once he retired. Further, he had not lived up to the
unrealistically high expectations of him held by many of the members, leading
to a disillusionment with the FPU's involvement in politics.
Short-lived governments and corrupt practices in high places led many to
believe that Newfoundland's political process needed radical surgery. Coaker
shared this belief, and resigned from the legislature as the government neared
financial crisis and political disaster. During the crisis of the Great Depression, Coaker, like others, turned his
back upon the parliamentary system and suggested that economic and social
problems could best be solved by a political "strong man" like the Italian
dictator Mussolini. When a British royal commission investigated the political
and financial position of Newfoundland in 1933, Coaker advocated the end of
democratic government and the appointment of a commission to administer the
Although the FPU's businesses and its activities on behalf of fishermen
and loggers continued, it was never again a political force. The Union
survived into the post-confederation period when democratic politics resumed,
but had faded away by 1960.
©2001, Jeff A. Webb