Work and Labour
It should be noted at the outset that most accounts of work and labour are incomplete, since
most historical records anywhere do not give recognition to work that is outside the exchanges of
the market. Most such work has traditionally been done by women. In what follows, some attempt
has been made to acknowledge unpaid work, but the emphasis remains on work that is paid for,
whether in money or goods. For most of Newfoundland's history, most such work has been
associated with fishing, at first the trans-Atlantic migratory cod-fishery and, from the early
19th century, fisheries based in Newfounland.
Until well into this century, Newfoundland cod fishing was pursued mainly by family
enterprises. In theory, they could sell their fish to the highest bidder, but in practice they were bound
by debt and credit to a merchant who took their fish in exchange for supplies. Men were almost
exclusively the catchers, but the catch was split, salted, laid out to dry and tended while drying by
the whole family, with women bearing some of the heaviest burden. Fishing families also provided
a major part of their own subsistence by hunting and gathering wild food, gardening and keeping
livestock. Men made and maintained boats, gear, houses and outbuildings; women maintained the
household, made cloth and clothing and produced, prepared and preserved food.
||Tending the fish, n.d.
Men were almost exclusively the catchers, but the fish was split, salted, laid out
to dry and tended while drying by the whole family, with women bearing some of
the heaviest burden.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies
Archives (Coll - 200, 1.01.067), Memorial University of
Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
The seal fishery and the Labrador cod fishery expanded greatly during the 19th century
on the Northeast Coast of the island, as did the Grand Banks fishery on the South Coast. Both
provided employment and income, not only for fishermen who served aboard the vessels, but also
for workers in ship-building and other maritime trades such as coopering or rope-making.
Such specialized trades developed only in a few larger centres, particularly in the capital city,
St. John's, and it was among them that the first craft unions were organized. The city was also the
main location of a relatively small number of clerical and "white collar" jobs in government, retail
trade and a small service sector. A retail clerks' union, formed in 1868, was the first to permit
women in its membership.
Although conditions in the various fisheries were cruelly hard, organized protest was unusual.
Nonetheless, from early in the 19th century fishermen, especially those who went to the seal
hunt, did band together from time to time to demand better conditions and a greater share of profits.
By the latter part of the 19th century the fisheries no longer provided enough
employment for the growing work force. Many young men had to leave home to seek work abroad;
young women in rural areas often went to work for other fishing families, where they performed
fishery and domestic work for little more than room and board.
Efforts to diversify the economy generated wage work in mining, on the railway, and in
forestry and the pulp and paper industry. These enterprises created steady jobs with fixed wages,
quite unlike the seasonality and uncertainty of the fisheries. Such employment resulted in the
development of different attitudes, ways of life, and family relationships. Most of the new jobs were
for men, but many women left outport communities to work as domestic servants in the new
industrial towns or the burgeoning centre of St. John's. With the new industries came trades and
labour unions, some of them branches of unions based in the United States.
Newfoundlanders had always worked at a variety of tasks as the seasons changed, a practice
known as occupational pluralism. For some of them, the new industries provided not steady jobs
but another source of temporary work; a chance to earn cash when other work was not available.
These circumstances were very favourable to employers, who were able to draw upon a supply of
cheap labour on a seasonal basis rather than having to maintain a year-round work force. This
pattern became especially evident in the logging industry.
The new industries still did not provide enough jobs for the growing population and
Newfoundlanders of both sexes continued to leave home to pursue a wide variety of employment
on the mainland, especially in the "Boston States". One curious by-product of this exodus began
around the turn of the century, when Newfoundland men became established in the ironwork trade
in large and fast-growing American cities, working on the construction of skyscrapers and bridges.
In cities like New York and Philadelphia they met expatriate Newfoundland women, many working
as domestic servants, and together they founded families who maintain their ironworking and
Newfoundland connections up to the present.
The Great Depression struck particularly hard in Newfoundland; unemployment was
shockingly high, fish prices low, and social services almost non-existent. The Second World War,
and especially the arrival of the American military in 1941, brought a new era of prosperity, making
a new range of well-paid jobs available in the building and maintenance of military bases and in
other war-related work.
|Base Headquarters Building, Fort Pepperrell, ca. 1950.
Fort Pepperrell was an important base for the United States Air Forces.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (Coll - 109, 3.01.10),
Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
Some of this prosperity carried over into the post-war period, especially after confederation
with Canada in 1949, when with Ottawa's assistance the new provincial government set out to
"modernize" the economy. Newfoundland ways of living and working were again dramatically
altered by the industrialization of the fishery and the rapid construction of an infrastructure of power
lines, schools, hospitals and roads.
With modernization came a rapid growth in professional, managerial, clerical and other
"white collar" jobs in both the public and private sectors. At present, most employment in the
province is of this kind, and some of the largest and most influential unions are in these areas,
including unions of civil servants, teachers and health workers.
For most of its fifty years as a Canadian province, Newfoundland and Labrador have been
characterized by the lowest per capita incomes and the highest rates of unemployment in the country.
Now, at the end of the 20th century, that is still true, and Newfoundlanders face the
uncertainties of globalization as well as those of their particular history and location. Since the
collapse of the cod fishery in 1992 there has been practically no wage work available in hundreds
of outport communities, and younger people have been leaving the province at an unprecedented
rate. At the same time, the provincial government speaks positively of a vibrant economy based on
large resource-extraction projects and new opportunities in such areas as information technology and
tourism. Only one thing seems certain: as elsewhere in the world, patterns of work and employment
in Newfoundland and Labrador will continue to change.
© 1998, Ingrid Botting, Rick Rennie and Gordon Inglis
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