Labour Organization and Unions
Until well into the 20th century, Newfoundland's primary economic activity was in the
fisheries. Most of the workforce was in the inshore cod fishery, a small-boat operation in which
family enterprises caught, split, salted and dried the fish to produce a finished product that was
traded to a merchant. Fishers were not wage workers but commodity producers, like farmers. Even
in the Labrador and Grand Banks fisheries and the annual seal hunt, the workers were
treated as independent contractors, paying for their own gear and supplies and receiving shares
rather than wages.
Working in small, competitive units, scattered in isolated communities and at the mercy of
merchants, fishery workers in the 19th century did not undertake much in the way of
organized resistance against the difficult conditions of their lives. They did, however, from time
to time engage in spontaneous acts of rebellion against local merchants or some other authority
when they felt their rights were being violated. Several examples are documented from the
Harbour Grace/Carbonear area in the early 19th century.
The seal fishery was unusual in that it brought together large groups of workers who laboured
under similar conditions for similar rewards, remained together for extended periods, and in
many cases came together annually. It is not surprising, therefore, that the first recorded
organized, mass strikes were staged by sealers. In the 1830s and 40s, there were strikes,
marches, and other demonstrations by thousands of sealers in St. John's, Conception Bay, and
elsewhere, protesting the harsh and dangerous conditions in which they worked, and the poor
reward they earned.
It is also not surprising that the first formal workers' organizations in Newfoundland were
generated among tradesmen in maritime occupations, such as shipwrights, followed by other
trades such as coopers and masons, mostly in St. John's. They were modelled after British trades
organizations: most were called “protective associations” and incorporated some of the functions
of fraternal societies, such as sickness benefits and burial insurance. Other city workers also
formed organizations, such as the retail clerks' union formed in 1868, the first Newfoundland
union to have women as members.
In the late 19th century, the government began to promote industrial diversification based
mainly on land resources. A trans-island railway was built, and mines and paper mills created
enclaves of industrialization. The new industries were undertaken by large international
corporations, and some of them generated local branches of international unions.
Newfoundland-based unions such as the Longshoremen's Protective Union, the Newfoundland
Industrial Workers' Association, and the Wabana Workmen and Labourers' Union fought
lengthy struggles for recognition, wages and conditions.
|LSPU Hall, October 1988.
At the beginning of the 20th century the L.S.P.U. was the most
successful union in Newfoundland.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives, Memorial
University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
In 1908 William (later Sir William) Coaker founded the Fishermen's Protective Union (FPU),
the first organized protest movement among fishing people in Newfoundland. Acting in part as a
cooperative, the FPU attempted to break the grip of the merchants on the cod fishery. Coaker
was elected to the House of Assembly along with several other FPU members, but by the 1920s
he had lost his reformer's zeal, and the organization became not much more than a group of
companies, trading in a manner similar to the traditional merchants.
||The flag of the FPU.
The FPU was the first organized protest movement among
fishing people in Newfoundland.
From Richard Hibbs, Who's Who in and from Newfoundland
1930, 2nd ed. (St. John's, Newfoundland: R. Hibbs, 1930) 307.
The young Joseph Smallwood was an admirer of Coaker, and in the 1920s he learned a good deal
about labour organization while working in the United States as a reporter for socialist
newspapers and an organizer for leftist parties. He came back to Newfoundland as an organizer
for the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers, founded a
Federation of Labour, and walked the railway tracks organizing track labourers.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s union membership declined, although there were some
very active areas, such as among the woods workers. In 1937, a group of activists formed a
Trade and Labour Council (later the Newfoundland Federation of Labour) and embarked on an
organizing campaign which continued during the years of the Second World War. With the War
and the building of American bases both wages and prices rose, and with them union militancy.
In 1941, for example, there were ten major strikes, involving more than 4,000 workers.
By the end of the War, the proportion of organized workers in Newfoundland was higher than in
Canada. In 1946, when a National Convention was elected to decide Newfoundland's
constitutional future, many union leaders ran, and of the 45 members elected, six had
union affiliations. In 1949, Newfoundland became Canada's tenth province and Joseph
Smallwood became its Premier. His government quickly passed a series of laws that gave the
new province some of the most progressive labour legislation in the country.
At the time, it was the policy of the Canadian Labour Congress to merge small local unions into
the large, U.S.-based internationals. In the Newfoundland logging industry, which supplied the
two large paper mills, about 12,000 loggers worked under appalling conditions for low wages.
They were represented by three rather weak independent unions. With the backing of the
Canadian Labour Congress, the International Woodworkers of America began a tough, efficient
organizing campaign. It was a new style of labour struggle for Newfoundland, and when a police
officer died after a confrontation, Smallwood's government decertified the IWA and went on to
pass a series of harsh restrictions on union activity. It was not until Smallwood's government
was replaced in 1972 that relations between government and unions returned to normal.
Although a considerable amount of salt fish was still being produced, by 1970 a major part of the
fishing industry was devoted to freezing operations, industrial enterprises with employees paid
by the hour. The 5,000 fish plant workers were eligible for union organization, but the 18,000 or
so inshore fishermen were still regarded as independent producers rather than as employees, and
were therefore not covered by collective bargaining legislation. About 1,000 crewmen on the
trawlers (or draggers) that fished the offshore banks were also excluded, being regarded as
“co-venturers” with the companies that owned the ships.
During the 1970s, an organization that began among inshore fishermen on the West Coast of the
island, led by a St. John's lawyer and a Corner Brook priest, brought the three groups of fishery
workers together into one organization, the Newfoundland Fishermen, Food and Allied Workers
Union, as an affiliate of a large American-based “international” union. In a series of tough and
bitter strikes, the union won collective bargaining rights and better prices for fishermen, and
major wage increases for plant workers. In the 1980s, the union terminated its international
affiliation and became an affiliate of the Canadian Auto Workers.
|NFFAW on strike, 1980.
The inshore fishery of Newfoundland and Labrador was at a standstill
in the middle of the summer of 1980.
Photo ©1980. Reproduced by permission of Reg
Anstey, Secretary-Treasurer of the FFAW/CAW.
Since the late 19th century Newfoundlanders have gone abroad to work, and among them
have been many who have made a contribution to labour organization in their new homes. The
International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers, for example, has
numbered many Newfoundlanders among its officers. Among the best-known expatriate
Newfoundlanders in Canada are the late Senator Eugene Forsey, who worked for the Canadian
Labour Congress in the 1930s and 40s, and Ed Finn, who also worked for the Canadian Labour
Congress, wrote a column for the Toronto Star, and has worked for the Brotherhood of
Railway, Transport and General Workers, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and the
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
In the 1990s, although unemployment is high and per capita incomes low, the percentage of
Newfoundland workers who are union members is still the highest in Canada. Some of the
largest and most influential unions are in the public service, such as the Canadian Union of
Public Employees (CUPE) and the Newfoundland Association of Public Employees (NAPE).
The latter union, particularly, also has a number of locals that are not in government jobs.
Unions of health workers and teachers are also powerful and influential.
© 1998, Rick Rennie, Ingrid Botting and Gordon Inglis
Sidebar links updated January, 2009