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 this structure.

William Coaker (1871-1938), n.d.
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, NL: R. Hibbs, 1930) 65. Print.

Early Political Ambition

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
The Flag of the FPU
From Richard Hibbs, Who's Who in and from Newfoundland 1930, 2nd ed. (St. John's, NL: R. Hibbs, 1930) 307. Print.

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.

The Bonavista Platform

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 legislature.

Liberal Alliance

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. They were:

1. W. Coaker (Bonavista)
2. John Abbott (Bonavista)
3. R.G. Winsor (Bonavista)
4. Walter Jennings (Twillingate)
5. W. Halfyard (Fogo)
6. John Stone (Trinity)
7. George Grimes (Port de Grave)
8. Archibald Targett (2nd member for Trinity)
From John Feltham. The development of the F.P.U. in Newfoundland. M.A. thesis: MUN, 1959, p. 67.

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, n.d.
Port Union was the home of the FPU.
From Michael Condon, The Fisheries and Resources of Newfoundland, (St. John's, NL, 1925) 296. Print.

Formation of National Government

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.

A Period of Turbulence

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.

The Commission of Government

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 country.

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.

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