More than the moratorium: Earle McCurdy recounts FFAW battles
Posted on February 11, 2022 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments
In A Match to a Blasty Bough: How FFAW-Unifor Confronted Power and Shared the Wealth, former union president Earle McCurdy recalls a memorable meeting on June 26, 1992. It was in the premier’s boardroom at Confederation Building in St. John’s and he attended alongside then-union leader Richard Cashin. Premier Clyde Wells was there, as were a smattering of individuals from the provincial bureaucracy and fishing industry. Federal Fisheries Minister John Crosbie told them all to be prepared, as the Government of Canada was indeed contemplating a moratorium on the fishing of Northern cod for several years. An entire industry, an entire province, was to be challenged.
“It was just ominous words to hear even though we knew it was coming,” McCurdy recalled, in a recent interview with Atlantic Business Magazine.
“It was chilling to hear that from Crosbie. I don’t think anyone—and no one, as I recall, did argue with him—because what could you say? You can’t catch what’s not out there,” he said.
Northern cod was a staple of the province’s fishery. The meeting at Confederation Building was days prior to Canada Day, when fish harvesters and plant workers confronted the federal minister at an event in Bay Bulls. Crosbie declared the moratorium the day after, on July 2, beginning the largest layoff in Canadian history and a new era in Newfoundland and Labrador.
McCurdy says he believes what immediately followed could have been much worse.
“One of our big concerns is they (the federal government) would set an extremely low (cod) quota but not zero and then use that as an excuse to provide no support of any kind. But by putting the quota at zero that, I think, made that more difficult and they had to put in some kind of (aid) program,” he said.
He has no doubt—as he recounts in the book, the “powerful backlash” included shouting fishermen at the Radisson Hotel in St. John’s, trying to force their way into the room as the moratorium announcement was made—drew the national attention needed at the time.
“It was the dramatic visual image of a powerful federal Cabinet minister requiring a heavy police escort to walk through an angry, shouting, potentially violent crowd that moved the dial in Ottawa,” he wrote, always giving a nod to the idea of power in the collective action of workers.
In his book, McCurdy quotes former union representatives and fish harvesters, sharing their reflections of the cod collapse and declines at the time, including in stocks beyond cod. But the moratorium is just one part of the story of the fishery and of the union’s work.
McCurdy takes the more than half century of history largely chronologically. He begins covering the lead-up to and birth of the union in 1971. Apart from the moratorium, he touches on everything from “yellow bus” protests, including against foreign fleet overfishing during the Turbot Wars, all the way to the growth of the union’s science arm. He mentions everything from the aftermath of the fight for ownership of Fisheries Products International (FPI) in the early 2000s to the separate fight over the “last in, first out” (LIFO) policy introduced for the shrimp fishery. Beyond the headlines, he notes details like exact wage gains from collective bargaining and several victories in the board room that were less public and are generally less well known.
There’s no doubt of bias in the retelling. The stories and comments in the book extend from McCurdy’s personal experiences and the tone, whether in description of particular processors or government actions, very much comes from being in the middle of the back and forth on any given topic.
McCurdy started with the union in 1971 and continued the work for 37 years, including 21 years as union president (later moving on to become leader of the provincial NDP, before announcing his retirement in 2017). The book’s cover image matches a large photo print that used to hang on his office wall in St. John’s. The image is of a crowded St. John’s harbourfront and an occupied trawler, with people carrying signs including a bold, red “STOP OVERFISHING” hung over the side of the vessel. It is, again, about victory through solidarity and collective action.
But regardless of his point of view, what McCurdy ultimately provides is a starting point for an understanding of not just dates but the emotions behind events that have shaped the fishing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador.
McCurdy tapped his own memories in his writing, but also referred to news and personal archives, and—in a return to his days as a newspaper reporter—leaned on a collection of dozens of fresh interviews with former colleagues and long-time union members. “I just thought it was a story that needed to be told while the people who I interviewed were around to get their views,” he said.
He argues that while the provincial economy has changed and continues to do so, the fisheries union “has remained influential” and continues to play a major role in setting policies affecting the daily lives of fish harvesters and plant workers, as well as the welfare of communities.
With all that said, would he be doing anything differently is he were still in charge at the union?
“One thing I promised myself when I left was I wouldn’t sit in judgement of the people who took over,” he said, with a laugh at the question, speaking by phone from his home in Eastport. “I had my shot at it.”
McCurdy took part in book launch events in the fall but will be live again, potentially sharing more, in an upcoming panel event, being hosted by Boulder Books and Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries on February 24 at 7 p.m. The panel will include fellow labour leader Mary Shortall, and researchers Barb Neis and Sean Cadigan, with further details available on the event at the “A Blasty Bough Panel Chat With Earle McCurdy” event page on Facebook.
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