Newfoundland is known for its trade unionism, boasting the only union-built town in North America – Port Union, Trinity Bay – near where my father is from.  The Fisherman’s Protective Union sought to defend fishers and fish plant workers’ interests against the rich fish merchants who had ruled Newfoundland’s ‘fishocracy’ since the seventeenth century.  From 1916, they built their fish plant, their own workers cottages, and their own general store.  Later besieged by international fish-processing conglomerates, the total collapse of the cod stocks, and eventually put out of business (after it had become a shrimp processing plant owned by OCI) by a 2010 hurricane, Port Union’s fish plant and other buildings still stand as a historic reminder of the power of worker’s solidarity in the face of greed and power.

 

Factory/Advocate Building and worker’s cottages, Port Union, Newfoundland and Labrador, wiki

But I had little knowledge or understanding of any of this by the time I first went on strike, at the age of seventeen.  I was working on the till at a grocery store that was fully unionized and had been known for its good pay and benefits. It was a typical supermarket: a butcher, a deli, fresh produce, frozen fish caught by freezer trawlers and processed by cheap labour abroad.  The supermarket chain, which had several shops in the capital of St. John’s and other towns, had been bought by a Canadian conglomerate some years before and – no surprise – the parent company began slowly but surely eroding benefits.  The key issue was full time jobs:  they were systematically cutting them and replacing them with part-time positions (like the one I held), which meant the company no longer had to pay benefits.  The owner of the stores – no surprise – was one of the richest men in the country.

Fishermen’s Union Trading Company Salt Fish Plant Registered Heritage Structure, Port Union, Newfoundland and Labrador, wikicommons

At the time, I only loosely grasped the details.  As I marched back and forth wearing a placard, along a snowbank marked with plow teeth and stained with car exhaust fumes, warming my hands over a burning oil drum, in the dead of Newfoundland winter, I more than once wondered what the point of it all was.  I confess that I thought that these workers were asking too much, expecting a full-time living wage and benefits for the work that they did. Maybe I thought it didn’t have anything to do with me, because for me the job was just a way to save up for university; because I had a ticket out. Or maybe I thought it was a losing battle – that, as a minimum wage, disposable worker in a chronically underemployed region, it was ridiculous to demand more.  ‘We’re out here for you, too’, said my favourite co-worker, a man who ran the butchery and read old paperbacks in the break room. I didn’t get it then.  But I do now.

 

Julia Laite is Reader in Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London. She is also the Birkbeck Director of the Raphael Samuel History Centre and a member of the editorial collective of History Workshop Journal. She is the author of The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey (2021), Wolfenden’s Women (2020) and Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens (2012) and is principal investigator of the AHRC-funded project Trafficking Past.

 

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