Fighting feudalism in the fishery

Michael Clugston December 14 1981

Fighting feudalism in the fishery

Michael Clugston December 14 1981

Fighting feudalism in the fishery


Michael Clugston

Against the Burin Peninsula moonscape, the town of Grand Bank is as close as pastels can come to a riot of color. The neat clapboard houses in their cheerful blues and yellows give a false sense of peace and prosperity in what has traditionally been one of Newfoundland’s most affluent fishing towns. The town’s real pulse is to be taken up at the Lions’ hall, where most of Grand Bank’s workers are assembled. The audience is mostly rough edges—old lumber jackets, peaked caps tipped up, and chin stubble on faces that have squinted through years of foggy dawns. These fishermen are among the most self-sufficient on the island—year-rounders who have always bucked the old work-and-UlC rhythm of the larger part of the business. Now, with the fishery in one of the most disastrous slumps in its troubled history, they have come to take strength from their union leader, Richard Cashin.

“You’re being asked to pay the price for horrendous mismanagement, and we’re not going to sit and take it quietly.” Cashin, a shortish figure with a disorderly thatch of greying hair, is shouting, “I’m not concerned about

swatting flies when I’m up to my arse in alligators, and that’s where we are now.” On the face of it, this furious, gesticulating man doesn’t seem like the sort who once rubbed shoulders with John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson, much less the man whom Joey Smallwood, while premier

in 1962, suggested as

his own successor.

But as Cashin pauses, steps back, and lights another cigarette, it’s

quickly apparent that this is one union leader who did not work his way up through the ranks.

With his grey flannels and V-necked sweater, pale complexion, high forehead and hands that have not done a day’s fishing in their

44 years, Cashin looks as out of place as an English professor with a road crew. He speaks for

45 minutes without notes, stirring up a

thick emotional stew which, though long on platitudes, seems somehow to fortify them. Afterward he chats briefly with some fishermen, then hurries out to the dirt parking lot, into his big black Ford LTD Victoria with red interior, and off down the road for another speech. Cashin chats and jokes easily with the three union stewards in the car. “Maybe I did swear too much there,” he says, reverting to his customary calm tones. “My wife doesn’t like it when I do that, but I do get carried away.”

Clearly, Richard Cashin is no ordinary labor leader. Born above the salt in a class-absorbed province and working well below it now, he can sift easily through the layers of Newfoundland society. The son of a wealthy St. John’s merchant, he was an MP at 25, was subsequently courted by provincial and federal parties, appointed a commissioner of the 1977 Task Force on Canadian Unity, and more recently named a PetroCanada director. But then the organization he founded 10 years ago—the Newfoundland Fishermen, Food and Allied Workers Union (NFFAWU) union—is no ordinary union. It has been called the most powerful agent for social change in the East since the Antigonish cooperative movement of the 1930s. According to Newfoundlander and former external affairs minister Don Jamieson, a friend of Cashin’s, the union has caused an upheaval that is “as significant as any in the province in the last 10 years”—and as controversial.

Controversies settle naturally around the person of Richard Cashin. His name is as well known as any in the province—Peckford, Crosbie, even Smallwood. Cashin tends to be painted in romantic extremes, either as a heroic re-

bel who betrayed his

own class or as a low political opportunist currying the fishing vote. If he has made enemies, challenged the social hierarchy, and threatened at times to bring the province to its knees, that all seems in character.

“In a way he was a traitor to his class, although the Cashins have always been mavericks,”

says Jamieson. From an early age, Cashin showed that he had inherited the twin strains of populism and disputatiousness in his family background. Re3 calls his younger

brother, Laurence, now a federal civil servant: “You couldn’t ever have accused Richard of being shy. It was sometimes hard to get a word in edgewise at the dinner table.” Their father made a fortune in a coal and oil business during the Second World War but shared none of the establishment’s paternalism toward outporters. The family kept touch with the lower rungs of the financial ladder through frequent visits to friends and relatives in the small southern shore settlements of Cape Broyle, Witless Bay and Bay Bulls. “The family had a strong sense of itself and of Newfoundland,” says Cashin. Little wonder, since the Cashins go back almost 200 years there: his grandfather, Sir Michael Cashin, a noted orator, was briefly Newfoundland’s prime minister and his uncle, Maj. Peter Cashin, sat in the legislature during a 30-year period and was a ferocious and widely popular opponent of Confederation. Young Richard was there the day his uncle defended himself successfully in a slander suit: “There must have been 2,000 [anti-Confederation supporters] outside the courthouse, and they carried him off on their shoulders.” It was also through his uncle Peter that he heard about the equally controversial Sir William Coaker, who in 1909 had founded the influential Fishermen’s Protective Union, which was in many ways the ideolological ancestor to Cashin’s NFFAWU.

For himself, Cashin showed an early oratorical promise which took some colorful turns at St. Francis Xavier University. His debating partner, Brian Mulroney, now president of Iron Ore Company of Canada and former federal Tory leadership candidate recalls that

if Cashin sensed boredom in an audience he would issue the florid invitation, “ ‘And I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, to join me as I look down the vista of the years.’ They’d hang on their seats to see what Cashin was going to look at,” says Mulroney. A brilliant student, Cashin thrived on the school’s unique blend of theory and practice: the curriculum included studies of trade unionism and rural co-operatives, while faculty-led study clubs among miners and steel workers were inspiring the laborers to the unprecedented move of sending their children to the college. He took to the easy social mixing at the school. Says Cashin: “It didn’t have the cap-inhand class consciousness of St. John’s.” He threw himself into student politics, helping found political parties at St. F-X and then at Dalhousie. There he studied law, fell in love with and married Rosann Earl, also of St. John’s. Word filtered back to St. John’s about the smooth-talking, jovial Newfoundlander who had joined the Liberals and become prime minister of the Maritime Universities Student Parliament. This attracted the attention of the man with whom his uncle Peter had come to physical blows over Confederation. “I said, my God, this is something new—a Cashin who’s Liberal,” recalls Joey Smallwood. By the time Cashin returned to St. John’s in 1962—a 25-year-old member of the bars of both Newfoundland and Nova Scotia—Smallwood was ready with the offer of the St. John’s West federal riding.

During his years in Ottawa, from 1963 to 1968, Cashin showed a growing sense of social responsibility. “The NDP in Ottawa constantly looked upon him as a left winger,” says Jamieson. “Many

of the things he said and still says are not necessarily socialist, but are in the St. F-X tradition of seeing nothing wrong with the lamb and the lion lying down together.” In a 1964 speech Cashin told the Commons that the eradication of poverty was Canada’s greatest problem. In 1967 he told a group of fishermen in Trepassey that they would benefit by a union. Two years after his defeat at the polls he told a university gathering that “private corporations don’t really care about the provincial economy.”

By that time he had already received the phone call that turned his life around. Father Desmond McGrath, a St. F-X alumnus and former debating teammate of Cashin’s, was piecing together a fishermen’s union in Port au Choix, a small settlement on the northwest coast. Was Cashin interested in helping out? Cashin, dying of boredom as a St. John’s lawyer, arrived in time for the second meeting of the group that would soon form the Northern Fishermen’s Union (NFU). “I spent the next year or two defending why a man with a political name like Cashin, a lawyer, independent financially, should be getting involved with the fishermen,” says McGrath, a big man with rough worker’s hands. “They said he would sell us out.”

Cashin was off on a three-year membership campaign which Richard Gwyn, the political columnist, has called “one of the most remarkable in Canadian labor history.” He stepped out of his lawyer’s office straight into kitchens and living rooms and meetings in Port au Choix, Bonavista Bay, up the Northern Peninsula, the huge bays of the Avalon Peninsula, and down the Southern Shore and South Coast, working for nothing and living off his inheritance of approximately $250,000. Due largely to the work of Cashin and McGrath, the NFU was formed in 1970, and the following year merged with the Canadian Food and Allied Workers to become the NFFAWU. The St.

John’s lawyer had shown he could talk a language the fishermen understood and trusted, for they elected him president at the April,

1971, founding convention, at a salary of $15,000.

The new union had an enormous task before it. Right through the 1960s, the 400-year-old

fishing industry was operating in a Dickensian backwater. Fish-plant workers were not covered by the minimum wage; trawler crews were almost all “sharemen” who were not paideven for a week or more at sea—unless their boat caught fish; the price of fish was announced by fish buyers, subject to no discussion; and fishermen had no right to collective bargaining. After a decade of strikes and confrontations by Cashin and the NFFAWU (“The industry thought we wanted to ruin them,” says Cashin), all those conditions have been reversed.

But the problems of this fall “are forcing us to come to grips with what we’ve achieved over the last few years,” says Cashin. “We haven’t come this far just to let the banks call the shots on how to restructure the whole fishing industry of Newfoundland.” Three thousand people have been out of work since mid-August on the normally selfsufficient South Coast, with fish plants closed and trawlers idle. A number of problems—scarce fish, high interest rates, a soft U.S. market and some dubious management decisions — have prompted talk of amalgamation among three of the 5 province’s four ma-

jor fish processors, the Lake Group, H.B. Nickerson and Sons Ltd., and National Sea Products Ltd. Cashin, meanwhile, is trying to get his long-held views on economic rationalization—nationalize the industry and put a Crown corporation in charge of marketing—on the government’s agenda.

In Newfoundland, Cashin is much more than a negotiator of contracts in the traditional trade union setting. Like an ex officio leader of the opposition, he is a well-known voice, commenting on the passing scene with his own unusual blend of cool logic and emotional flamboyance. A favorite target is Premier Brian Peckford, whom he frequently lambastes in his speeches. Peckford’s view that fishing should be open to all Newfoundlanders as a source of income because it is part of the “traditional lifestyle” is a sentimental anathema to Cashin. In his opinion overfishing jeopardizes the incomes of all fishermen. Cashin’s combativeness has won him many enemies. MHA James Morgan (now fisheries minister) said in 1972, “ [Cashin’s] stubbornness and obsession ... can eventually destroy the fisheries. The only possibility of settling [the strike in question] is after the resignation of Richard Cashin.” Fish-plant owners still deplore his excessive rhetoric. Says William Wells, president of the Fisheries Association of Newfoundland and Labrador Ltd., who represents the fish companies in negotiations with Cashin: “We might be negotiating about what’s a turbot worth today. . . . He’ll say you’ve had the fishermen on their backs for years, when are you going to let them up. It doesn’t make for very constructive bargaining.” The once-fre-

quent charges of political opportunism have lost their zip now that Cashin has stayed with the union for so long. Though he acknowledges Cashin’s contribution to the union, Wells, however, still regards him as “more of a political animal than a regular trade unionist. He always gets right in on an issue if there’s going to be publicity and a high profile.”

And yet Cashin is a somewhat reserved and private man off the podium, the sort whom fishermen admire from afar rather than slap on the back. He has a quiet charm and a wry self-deprecating humor—the vestiges of the “jolly” figure his college professors remember—and he likes to be able to say after a speech that he “laid ’em in the aisles that time.” He may heap scorn on Peckford’s brand of “sentimental” nationalism, but there are nights when the old Irish and Scottish records are played— and sung along with—at Jamieson’s ranch-style house in the country.

Cashin admits he has never lost his interest in politics, but even now, after the union has organized almost 100 per cent of Newfoundland’s 14,000 fishermen and about 85 per cent of its plant workers, he insists he has far too much to do in the union to consider an imminent return. “One reason I got out of politics [he quit as president of the Newfoundland Liberals in 1969] is I’d begun to lose faith in the political process. Through law, then labor, I could attack in practical ways the basic weakness of Newfoundland’s society—the lack of democratic institutions.” Cashin has long seen the union hall, rather than the legislature, as the place to further his broad social goals: the development of leadership skills that will give the fishermen a political voice, especially at the local level in school boards and town councils. And that goal is still a long way off. “I don’t think that 10 years of collective bargaining and of what might be perceived as progress has really changed the quasi-feudal attitude. Look at last year’s dispute. The companies unilaterally imposed their contract and stopped deducting union dues—something they would not have done in an industrial situation.”

Where would he stand in a political contest? “If he ever did decide to make a political party [out of the union], I’m sure he could be premier, or give it a good run,” says McGrath. With two children at university and another in elementary school, a political career and 10 years of trade unionism behind him, many men would be satisfied to rest on their achievements. But Brian Mulroney can’t foresee such a thing: “He’s only 44. He’s really at the beginning of his career, and he’s known across the country. Anything could happen to Richard Cashin.”