The labour movement in the sixties still suffered under the weight of the business-style unionism which had been created out of the anti-communist purges of the fifties. But having reigned supreme for over twenty years the backroom boys were now beginning to feel the burden of age and the upsurge in militancy of younger workers. A new style of unionism, founded on the principles of the 20’s was coming into Nova Scotia and Cape Breton to challenge old class collaboration. It came most concretely in the form of the United Fishermen and Allied Worker’s Union (UFAWU). The west coast-based union, which had been purged from the Trades and Labour Congress and later refused entry into the CLC for its grass-roots style of organizing, was to take up the fight where it had stopped twenty years ago.
The UFAWU had been the first union to take up the plight of the fishermen since the CFIJ and the going was rough. Hard day-to-day organizing went before any results were seen. But seen they were. In March 1970 the now-famous Canso Strait Fishermen’s strike began.
When the fishermen defied an injunction to stop picketing in late June, 45 fishermen were charged with contempt of court. On June 19, in Halifax, Nova Scotia Chief Justice Gordan Cowan handed out sentences of twenty and thirty days to twelve fishermen from Mulgrave. The fishermen laughed as the sentences were pronounced. On June 22, three days later the fishermen from Canso came to trial. When Cowan sentenced Everett Richardson to twenty days, Richardson replied “twenty days or twenty years”? Cowan, angry that fishermen were not taking his sentences seriously, promptly increased the term to nine months.
Workers in the province were enraged. 2,500 construction workers from the Canso area walked off the job in sympathy. 3,000 miners went on strike in Cape Breton. The stage was set for a general strike in the province. Yet it would never come. International representatives were flown in to pressure local 1064 and from the CLC to make sure that the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour cooled out the rest of the labour movement.
Worn Out by seven months of starvation living, police and court harassment, and lack of support, the fishermen negotiated a contract with the companies. They had failed to get their most important demand - - recognition of the UFAWU as the bargaining agent of their choice. But the contract of the ad hoc committee of fishermen was only the first step in what is still a continuing struggle of the fishermen for the union of their own choice.
About two years after the UFAWU had begun organizing fishermen in the province some of the ”officjal” unions sanctioned by the CLC began to see the possibilities for expanding their own unions. After the seven month strike had ended the new liberal government saw the need for including the fishermen in the Trade Union Act. While the legislation was not passed until the spring of 1971 many of these unions began full-scale organizing of the fishermen before that. And while there were many areas where the UFAWU had not yet started to organize fishermen, the Canadian Food and Allied Workers” Union (a junior partner of the Chicago based Amalgamated Butcher Workmen and Meatcutters of America) decided that they could expand their membership without doing any of the leg work. Accusing the UFAWU of being “communist” they began raiding the UF membership in Petit de Grat. After Signing a backdoor agreement with Booth Fisheries they proceeded to raid Mulgrave and Canso. Finding that the fishermen were unwilling to join their company, the CFAWU met with the company, Acadia Fisheries, and with the support of the Nova Scotia Labour Relations Board signed a “sweetheart” agreement making them the legal bargaining agent of fishermen who had never agreed to their union and had never seen the contract until after it was signed. The CFAWU contract literally gave away most of the gains made in the seven month strike of the past summer.
Although 85 out of the 114 fishermen from Canso were fired for refusing to sign up with the CFAWU the fishermen were not about to give up on the UFAWU. A free vote was held to determine which union the men really wanted. It had been sponsored and scrutinized by prominent citizens from around the province and out of the 69 fishermen voting, 66 supported the UFAWU. Yet pressure from the CLC, the daily papers, and the “Codfish Aristocracy” -- the fishing companies --forced the labour relations board to recognize the CFAWU. The fishermen, harassed and downtrodden, have refused to give up the fight. While momentarily defeated the fishermen and their union, the UFAWU, are planning the fight for another day.