Union leader says workers being sold out
Protesters vent anger at OCI, provincial government
It was an event filled with passionate speeches and heartfelt commentary on an issue that strikes a sensitive nerve in this province - so it was a surprise when the most fiery speaker was a visitor to this province.
Ken Lewenza, national president of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW), flew into St. John’s for a protest Tuesday.
His audience was a crowd of about 200 people who had gathered on the front steps of the Paradise offices of Newfoundland and Labrador seafood company Ocean Choice International (OCI).
“Brothers and sisters, workers from one end of the country to the other are being sold out by the corporate sector, being sold out by government.”
The people were there to express their anger at OCI, and by extension the provincial government, over the fate of the Port Union and Marystown fish plants, both of which are owned by OCI. In late 2011, the company announced the closure of both plants, a decision that threw hundreds of workers in both communities out of work.
CAW is the associate union of the rally’s organizers, the Fish, Food and Allied Workers’ union (FFAW).
GOVERNMENT SHOULD OPEN LEGISLATURE
A long-time union organizer and public speaker, Mr. Lewenza delivered a spirited speech to his compatriots about the larger picture of their own situation, namely the spat of labour disputes in Canada in recent memory.
He suggested Newfoundland and Labrador is a microcosm for what’s happening across the country, which is why it’s so important the workers in this province fight for their jobs and their resources.
“Each and every time they say ‘free trade,’ every time they say deregulate, every time they say ‘give us a temporary exemption,’ every time they say ‘give us more,’ it’s never enough! Until every single workplace is closed and every single Newfoundlander and Labradorian is left fighting for the crumbs. That’s not the Canada that I know.”
He also criticized the provincial government for not providing leadership on the issue.
“I see the debate going on in the newspaper. But do you know where the debate ought to go?
“The legislature should be open today ... I heard the premier say this morning, ‘we don’t have any legislattion.’ Well God damn it, get out here! You’ve got to legislate protection for workers; you’ve got to speak on the behalf your constituents. OCI will survive, but they shouldn’t get a helping hand from the government.”
Mr. Lewenza was the final speaker of the afternoon’s protest. Other speakers included provincial union leaders such as FFAW/CAW president Earle Mccurdy and Carol Furlong, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, as well as opposition leaders such as Liberal leader Dwight Ball and NDP leader Lorraine Michael.
But no matter who took the megaphone, the message was clear. Over and over speakers called on the provincial government to do more to protect the province’s fisheries resources and to keep the work from that resource in this province.
Mr. Mccurdy told the crowd Newfoundland and Labrador is “at a fundamental turning point in terms of the history and the economy of coastal communities in this province. This is about nothing less than whether or not there will be a fish processing sector in our future in this province.”
Mr. Ball accused the province of having no plan or creative solutions to the problems facing the fishery.
“We need to change the mindset that there are too many problems in our fisheries, when there are so many opportunities if done the right way.”
Ms. Michael called on voters to watch Fisheries Minister Darin King closely, to make sure the province doesn’t give away the resource by piecemeal.
Two weeks ago Mr. King announced the province wouldn’t grant OCI a permanent exemption to minimum processing requirements for redfish or yellowtail. The two opposition parties praised that decision, but Ms. Michael warned Tuesday the resource is threatened.
“Saying ‘no’ to a permanent exemption is one thing - but giving it away bit by bit in what is called ‘short term exemptions,’ is still giving it away. And we can’t allow that to happen.”
Marystown Mayor Sam Synard could not be at the rally in St. John’s Tuesday, but voiced his support to the cause of the workers.
“I think it shows how serious the workers are about wanting to remain in the fish processing business. Many of these people have given their adult lives in both these fish plants ... it shows that they’ve made a huge commitment to the fishing industry in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
The Telegram offered OCI the opportunity to respond to the concerns raised at the protest, but the company declined.
Ken Lewenza, national president of the Canadian Auto Workers, was among Tuesday’s speakers.