Formation of the Fishermen's Protective UnionWilliam Ford Coaker (1871-1938) ended an hour-long speech to a group of fishermen at the Orange Hall in Herring Neck by asking those who wished to form a fishermen's union to stay behind. Nineteen did, and thus, the Fishermen's Protective Union (FPU) was founded that evening, November 3, 1908.
The FPU, under Coaker's leadership as president, became a dynamic social, economic and political force unlike anything previously witnessed in the Colony. Never before had there been a serious attempt to organize fishermen in a movement to challenge the established order. Two other fishermen's organizations extant in this period were little more than social and fraternal societies organized along religious lines: the Star of the Sea Association was a Catholic club that existed primarily in St. John's while the Society of United Fishermen was an Anglican benevolent society.
The FPU was instead organized on class lines, with a mandate for collective action. The union's rallying cry, "To Each His Own," was based on the conviction that Newfoundland's outport "toilers" - fishermen, sealers and loggers - had been severely disadvantaged and downtrodden by existing economic and political structures. Merchants had exploited the toilers with the tacit support of the political class at St. John's. There was a need, "to revolutionize the fishing, political and commercial interests of the country, in a manner that will ensure for the toiler a more equal vote in the Government of the Country, as well as secure a square deal for those engaged in the fishery..." (W.F. Coaker: 1930, pp. 5-6) Revolution was not the objective however; Coaker and the FPU sought reforms of the existing system to provide a more equitable distribution of wealth in the fishery.
For centuries saltfish was the economic mainstay of Newfoundland. Although the bulk of Newfoundland's permanent settlers had arrived circa 1780-1820, a century or more and several generations later the structure of the fishery remained largely unaltered. Changes that did occur over time did not benefit outport fishermen. St. John's merchants became increasingly dominant in the trade, in many cases making outport merchants their agents. The organization of labour also changed in this period. There were far fewer planters and their wage-paid servants in the second half of the 19th century. If independent dealers hired other fishermen to fill out their crews, they were sharemen who received a share of the catch in exchange for their work - not wages.
Essentially a family affair, small crews of four to six men fished together in small open boats close to the shoreline or further afield in small schooners. They processed the fish on shore using their own premises - wharves, stages, stores and flakes - relying on other family members, especially women, to oversee the curing process and produce a marketable product.
At the end of the season the crews delivered their saltfish to the merchant from whom they had contracted a debt in the spring by purchasing supplies. The merchant provided the crew with basic foodstuffs such as flour, molasses and butter, and anything else their families needed to survive or to prosecute the fishery during that season. This contractual arrangement, known as the merchant credit or truck system, was exploitative in that it obligated the crew to sell their fish to that particular merchant who determined both the cull (grade) and price of the fish sold, and the price of the goods received in return. When the crews "settled up" in the fall, many were left with a deficit on their accounts which was carried over to the next season. This created an interminable cycle of debt for many crews, leaving them obligated to a single firm, and never able to negotiate better arrangements elsewhere.
There were few options: saltfish was an export staple and fishermen had no direct access to foreign markets in Europe, the Mediterranean and South America. The merchant's role was to bridge the vast gulf between the fisherman's flake and the distant marketplace, and this arrangement was skewed very much in their favour.
Nevertheless Newfoundland's fishing population was more socially and economically stratified than popular history has recorded. In places where there was competition amongst merchant firms, some fishers were more successful in negotiating better arrangements with merchants, exercising a degree of independence, and rarely, if ever, falling into debt. They would use surpluses on their accounts to purchase extra goods or to generate cash income. However, the majority were not so fortunate and usually finished each season barely meeting their basic needs or falling further into debt. In bad years, such as 1908 when a glut of fish in the fall caused prices to plunge, many more fell over the threshold and experienced hardship.
More centralized control of the industry by St. John's, increased reliance on large steamships to export fish to market, and cut-throat competition amongst the Water Street merchant houses - rushing early fish to market - led to a decline in the cull, and hence, in the quality of Newfoundland saltfish exports. Prices dropped and fishermen were paid less.
Coaker set out to right some of these perceived wrongs by forming the FPU. The time was right. At the first annual convention of the Supreme Council of the FPU held on Change Islands, October 29 - November 3, 1909, Coaker told the delegates that: "Last year, particularly in the Fall, fish was a despised article of food, and the manner in which our fishermen were treated by fish exporters will not soon be forgotten. The lessons taught by 1908 will be remembered in order to secure ourselves against similar conditions and treatment in future." (Coaker: 1920, p. 3)
Newfoundland fishermen were ready to act collectively: Coaker was able to report to the 1909 convention that, in just one year, 50 local councils had formed with 1,200 members. Wherever he trekked (literally by foot) that year - primarily along the northeast coast - to promote the Union, he found receptive and eager candidates for membership.
The chief difficulty the Union encountered in early years came in the form of opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, led by Archbishop M.F. Howley of St. John's, who believed that the FPU's constitution made it a "secret society." Coaker moved quickly to alleviate the Archbishop's concerns by changing the constitution, removing the clause concerning secret oaths, and he later went further by removing all potentially offending oaths and creating, instead, a "declaration of membership." While Coaker found acceptance for the new constitution from Bishop McNeil of St. George's, Howley was slower to concede.
The problem for Howley was that, despite his protests over secret oaths, he may have been more concerned about the impact of a secular Union engendering loyalty amongst the outport Catholic population, thereby undermining the Church's authority. Classed-based politics that challenged traditional hierarchal structures was anathema to Howley. In any event, his reluctance to accept the Union limited its success in attracting membership on the predominantly Catholic southern Avalon Peninsula and in Conception Bay. Archbishop Roche, Howley's successor, proved to be a more virulent opponent of the Union, especially of its involvement in political affairs.
However, on the chiefly Protestant northeast coast, the FPU reigned supreme. By 1914, the Union boasted more than 21,000 members in 206 councils, over half of Newfoundland's fishers. While the Union was unique in the Colony, its structure was based on the democratic principles of fraternal organizations familiar to fishermen, especially the Orange Lodge. Members formed a Local Council which elected an executive to represent them on the District Council. District Council officers and the Local Council chairmen made up the Supreme Council. All fishermen, coasters, planters, loggers, farmers, and later, employees of the Fishermen's Union Trading Company (UTC) were eligible for Union membership, but the vast majority earned their living from the sea. Power was designed to flow upwards from the local councils to the Supreme Council; however, Coaker was a charismatic and dynamic leader who exercised a great of influence over Union matters.
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