Fishermen's Protective Union After 1918The Squires Years and Fishery Regulations
When the National Government fell in 1918, Coaker - recognizing that the Union's political stronghold remained largely limited to the northern areas - reluctantly joined forces with the new Liberal Reform Party, formed and led by the ambitious Richard Squires. The balance of power strategy still could not work, and the Union needed access to the Legislature to deal with the post-war crisis in the saltfish trade. Healthy wartime markets that had improved the Colony's economy and enticed more fishermen and merchants to become overextended, gave way to a general depression in the trade during the early 1920s. Aggressive measures were needed.
The Liberal-Union forces easily defeated the conservative, Cashin-led, Liberal Progressive Party in the 1919 general election, winning 24 of 36 seats with 12 going to Union candidates. Coaker became Minister of Marine and Fisheries in the new government and turned his attention to the Union's long sought after fishery regulations to control the standards, prices and sale of fish in foreign markets. However, the regulations failed, mainly because they did not have sufficient teeth to compel the exporters to act in unison, even though it was in their best interest. All of the old problems became entrenched - tal-qual purchasing without regard to cure, no standardized cull, and exporters undercutting each other in the markets. The fishery continued its downward spiral throughout the 1920s, resulting in high unemployment, emigration, and falling fish prices, exports and imports. The difficulties in the fishery in this period contributed to the government's precarious financial position and the collapse of Responsible Government in 1934.
The Withdrawal from Politics
The failure of the regulations, combined with the seemingly corrupt and irresponsible practices of the Squires government, caused Coaker to become disillusioned with politics, and for many in the Union membership to become disillusioned with him. Instead of regrouping the Union Party and attempting to form the government - a reasonable prospect at the time - Coaker and the FPU withdrew from politics in 1924 feeling that nothing could be accomplished in that forum. Coaker was subsequently persuaded by Liberal and FPU support to run in a 1924 by-election against Monroe, the conservative Prime Minister, but lost the seat. Some of the candidates from the old Union party continued as Liberals, but the FPU had essentially rejected politics as a viable mechanism to achieve its objectives. Coaker again joined the political fray in 1928 on the encouragement of Richard Squires. He became a minister without portfolio in Squires' Cabinet and made another attempt, no more successful than the first, to implement fishery regulations. He resigned in 1932; again disillusioned. His experience made him a proponent of government by commission to put Newfoundland back on a sound footing, economically and politically, but he did not approve of the British-dominated model adopted in 1934.
FPU Companies - after politics
With his withdrawal from politics in 1924 and resignation of the Union's presidency two years later, Coaker began to concentrate his efforts on running the Union enterprises at Port Union. For the most part, the companies flourished. The Union Electric Light and Power Company thrived until it merged with several other utility companies to form Newfoundland Light and Power in 1967. The Advocate eventually became a community newspaper at Port Union and published until the 1980s. The Union Shipbuilding Company folded in 1927, but the Union Trading Company managed to withstand the economic crisis of the 1920s and the depression that followed.
There were problems however. Pressure from members for short-term credit resulted in the company becoming overextended. As a result, it stopped paying dividends in 1922 and could not buy back shares at par value from disgruntled fishermen. The difficulties also resulted in the Company abandoning one of its founding principles - to help undermine the merchant-sponsored credit system by dealing only in cash. Coaker instructed store managers in 1927, "... never to take it [saltfish] if you have to pay cash for it." Nevertheless the Company weathered the storm and still had 10 operating stores when it fell into receivership in 1977.
The Union's Decline
The Union was a different matter. The largely unsuccessful effort to effect change through existing political structures, combined with the worsening economic conditions in the 1920s, left its mark on the Union. The FPU was severely weakened. By 1924 it was clear to journalist Joe Smallwood - who was a great admirer of Coaker and the FPU - that the Union's best days were behind it. In a February 17, 1924 letter, Smallwood observed that the main work of the FPU had been accomplished and it was not "making new progress. It is more or less resting on its oars. Coaker is no longer as young as he was, and from what I can see he is not equal to the task of reorganizing and revitalizing the FPU, much as perhaps he knows that needs to be done." Smallwood predicted a bleak future for the Union: "it will die a natural and unspectacular death; it will be reorganized anew and rededicated to fresh ideas and committed to a new program; or some opportunist adventurer will supplant it in the North, but will inevitably come to failure." Although it continued to hold annual conventions until 1939, the FPU decreased in size and influence until it died "a natural and unspectacular death" many years later.
The FPU's failures in the political arena cannot discount its importance as the first organization in Newfoundland's history to mount a serious challenge to the established order. In the first decade of the 20th century, when Newfoundland's class structure was entrenched in stone, it was almost inconceivable that a relatively uneducated working class idealist could lead the largest segment of the population - those who occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder - to mobilize, act collectively, build their own commercial empire, and seize political power within the existing constitutional framework - all in an effort to effect reforms that would benefit the whole society. It was well ahead of its time. That it failed to achieve all of its goals is not necessarily a reflection of the Union's or Coaker's shortcomings, but is perhaps a clear illustration of how difficult the task, how ambitious the goals. Had they succeeded, Newfoundland might not have succumbed to political and financial collapse in the 1930s.
Coaker, Hon. W.F., The History of the Fishermen's Protective Union of Newfoundland. St. John's: Union Publishing Company, Ltd., 1920.
Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, Vol. II. St. John's: Newfoundland Book Publishers Limited, pp. 180-186.
McDonald, Ian D.H., "To Each His Own": William Coaker and the Fishermen's Protective Union in Newfoundland Politics, 1908-1925. St. John's: Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1987.
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