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Industrial disputes in the commercial fisheries of British Columbia. Gladstone, Percy Henry

Abstract

The commercial fisheries of British Columbia, operating along the province's 750-mile winding coastline and out into the North Pacific, are extremely diverse. Each of the many different species of fish requires its own technique of catching and method of processing and marketing. Processors are concentrated into a few firms, handling all products. Fishermen are a specialized, but nonetheless competing, labour force, divided by a variety of gears used and wage payments received, and further split historically into various language and racial groups, often isolated in close-knit communities. Characteristic of the industry is its uncertainty of operation and income. Lack of control of the supply of fish has been further accentuated by variations in conservation measures designed to perpetuate the fisheries. These rigid government controls have, in part, determined the nature of the fierce competition and rapid technological changes which have occurred when fishermen and companies have attempted to increase their share of the fish. Another uncertainty has been fluctuating market demand, especially in those export markets which take the bulk of the catch. Focus of the tensions produced has been disputes between fishermen and companies over the price of raw fish. Fish prices were the cause of the first strikes and attempts at unionism in the years 1893 to 1914. In this period, while the companies organized a tight employers' organization, antagonism between fishermen, especially whites and Indians on the one hand, and Japanese on the other hand, often defeated their aims. Unions that did survive were restricted to a single area, type of gear or language group. In the second phase of unionism, much stress was laid on legislative action to restrict fishing licences, especially to Japanese fishermen. Rapid changes in technology have dominated the last two decades. Mergers and consolidations have concentrated processing into a few multiphase plants. The fishing fleet has become highly mobile, adaptable to many fisheries and increasingly owned by individual fishermen, though often with company financing. Local isolation has broken down, competition between groups has increased, and fishermen face an increasing need for co-operation to cut insecurity and risk. Out of the struggles against depression conditions in the 1930's, scattered fishermen's unions were welded into a coast-wide organization. Joined with more recently stabilized unions of shoreworkers, it forms one industry-wide union, enrolling the bulk of the labour force. The other attempted solution to these problems has been producers1 co-operatives which have had a limited success in enlisting independent fishermen from some fisheries and areas. The industry today is highly organized with collective agreements all processing operations and practically all fisheries. One major union negotiates with a single employers association, with independent vessel owners and co-operatives playing a subsidiary role. Basic insecurities which produced past industrial disputes have not been eliminated, and the prospect is for continued conflict, coupled with displacement of fishermen and shoreworkers from the industry as productivity and capital costs rise.

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