Bitter strike disrupts Newfoundland

ST. JOHN'S, Newfoundland, Canada -- The Canadians who live in the sea-swept reaches of Newfoundland, nicknamed 'The Rock,' already suffer from the nation's highest unemployment rate,.

Now they are also engulfed in Newfoundland's most bitter labor dispute since the former British colony became the last Canadian province in 1949.


For the past three weeks, a public service strike has crippled government services for the 568,000 inhabitants of the 570-mile-wide island in the northern Atlantic reaches.

Island inhabitants are of European origin, mostly English, Irish, Scottish and French. They have what is acknowledged to be an almost perverse sense of humor, perhaps from centuries of coping with mining and fishing disasters engendered by their hard livelihood.

Newfie jokes abound across Canada. That should come as no surprise about a province where iceberg watching is a pastime and where a song entitled 'Thank God We're Surrounded by Water' made the hit parade four years ago.


However, the current strike has not engendered any jokes.

Some 5,200 clerical, administrative and public works department employees have defied back-to-work court injunctions in a bid to win wage equality with other Newfoundland public servants, who earn up to $2500 a year more than they do.

They also oppose legislation requiring public-service unions in Newfoundland to keep up to 49 percent of their members on the job as 'essential' workers during a strike.

The remaining government workers -- 24,500 of them -- are now threatening to jmin their colleagues on the picket line.

The strike has led to picket-line arrests of several prominent labor leaders and politicians, including Peter Fenwick, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party.

Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford, who comes close to running the province on a first-name basis with its citizens, is under heavy police protection after receiving three death threats this week.

Frustration over high unemployment and never-realized dreams of rich offshore oil projects underly the conflict. The salaries of provincial civil servants have been frozen for the last two years.

'My salary is $18,700,' the equivalent of about $13,500 U.S. dollars, said Bill Gosse, a 31-year-old computer supervisor on strike. 'I'm almost ashamed to say it is so low. We have been pushed to the point where we feel stupid working.'


The latest figures released at the beginning of March show an unemployment rate of 19.2 percent in Newfoundland, compared with the Canadian average of 9.8 percent and a February figure of 7.3 percent in the United States.

After years of wrangling with the Canadian government about ownership of offshore oil reserves, the Newfoundland government reached agreement with the federal government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney last year. The agreement allows for 'joint' development of the resources, but allows the province to keep any tax revenues from discoveries.

The Hibernia petroleum field off the coast of Newfoundland is believed to contain between 500 million and 800 million barrels of crude reserves.

But plunging world oil prices market have cast doubts on whether Mobil Corp. will follow through on its long-range plan to produce 150,000 barrels daily from the field by 1991.

The province relies solely on natural resources -- fishing, mining, forestry and energy -- for its revenues. Its inhabitants are already the highest-taxed in Canada. Any cutbacks in planned oil production would sink it further into a hole.

Things got so bad last month that the impoverished fishing village of Ochre Pit Cove applied to the United States for $1 million Canadian in foreign aid for a wharf extension.


In his written request to Secretary of State George Shultz, local fisherman Pat Layman compared the poverty in his province to that of a Third-World country.

Latest Headlines


Follow Us