My First Strike
published in the 'Zine 'Xtra Tuff #5, The Strike Issue
published in the 'Zine 'Xtra Tuff #5, The Strike Issue
The first year I fished as my own skipper was 1979, after two years of crewing for an experienced Norwegian who had been at it since the mid-fifties. My wife, Veronica, and I had partnered up with two totally inexperienced but enthusiastic friends to buy the permit and boat during the winter, and the purchase took some creative financial scrambling. We swung the deal, though, and then the work started. The boat we arranged to buy from the cannery was an old beater of a wooden hull with a 3160 CAT engine that had been pulled for a rebuild. Chris and I spent every available minute of time crawling around the boat as the engineers re-installed that engine, asking questions about the fuel system and how it worked, the electrical system and how it worked, the exhaust, the cooling system, the hydraulics, the water tanks the fuel tanks, the reel, the electronics, and on and on. It was a crash course in boat operations, and we drank it all in until we had just enough knowledge to be dangerous rather than effective when we broke down. But that’s another story.
We were excited to get to the fishing. When the boat was actually in the water after months of preparation and work, when the engine finally started, after all the web had been mended by Veronica’s and Gigi’s inexperienced hands, after all the groceries and gear had been bought (but not paid for) and stowed aboard, we went to the cannery expecting to leave the river with the fleet only to find out from a gathering of fishermen at mug-up that we were on strike.
We were stunned. What does this mean? We asked. Who is on strike? Everyone? We found it hard to believe that every boat in the Inlet, over 700 of them, were all in agreement to do this. None of us had ever experienced a strike before. WHY were we striking? For a better price? Why? What was wrong with the price we had? We had no knowledge of markets, of expenses vs earnings, of price-fixing or what was fair or not. All we had experienced since the decision to get involved in fishing was the hard work. Now we had to deal with politics??? “Bullshit. Let’s just go fishing,” we argued to ourselves, “Let these guys work out this crap. We need to figure out how to catch fish.” Plus, we reasoned, we’ve got a ton of money to recover. Our expenses were overwhelming. We can’t afford to sit at the dock and wait for the processors to come to us. We need to start making money NOW!
I was a teacher before I fished. I knew intellectually that breaking a strike was the wrong thing to do. It had always been clear to me that if a teacher strike were voted, to be an effective tool everyone needed to participate. My confusion in the matter wasn’t about my belief in supporting a strike. The problem was that I didn’t see myself as a fisherman. I bought a permit and a boat; I worked as hard as anyone I saw to get ready for the season; but I still hadn’t fished a day in my life other than as a deckhand; I hadn’t yet earned the right to be called a fisherman. No one had yet shown me the secret handshake. I supposed I’d merit it eventually, but until then, I was just a teacher who fished. The concerns of the fishermen weren’t mine. How could my small effort create a problem for all these other professionals?
Fishermen around the cannery who saw us as green and dumb talked about strikebreakers. They mentioned guys who had gone fishing during the last strike, and though the stories weren’t clear or complete, we started listening more attentively. They were speaking about us, to us, without ever actually mentioning our names.
After standing frustrated on the dock all that first day, we met at Chris’s house to hash things out. We decided that as much as wanted to fish, we wouldn’t go until we got a straight answer from someone who knew what that would mean. We agreed my first skipper, Jim, would be the person to ask. He had experience and perspective, and he would be honest with me. I’d ask him the next day if it looked like the strike would continue.
I found Jim at mug-up the next morning. The canneries hadn’t budged on the price, and there was a growing tension and an angry tone to the fishermen’s talk around us as I asked him if we could have a private conversation on his boat, the North Sea, after coffee. He agreed, tight-lipped with a short nod of his head. I didn’t want to embarrass him by asking naive, perhaps sensitive questions of him in public, so I left him in the mug-up room with the old-timers, and walked out to the boardwalk and listened to the fishermen complain: “Fuckin’ canneries. They can settle this in a heartbeat if they wanted to.” “No use fer us to sit on the beach, goddamit.” This is a waste of time. I swear I’m leavin’. I’m sellin’ downriver if this doesn’t end soon. We’re always getting’ the lowest fuckin’ price. Fuck these guys.” It was the beginnings of a long education.
I joined Jim half-an-hour later in the cabin of the North Sea. I sat in the doorway as he worked on a windshield-wiper motor. His actions were slow and deliberate. So was his speech. “You don’t want to go fishing, Pat. Not during a strike. I know how bad you want to go, but you risk losing a lot more than a few dollars if you do.” He told me a story of a guy who had done just that, years ago. He fished while everyone else was on the beach striking, and for that he was ostracized by his friends and competitors alike. Other fishermen quit talking to him, even the cannery workers lost respect for him, and as a result he always had trouble getting the services he needed, couldn’t count on help if he got in trouble, and lost the friendships and support he had taken for granted when he decided to make money at the expense of someone else. It lasted years, and he eventually sold out. His reputation followed him, though, when he moved to the Bay, Jim had heard, and he eventually got out of fishing altogether, he thought. “You don’t want that,” he advised with a shake of his head as he tightened a screw on the wiper motor and looked over his glasses at me. “That’s not the way to start your fishing career.”
I thanked him for his advice, and climbed up the ladder to meet Chris, Gigi and Veronica. “What’d he say?” they asked. I told them what he had said, and though we didn’t like it, it was convincing enough to keep us off the grounds until the canneries upped their price enough a week later. Encased in that decision was my first realization that I was a fisherman, not an outsider looking in. In the meantime, we couldn’t stand it. We loaded our sport rods and reels onto our commercial fishing boat and went trolling for salmon in the river mouth. But that’s another story.