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Boat Owners Prepare for ‘Long Siege’ After Fishermen Walk Out

December 28, 1985

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) _ Quick resolution is unlikely in a fishermen’s strike that is costing the nation’s richest fishing port at least $1 million a day and could have an impact on Boston and New York restaurants, officials say.

About 750 fishermen rejected boat owners’ demands for a higher share of profits and 150 walked picket lines Friday on piers in New Bedford and Fairhaven, carrying signs that read, ″On Strike″ and ″Unfair.″

Negotiations will not be scheduled until after Jan. 1, federal mediator Austin Skinner said Friday. ″I don’t think anybody really wants a long strike, but there are some real philosophical differences that have created problems.″

The strike will cost New Bedford’s economy $1 million a day, estimated New Bedford-area Chamber of Commerce executive director James Mathis.

It also will mean greater demand in Boston for Canadian and Maine sea products, predicted Roger Berkowitz, a Boston seafood restaurateur. ″A lot of what New Bedford is doing now is going to New York and might impact that market more so than ours.″

David Barnet, an attorney for the 32-member Seafood Producers Association, said that while boat owners didn’t want a strike, they were prepared ″for a long siege.

″During the winter months, it’s cheaper to tie up than give in to demands.″

The fishermen’s union broke off talks with the owners last week when the association stuck with its demand to split catch profits evenly between crew members and boat owners and operators.

Fishermen earn 58 percent of the catch on large boats called draggers and 64 percent on boats that fish for scallops, shares established a decade ago, Barnet said. The rest of the profit goes to boat owners and captains.

The union represents 750 people, about one-third of New Bedford’s fishermen, but district spokesman Joe Piva said he expected nonunion fishermen to honor the strike.

″I’ve been fishing for six years and I’ve got nothing in return,″ said Robert Jesus, a striking scallop fisherman. ″We’re going to show them we are not monkeys. We’re going to put our foot down right now.″

″I’ll walk the picket line until I drop,″ said striker Michael Varao.

The high price of scallops helped raise the value of New Bedford’s catch to $109 million last year, making it the richest fishing port in the nation.

But boat owners say the catch has been unusually bad in the past few months, while the costs of doing business, including buying insurance, have risen dramatically.

″The timing is so bad for anybody to come in and say, ‘We want this and we want that,‴ said James Costakes, general manager of the owners’ group.

Under the contract negotiated a year ago by Teamsters Local 59, fishermen must pay such expenses as food and fuel out of their share of profits.

Fishermen switched their affiliation in March to the Seafarers International Union. The union at first demanded an 11 percent increase in catch share and benefits over three years, then lowered its demand to 9 percent before talks broke off, said union vice president Jack Caffey.

Barnet said the union broke off negotiations when leaders called for a strike vote Dec. 16.

Officials of the Seafood Workers Union and the Fish Lumpers Union, which together represent more than 250 processing-plant workers and fish unloaders, told members they were free to honor picket lines. Teamsters secretary- treasurer Umberto Cruz said his members would stay on the job.

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