Remembering New Bedford’s 1985-86 Fishing Strike
“You fishermen over the years have been screwed royally," said then-New Bedford City Councilor David P. Williford to a raucous crowd of union fishermen. “But you got sometimes nobody to blame but yourself because you never stuck together. You never had a leader. Well you got one now, and if you don’t stick together this time, you better hang it up.”
It’s difficult to imagine America’s top fishing port slowing down for a moment, but in late 1985 the once-unionized seafaring workforce of New Bedford brought operations to a screeching halt when they went on a strike. Then-Mayor John Bullard said at the time that stoppage was costing the industry roughly $1 million per day.
According to the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center, which keeps detailed records of the strike digitally and as part of an in-person exhibit at their downtown location, the three key reasons for the strike were: how to divide proceeds of catch; the fate of the $13 million pension fund for fishermen; and how crewmen could be hired.
The union picketed the docks and around the Wharfinger Building where the City-sponsored seafood auction was held. The demonstrations sometimes escalated into violence as boats that tried to leave the port were bombarded with rocks, boat owners' car tires were slashed, and wires were pulled from the electrical box at the Wharfinger Building.
Fishing strikes in New Bedford were not a novel concept at the time. Unions had went on strike successfully in 1967 and 1973 and had resulted in fishermen getting better wages and working conditions.
Approximately six weeks after the 1986 strike, however, with the backdrop of corporations being empowered by the anti-union crusade of the Reagan Administration, a previously unsuccessful strike in 1981, and cultural distinctions in the fishing community creating barriers to their ability to coalesce, Councilor Williford’s warnings became a premonition.
Fleets of vessels crewed with non-union fishermen embarked on trips out of New Bedford Harbor, which devastated fishermen solidarity and effectively ended the unionization of local fishermen at the Port of New Bedford. The unions were not awarded new contracts.
Though strike has faded from public memory, a recent and devastating report by New Bedford Light and Pro Publica detailing how foreign companies are capitalizing on the industry at the expense of local working class fishermen, as well as the ongoing dispute around scallop-leasing, highlight the consequences of the successful union-busting efforts of the boat-owners nearly four decades ago.
While the large corporations on New Bedford’s shoreline enjoy record profits, the working-class members of the fishing community are unable to effectively demand their fair share without an organized collective bargaining force.
“When the union was there, you didn’t have a situation where people were complaining about working conditions or complaining about the wages or anything else," said labor attorney and former New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang in a recorded testimonial at the Fishing Heritage Center. “It was a good, well-known job. The idea that what American would ever work those jobs? Well the fact of the matter was that about seven hundred of them did. They were in the union and they loved the job.”
For more information on the 1986 strike and the history of organized labor of the local fishing industry, visit New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center’s in-person exhibit “More than a Job: Work and Community in New Bedford’s Fishing Industry” at their 38 Bethel Street location in downtown New Bedford.