1917The Fishermen’s Union of the North Atlantic went on strike.Economy and Industry, Maritime & Fishing Industry

Fishermen’s strike, 1919. Courtesy of Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives, Photo 15799
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The “Yankee lay” was the compensation scheme that distributed the proceeds of a fishing trip. The boat owner retained the first 50%, the captain earned half of the remaining half, followed by the cook at 10%, and the remainder would then be divided among the crew, but only after the cost of fuel, food, nets, tools, and boat maintenance was deducted from its share. This scheme was challenged in 1915 when Newman Shea of Gloucester and William Brown of Boston, representing the American Federation of Labor, began organizing Gloucester fishermen and dock workers for a more equitable division. In February 1917, the union voted to strike. The first five boats were laid up on March 1, and many more were idled by striking fishermen by month’s end.

With the union’s strike in full swing, the owners’ committee hired strikebreakers who were set to arrive on the 9:45 p.m. train from Boston on April 8. The strikebreakers were tipped off to the large crowd of picketers awaiting them at the Gloucester depot, so they got off at West Gloucester and squeezed onto buses or walked into town to little effect. Once downtown, they were confronted by hundreds of union members who disarmed the strikebreakers of their pipes and bats. By summer’s end, the strike was broken because the union lacked a strike fund large enough to support its members, who were desperate for work. The failure to secure meaningful reforms from unwilling owners led to the union’s demise by 1924.

The strike affected about 350 fishermen and 20 ships.

Gloucester Daily Times. “Fishing Fleet Faces Strike.” February 27, 1917, Vol. 53 No. 8496 edition. https://sawyer.advantage-preservation.com/.
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