03/15/2012 11:14 EDT | Updated 05/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Locked-out workers board Ocean Choice International vessel in Nova Scotia

MULGRAVE, N.S. - Locked-out trawler workers boarded a fishing vessel owned by Ocean Choice International in Nova Scotia on Thursday to protest the company's use of replacement workers.

John Lushman, 57, said the locked-out workers persuaded four replacement crew to leave the Newfoundland Lynx, while two others decided not to board the vessel in Mulgrave.

"We got six quitters out of it," he said in a telephone interview from on board the trawler. "We'd hoped for more."

Martin Sullivan, the chief executive of Ocean Choice, confirmed in an interview the workers had been persuaded not to board. However, he said there are still sufficient crew to allow the large vessel to fish for halibut, turbot, redfish and shrimp.

"This is a very important vessel in our fleet," said Sullivan. "They (the union) know we can't have it tied up for too long. We're out trying to conduct our business like we normally do."

About 45 workers at Ocean Choice, based in St. John's, N.L., have been locked out since Feb. 4.

A group of the workers took a ferry to Nova Scotia on Wednesday when they heard the vessel would be unloading a catch in the small community near the Canso causeway.

Originally, Lushman said eight locked-out workers boarded the vessel in Mulgrave but six of them left after police arrived.

He said he and one other trawler worker who continued their protest left the vessel at mid-afternoon as it prepared to leave port.

The veteran trawler worker said he's been on the ship for four decades. Lushman said he'll continue to follow the vessel to other harbours and attempt to persuade replacement workers not to work for the company.

David Decker, secretary-treasurer of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, said many of the workers have spent their lives on the vessel and are willing to continue the protests.

"We'll do what we can within the balance of the law," he said in a telephone interview.

"They have the right to be on that vessel. That vessel was purchased with the profits earned by the sweat of their brows."

Last month, 23 locked-out trawler workers were arrested in Bay Roberts, N.L., as they tried to prevent replacement workers from boarding the Newfoundland Lynx.

Lushman was among the workers who were arrested.

"It was a bit of a hassle to go and get arrested," he said. "We'd just as well go peacefully as be arrested. We don't have a chance. If the cops say we have to go, we have to go."

The union has said that Ocean Choice's bargaining position would decrease wages.

However, Sullivan said the company's final offer to the workers didn't cut compensation.

He said the dispute is centred on the company's ability to manage the vessel without overly strict work rules.

"We have the utmost respect for the crew members of the Lynx," he said. "If the union had been reasonable about trying to negotiate an agreement, there would be no dispute whatsoever."

Sullivan also said the dispute over the vessel is tied to the union's reaction to his company's closure of a unionized groundfish plant in Marystown, N.L.

Lana Payne, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, said labour groups will continue protests targeting the firm's operations until it returns to bargaining.

"This dispute has crossed provincial borders," she said in an interview. "This is a matter for working people in both provinces."

The union issued a news release with the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour saying the dispute is a signal of a declining labour relations climate in Canada.

"Collective bargaining is under attack across the country," Payne said in the statement. "There is absolutely no incentive for an employer to bargain when they can operate normally during a legal strike."

— By Michael Tutton in Halifax