The common joke that “nobody is from Florida” raises an important question. “Where did the native Floridians go?”
The answer in most cases is: “Nowhere.” They are still here — in the building trades unions, in the black neighborhoods, behind the check-out counter at the “7-Eleven,” or on the outskirts of Florida’s sprawling metropolises, with an old john-boat parked on a trailer at the side of the house.
The closest thing Florida has to a “native” tradition, in fact, besides the culture of the Seminole Indians, can be found in scattered fishing villages like Cortez, on the Sarasota Bay in Manatee County. Cortez was settled in the 1880s by fishing people from Carteret County, North Carolina, who came seeking one thing of which Florida has a-plenty: mullet.
A community of kinfolks, Cortez’s population of 500 mostly traces its lineage back to about 10 Carteret County families — the Taylors, Joneses, Guthries, Bells, Fulfords, Garners, Lewises and others. The lines between families overlap so that it is difficult for an outsider to keep track of who is related to whom, and the nicknames — Goose, Gator, Tink, Snooks, Wormy, Popeye, Toodle, Bunks — make it almost impossible.
By comparison, Bob Knowlton, who only arrived in 1922, is a newcomer to Cortez. Now the resident fireman for the Cortez Volunteer Fire Department, Bob lives with his wife Ruth in an apartment adjoining the station. A tall man who looks younger than his 85 years, Bob knows more about putting out fires than anyone in Cortez. He knows as much about catching fish as anyone in Manatee County. And he knows more about the history of unions among Florida fishermen (and they were all-male organizations) than almost anyone in the state:
“A fisherman can jump in the boat anytime, day or night, and go when he likes, come back when he likes, and he doesn’t have to go at all if he doesn’t want to. They’re the hardest people in the world to organize.”
Lord knows, Bob Knowlton has tried. He spent 20 years, from the mid-1930s until 1958, traveling up and down Florida’s west coast organizing mullet fishermen. There were some important victories during those years, some moments of unity and strength, but never a lasting organization.
Mullet fishermen initiated the union efforts because mullet was and is the main commercial “crop” for scores of fishing families, but the price they received for their catches was almost wholly dependent on local dealers.
In Cortez, the battle lines between fishermen and fish dealers were often drawn right down the middle of families. Instead of Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller or the president of the U.S. Steel Corporation, fishermen had to organize against their first cousins, their uncles and sometimes their fathers. Consequently, this labor history had a distinct quality of cooperation, as well as a viciousness that only family feuds can generate.
When Bob Knowlton moved to Cortez in 1922, he knew no one in the village and organizing a fishermen’s union was the furthest thing from his mind. But he had worked for four years as a fireman on Michigan’s Grand Trunk railroad. “When I first started working on the railroad, they could keep you out there shoveling coal for 16 hours,” he says. “But they got the union while I was there and then they had to relieve you after eight hours. Once we got the union working, it worked fine, and that’s what got me interested in a union here in Cortez.”
Knowlton had learned fishing by working with Elverton Green in Cortez and had his own boat in the 1930s, when workers in many industries across the country were organizing for the first time. It was a difficult time for mullet fishermen then too. Earl Guthrie of Cortez recalls, “In ’36, me and Bill Guthrie and Jim Campbell fished 13 weeks and made $26.37 apiece. For 13 weeks! I’ll tell you, when you drive a guy to the point that he can’t make a living for his family, he’ll fight. And we was to that point.”
Cortez played a leading role in the first union and the ones that followed for two main reasons: Cortez was the second largest mullet fishery in the state, and those fishermen, being closely related, stick together, whether in a barroom fight or in the union. An interesting contrast is Fort Myers, the largest mullet fishery in the state. The ports in Fort Myers are strung out along a narrow peninsula. Their geographical separation led to more competition among fish dealers, fewer family ties among fishermen and a harder job of building unity.
The only targets for the fishermen’s frustration with low prices were the fish dealers in their own communities. In Cortez, the first organized action against dealers took place in 1932.
“In the spring when silver mullet season started, they cut us to a cent a pound,” says Earl Guthrie, remembering that crucial year. “Well, we’d been expecting to make a few dollars during silver mullet season, and we couldn’t make it, that’s all. So we all got together and formed a union and set a date for a strike if they didn’t go back up on the price.”
On the morning of the strike, the villagers gathered in the empty lot next to Buck Parent’s grocery store, one block from the fish houses on the shore. “Practically everybody in Cortez gathered up there that morning,” Earl Guthrie recalls. “There was a flagpole down there in front of the store. And we run the American flag up and we said to the dealers, ‘When you put the price back up, we’ll take the flag down and go back to work. Until you get right and give us the price we’re asking, we’ll sit right here from now on.’
“Well, everybody was sore at each other,” he adds, “the fishermen and the dealers. And the dealers thought, ‘They’ll go back to work in a couple of days.’ But we didn’t go back. We sat right there! Finally they said, ‘Well boys, we’ll go it!’ So we took the flag down and went back to work.”
In retrospect, Cortez fishermen agree that nobody was making money during the Depression, not even the dealers. Woodrow Green, who ran a fish house in the ’30s but later became active in union efforts, says quite a few dealers went bankrupt during those lean years. Even when they trucked their fish up into Georgia or even further, they could only get two-and-a-half cents a pound, after paying the fishermen one-and-a-half cents.
“We went back fishing after the strike,” says Earl Guthrie. “But it wasn’t too long after that until first one guy and then the other began to drop out [of the union], until we didn’t have no strength at all. Well, the union just faded out like a cloud.”
By the late ’30s, dealers started making good money again, and fishermen in Cortez and elsewhere realized once again that they were at the mercy of the local businesses that bought their catch dockside. There were tremendous gaps between prices paid in different ports. Cortez dealers always paid more than dealers in Fort Myers, for example, largely because Cortez fishermen knew the dealers, knew how much they were selling the fish for and knew to demand a fair price.
But Cortez fishermen also realized that no matter how united they were locally, they would never increase the price very much in Cortez as long as the other ports on the coast remained unorganized. The first opportunity for a statewide union and a standard price for mullet presented itself in 1938 when the Seafarers International Union sent an organizer into Cortez.
An SIU local was formed, with Bob Knowlton as its business agent. He remembers, “We’d call a meeting down at the schoolhouse and talk things over, and the dealers usually gave us what we wanted. We got the price up to three cents a pound.” With SIU locals in east and west coast ports, the total state membership reached 6,000 fishermen at one point, says Knowlton.
Soon even the dealers in Cortez saw some value in the union. “I sat down and talked to the dealers,” Knowlton says, “and they saw that the union would keep Fort Myers from buying and selling fish cheaper than Cortez, and then putting them on the market and cutting [our] throats.”
But the dealers weren’t above pulling some pretty devious tricks to try to break the strikes that did occur. “The dealers were two-sided about the union,” says Grey Fulford, holding up two fingers and crossing them to emphasize the point. “They’d join the union and pay their dues and come to the meetings and talk about how they were for the fishermen, but then they’d go behind our backs and try to bust the union. One time we went on strike at the same time as St. Petersburg and Sarasota, and the dealers here got one of their good buddies to go out fishing, and then they hauled them fish up to Petersburg on trucks and showed them around to all the fishermen and said, ‘See, them Cortez boys has done broke the strike and gone back fishing.’ Then they carried them same fish down to Sarasota and showed them around. Just trying to make the other fishermen suspicious of us.”
In 1945, a post-war strike wave swept through almost every industry in the country, because war-time profits had far surpassed the wage increases allowed by the War Labor Board. With the return of thousands of veterans and the expiration of “no-strike pledges” taken by unions for the duration of the war, picket lines blossomed all over the country. Cortez was no different. In that year Florida produced a record 55 million pounds of mullet, and the fishermen wanted a bigger piece of the pie. When the dealers refused to grant it, a strike ensued.
“At first when some of them boys got home they got sore as the devil with we guys,” explains Earl Guthrie. “We called a little meeting one night and some of them said, ‘By God, we’ve been over yonder fighting a war and you fellas been home sitting on your ass on strike!’ I said, ‘Fellas, just wait. Let’s get something straight. We were fighting for your interests so you’d have something when you came back. And you was making as much in the service as we was here.’ From then on the dealers didn’t get no help from the servicemen.”
As is true with any strike, it was hard for the fishing families to survive without a weekly paycheck, especially since many of them had no savings. But the government had instituted a “20/20” program for unemployed veterans, under which they could draw $20 a week for 20 weeks. That helped some of the families, and the union members developed ways to help each other. “Ones that didn’t have money would borrow from different ones that did,” says Gene Fulford. “One time we had a big fishfry to help raise money for the union, and the dealers really got mad about that cause we went out and caught a boatload of fish.”
Besides the financial strains, there were plenty of emotional strains on families in Cortez, too, as the village was again split right down the middle between the dealers and fishermen. “You’d think somebody was gonna kill each other,” says Gene, “but they was just mad, just mad. ‘Judge’ Millis, one of the dealers, he was just like a daddy to me, and he got so mad that he wouldn’t even speak to me. He’d just spit on the ground and walk away.”
The strike lasted for several weeks; finally the dealers gave in and raised the price of fish. But the resentment between the dealers and the union had reached a point where the word went out that Bob Knowlton was going to be run out of town because of his union activities.
“Yeah, I remember something about that,” says Bob, chuckling as he tells the story. “I said, ‘Well, all right, I’m not gonna run too easy.’ So then they said they wouldn’t buy my fish. Tink come to me one day and said, ‘I can’t buy any more of your fish.’ So I went around and told two or three guys, ‘I can’t sell any more fish to Tink.’ They said, ‘Why? Just cause you’re trying to keep the union going?’ So every one of them that was fishing for him quit. They told him, ‘When Bob can sell fish, we’ll go back fishing for you.’ After a few days of that, one of the other dealers, Jim Guthrie, said he’d buy my fish, so I told the guys, ‘I’m gonna sell my fish over yonder,’ and then they went back to fishing for Tink.”
Despite victories like the 1945 strike in Cortez, the Seafarers Union was never able to achieve its main goal — a standard price for fish in all ports. Failing that, and lacking the solid backing of all the fishermen on the coast, the organization collapsed by the end of 1945, as the dealers cleverly played fishermen in one port off against those in other ports.
For seven years, from 1945 to 1952, there was no fishermen’s union in Florida. Major organizing drives continued in other states — particularly in New England and along the Texas, Louisiana and Alabama coasts — but a big stumbling block to those drives arose when fish dealers began filing court suits. They claimed that the fishermen’s collective efforts to raise the price of fish were in violation of the “price-fixing” provisions of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Those claims were upheld in several landmark court rulings, which effectively nullified the ability of unions to negotiate contracts and price schedules with fish dealers. This twisted use of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act proved to be a major factor in the next attempt to organize Florida fishermen.
By 1952, the United Packinghouse Workers of America had already organized most of the major companies in the packinghouse industry, such as Swift, Cudahy and Armour, and had also negotiated contracts with many of the smaller, independent companies as well. The UPWA was interested in expanding its ranks to include other types of workers; and with a potential of 11,000 fishermen and shrimpers, Florida seemed a likely choice. After some initial contacts in 1952, the UPWA established a statewide fishermen’s local in 1953, headquartered in Osprey, near Sarasota, but when the international office appointed a former dealer as organizer, many fishermen grew suspicious and the infant local collapsed completely by the middle of 1954.
The UPWA then assigned one of its national organizers, Ed Beltrame, to the Florida campaign. “The international sent me into Florida to put the pieces back together,” says Beltrame, now retired and living in Lowell, Michigan, “and the first thing I had to do was establish better fines of communication. I started making the rounds of all the ports and set up six different locals, at Cortez, Everglades City, Homasassa, Fort Myers, Pine Island and Cedar Key. Then I hired J.B. Roberts [of Osprey] to travel around and talk to the fishermen about the union. Everybody called him Prof because he was a retired schoolteacher, and he knew all about the fishermen up and down the west coast. He was very instrumental in getting the union going again.”
Beltrame began holding “general port meetings” every three months, at which fishermen from all over the state would assemble to discuss their problems. National UPWA leaders, like Secretary-Treasurer G.R. “Butch” Hathaway, came to those meetings to encourage the local organizing efforts. The UPWA’s regional office in Atlanta began putting out a monthly newsletter for fishermen.
Beltrame and Prof Roberts traveled the state until mid-1955, when Bob Knowlton replaced the elderly Roberts as a paid organizer. From that point on, Beltrame covered the north end of the state and Knowlton took from Tampa south to the Keys. With Beltrame putting 65,000 miles on his car in one year and Bob putting 35,000 miles on his ’47 Chevrolet in one summer, the UPWA’s membership climbed to 1,400 by the end of 1955.
It wasn’t easy to get the union recognized in some places after the failure of the Seafarers, as local resistance to it was very strong. “I went down south one time,” Bob recalls, “and there was a guy who was kind of a bully for the whole town. They said he’d hit a guy over the head with a gun barrel and bent the barrel. I said, ‘Well, let’s go talk to him,’ but the other fishermen said, ‘You can’t talk to him. He’ll kill you if you go up.’
“I went up there and told him what we were trying to do, and he said, ‘Let me tell you something, when you get that working like you say, I’ll be in it. I’m gonna wait and see.’ I don’t know whether he ever joined, but he never did cause any trouble.”
Woodrow Green and other Cortez fishermen also traveled around the coast for the union, sometimes with Bob and sometimes on their own. “One time down in Fort Myers there was a guy who was brother to the biggest dealer,” says Green, “and the fishermen wouldn’t even invite him to their meetings. But we went down and paid the gas for some of them to come up to our meetings in Cortez to see how the union worked, and eventually that brother to the dealer, he became the friendliest one of all. And when his wife began to catch on, boy, she was all right. See, the women was mainly the ones that was pushing the whole thing, cause they wanted a living.”
Though pushing the union behind the scenes, women were not allowed to play any formal roles in the union drive. “That was a mistake,” says Beltrame, “because we never really gave the women a chance to support what we were trying to do. The UPWA had set up women’s auxiliaries in other places, but we never got around to doing it in Florida, and that hurt us.”
The union pursued its goal of a uniform price for fish in every port, and in late 1955 Beltrame invited all the dealers to come to a general port meeting to hear the union’s demands. “The dealers listened to our proposals but turned thumbs down to them,” says Beltrame. “I had even drawn up sample contracts, showing them what we wanted to negotiate, but the union’s legal counsel had warned me that the Sherman Anti-Trust Act prevented us from negotiating on the price of fish. Once the dealers turned down our proposals, the only thing we could do was try to force the issue in each port.”
Early in 1956, the UPWA called a series of strikes in ports on the west coast, including one in Cortez. Despite resistance from some fishermen, the strikes were successful in raising the price of all fish: mullet went from five to seven cents a pound to eight to 10 cents, depending on the port; trout went from 22 cents to 32 cents; bluefish went up from 10 cents to 14 cents; redfish went from 12 cents to 16 cents; and pompano went from 85 cents to $1.50.
In Cortez, the strike ended after nine days when the dealers agreed to raise the price of mullet to 10 cents I a pound. But there were negative repercussions from the strike that would eventually drive the dealers further away from the fishermen and closer to the dealers down south.
Ralph Fulford of the Fulford Fish Company explains the dealers’ point of view on the strike: “They started out to organize the whole coast and it would have been a good thing. The fishermen needed it. But then Cortez went on strike first and we had trucks that stopped coming in here to buy fish and started going down to Pine Island, cause they were still fishing down there. Well it took us years to get those trucks to come back to Cortez, and some of them never did come back.”
Cortez dealers eventually became more influenced by the attitudes of dealers in other ports, and they turned against the union. “When them dealers down south seen the union was growing and doing some good, they began to kick pretty heavy,” says Woodrow Green. “They got onto Tink and Judge and Jim Guthrie and they
turned turtle. They had been 100 percent for the fishermen until that clique south got in with them, but then they was one of them. We’d go down to Fort Myers, they’d go down to Fort Myers. We’d have meetings together, they’d have meetings together. Yeah, they turned turtle upside down.”
The UPWA had two other obstacles to overcome to build a lasting organization for fishermen: racism and internal disunity. Like other CIO unions, the UPWA had taken strong stands on the importance of organizing all workers, black and white, and at its 1947 convention one third of the delegates representing locals across the country were black. But the fishing villages of Florida were almost completely white in the 1950s, and many of them, including Cortez, still have no black residents. The UPWA’s tenure in Cortez was the one time in the village’s history when the prejudices relaxed a little bit, as the common economic interests of the fishermen and the UPWA’s black members overrode the Jim Crow attitudes of the time. The divisions were still there, but not as sharply as before.
“The Seafarers didn’t have any blacks,” says Bob Knowlton, “but the Packinghouse Workers had plenty of them, and lots of officers that were black. In fact, they had a black organizer named Don Smith who was a troubleshooter for the union. He came here to Cortez one time and stopped in front of our house. He didn’t get out and come in, so I went out and got him and we come in and had breakfast. My wife Ruth said, ‘What are people around here gonna say?’ I said, ‘I don’t care what they say. He’s all right.’
“And one time I got a couple of guys to go with me to Tampa for a meeting, and Smith was up there at that. He got up and talked and told them some things, and when we was coming home one of them said, ‘If you had about half a dozen like Don Smith it wouldn’t take long to organize the whole state.’ I never heard any complaints about blacks in the union, not here anyway.”
Ed Beltrame never encountered any direct problems from Florida fishermen opposed to UPWA’s racial policies, but there were grumblings under the surface that he never heard. “When we went up to that meeting in Tampa,” says Gene Fulford, “there was a great big fellah, black as tar. He was the head organizer from Chicago. And for some of them that stopped it right there. I heard some of them say if he was the head of it then to hell with it.”
In any case, racism was not as harmful as the disunity within the ranks of the fishermen. Stubborn individualism hurt the union repeatedly in key struggles. “We could have all got more money for our fish,” says Hal Culbreath of Cortez, “but you know this bunch of fishermen here, they’d go to that schoolhouse and swear they didn’t have the $3 to pay their monthly union dues, but then they’d come right down here to the Sailor’s Haven beer joint and get drunk. They had enough money to get drunk! And when we went on strike some of them’d swear they wasn’t going fishing, but they couldn’t wait till they got out of the schoolhouse fore they’d go.”
The UPWA in Florida finally came to an abrupt and nearly bloody ending in the spring of 1957, when a long and turbulent strike broke out at Fort Myers Beach. “They cut the price on the fish,” says Knowlton. “We couldn’t see any reason for it, they didn’t need to do it, so we called them out on strike. And it went on for four to six weeks if I remember right, and every week me and Woodrow carried $1,000 to $1,500 down there from the national strike fund so the fishermen could live.
“But there was one guy there, a fisherman, and he was the one that started all the trouble and kept it up. He said if he could sell his fish he was going fishing. That one guy went on fishing, and then he got another one to go, and first thing you know, well, the whole works fell apart.”
Tensions in the community built to a fever pitch. “It came to a point where some people thought there had to be a little bit of killing,” says Woodrow Green, “and that’s what really and truly killed the whole deal. Nobody wanted it, and that’s why they just threw the union overboard. Nobody wanted nobody there killed, but there was no other way around it cause they had pleaded with that fellah and everything else.”
The union men seriously discussed other options, besides killing the man, such as blowing up a fish house or some trucks. But unable to reach a consensus on violence, the fishermen’s union came to an end fairly quickly. “Once that strike failed,” says Knowlton, “we tried to keep the union going a little while and took a lower price for the fish, but then other dealers cut their prices too and that ended that.” In November, 1957, Knowlton wrote to Ed Beltrame and told him that the union was a complete flop, that the price of mullet was down to three or four cents and was expected to drop even further.
The UPWA made two attempts to put the pieces back together on the west coast. About a year after the Fort Myers Beach strike, Ruth Knowlton and Elizabeth Jones drove up and down the coast and collected over 100 signatures of fishermen who agreed to rejoin the union. “We sent the names to Hathaway [Secretary-Treasurer of the UPWA] and he tried to schedule a meeting to talk it over, but the people just wouldn’t come,” recalls Ruth Knowlton.
As a last gasp effort, the UPWA offered to establish cooperative fish houses that the fishermen would run themselves. These co-ops, locally known as “crow-hops,” were rejected outright, largely because repeated failure had discouraged the fishermen.
To Bob Knowlton, sitting in the firehouse and reflecting on the past, the future of fishing in Cortez doesn’t look bright. “If things keep going like they are now, I don’t believe there’ll be any fishing five years from now,” he says. “All those party boats, yachts and kicker boats are racing up and down the bay all the time, and they keep it so stirred up the fish can’t even feed. And these condos just keep going up everywhere.”
But Bob Knowlton has too many years of his life wrapped up in both fishing and the labor movement to turn loose of the past completely, and there are memories he’s still attached to — like the time he met John L. Lewis in Fort Myers. “He was just the nicest guy you’d ever talk to. Well, look at all he did for the coal miners.” He shakes his head slowly, shrugs and says, “We could have had all that too if we’d stuck together.”