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The real promise of a new Maine lobstermen’s union

Lawrence Sanborn loads lobster traps on to Clayton Walkers lobster boat &quotShe's all Wet" at the Vinal Haven town dock as Carl Gross sits on a trap on Sunday, July 24, 2011.
Lawrence Sanborn loads lobster traps on to Clayton Walkers lobster boat "She's all Wet" at the Vinal Haven town dock as Carl Gross sits on a trap on Sunday, July 24, 2011.
Posted April 09, 2013, at 4 p.m.
Last modified May 21, 2013, at 10:05 a.m.

It takes some research and math to show that the real earnings of the average lobsterman have stayed almost flat for 30 years. But it’s obvious that the cost of living in coastal Maine has gone up. In the same way, it’s clear the landings of lobster go up each year, while it’s unclear how much the value of the catch after expenses has changed or where what money is made ends up. It’s also uncertain whether lobstering communities will manage to maintain traditional ways in the face of global changes or what lies in store for Maine’s coastal towns.

When fellow lobstermen and community members first approached me, asking whether I thought a union might help in exploring these issues, I said, “No.” I knew about the Sherman Act and antitrust laws, and I knew that lobstermen are not laborers in one sense — because they own their equipment and do not work for an employer. However, I learned facts that I had missed, and I had to change my opinion. For anyone this conversation touches, it is important to consider the following.

What first made me pause was a more careful reading of the federal laws. Everyone knows antitrust laws exist to protect consumers. They prevent the flow of goods to the market from being slowed in a way that makes a lot of people worse off, while making a few people rich. But the key to understanding the laws is this: They exist to protect a lot of people who have little individual power from being exploited by a few people who have a lot of power.

That is why the Clayton Act of 1914 was written to override the Sherman Act of 1890. The Clayton Act recognizes that the people the Sherman Act protects, the consumers, are also the workers. Forcing workers to work, using slave labor, may produce goods for some consumers, but it is still bad for consumers because it enslaves others of them. For this reason, not working cannot be considered restricting the flow of goods to the market because the Clayton Act says in Section 6 “that the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce.” The Clayton Act protects the rights of workers to organize and to be fairly compensated for their work.

Once I understood that the federal laws protect a class of citizen — the worker/consumer class — I realized that relative to the market, lobstermen all have their boots on the same factory floor. We are workers and consumers. In economics, lobstermen are labor. There is not a single doubt about it. The more I read, and the more lobstermen and women I speak with, the more I see: Something is happening here, and it needs to happen. It is the result of market forces and human nature. We’re organizing. We are forming a workers’ union with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM.)

Not everyone understands yet. Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, wrote an OpEd in the BDN saying, “IAM organizers claim their researchers and lawyers have found a loophole in the Sherman Antitrust Act, namely, the federal Fishermen’s Collective Marketing Act, which would allow lobstermen to negotiate boat price. I hate to break it to IAM’s powerful researchers and lawyers, but that is the federal law that allows lobstermen to organize into co-ops. This is not news for Maine’s lobster industry; we’ve had co-ops in place for nearly 40 years.”

The Fishermen’s Collective Marketing Act is not a “loophole in the Sherman Antitrust Act.” It is an exemption to the Sherman Antitrust Act. It says, in part, “Persons engaged in the fishery industry, as fishermen … may act together in associations, corporate or otherwise … in collectively … marketing … such products of said persons so engaged.” That means it is legal for lobstermen to form a union and bargain over boat price.

Existing laws give lobstermen the rights to organize, form cooperatives and collectively bargain. Has the MLA known about the Fishermen’s Collective Marketing Act for 40 years? If yes, then why haven’t we been talking about bargaining over the boat price for 40 years now?

People should do their own research and form their own opinion. If they have questions or comments, they should speak up.

Tristan Jackson is a lifelong resident of Vinalhaven. He is a sternman and teacher. He may be reached at tristan.jackson@gmail.com.

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