STONINGTON, Maine — Lobstermen and union organizers are taking aim at an established industry group in an effort to form Maine’s first union for lobster harvesters.
About 250 lobster harvesters have signed up for the union so far, and organizers have submitted an application for a charter with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, or IAM.
At an organizing meeting at the Deer Isle-Stonington High School on Wednesday, organizers with IAM pulled no punches in criticizing the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, which they said is too cozy with dealers, distributors and processors to adequately fight on behalf of harvesters.
“I will guarantee you, having gone there [to Augusta] and listened to them speak, that they do not always represent your needs,” said IAM organizer Joel Pitcher.
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association represents about 1,200 members of Maine’s lobster industry, most of whom are harvesters. While the association’s board of directors is composed solely of lobster fishermen, and only harvesters have a vote in the group’s activities, the organization does allow other sectors of the industry to become paid members.
The union organizers said they will only accept licensed lobstermen and their sternmen into their organization.
“It’s just the way it is: You’re beholden to the people who give you lots of money,” Pitcher said. “We’re gonna represent lobstermen 100 percent of the time and not take money from nonmembers. We’ll be beholden to no one but lobstermen.”
The union has taken an aggressive stance in its effort to become the voice for lobstermen in Maine, saying they’ll “negotiate hard” with legislators, dealers and processors.
For example, organizers criticized the association’s support for a proposed law to reorganize the state’s Maine Lobster Promotion Council and increase its annual marketing budget to $3 million. As the bill was written, the additional budget would be funded in a 75-25 split, with harvesters picking up the larger share of the bill. Some lobstermen have been upset by the lopsided funding mechanism.
The bill was recently tabled, and the fledgling IAM Maine Lobstering Union, as the group calls itself, claimed victory for the bill not passing as proposed. Pitcher attended a public hearing on the bill in Augusta last week and reported back to lobstermen in Stonington.
“We sat there and watched them [MLA] say they were representing you in this marketing bill, watched them say ‘75-25.’” The union has said that it’s lobbying state lawmakers for a 70-30 split, with harvesters paying the smaller share.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, defended her organization’s dedication to lobstermen and said adversarial tactics won’t get lobstermen far.
While “it would be wrong to imply we don’t think about the rest of the industry,” McCarron said that “in the end, the harvesters’ concern is our bottom line, but we understand that for harvesters to work in a vacuum is ridiculous. We can’t go around shooting the people we need.”
The organizing drive began in January after a group of lobstermen in Vinalhaven approached IAM to explore unionization as a means of improving the lot of Maine’s roughly 5,000 lobstermen. Of the roughly 250 lobstermen who have signed up so far, about 120 are from Vinalhaven.
Pro-union lobstermen from Vinalhaven and IAM organizers told the 30 or so attendees in Stonington that forming a union will give harvesters access to health insurance, a voice in Augusta that represents only their needs and, perhaps most enticing, the ability to negotiate a higher catch price.
The per-pound price of lobster dived last year during a historic glut, which saw harvesters collect a season average $2.69 per pound, down from more than $4 per pound in previous years. It was the lowest yearly average in nearly 20 years.
Historically, harvesters have been told they were prevented from attempting to affect catch price for their haul because of the federal Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which makes price fixing illegal.
But Pitcher said researchers and lawyers at the union’s Baltimore headquarters have found a loophole in a 1934 law, the federal Fishermen’s Collective Marketing Act, which will allow a union to negotiate with dealers on behalf of harvesters.
The union is tapping an age-old frustration held by many lobstermen, who resent the fact that dealers set the catch price. Many lobstermen, observing that dealers are often offering the same price, suspect dealers collude to fix prices against the lobstermen.
“Everybody in town knows that the dealers set their prices together,” said Jeff Eaton, who has been fishing off Stonington for 25 years. Eaton signed up for the union at the end of Wednesday’s meeting.
“Every time I turn around, we’re hit with something,” he said. “Whenever there’s a price drop, we’re the ones that take it.”
While a handful of fishermen signed up for the union, others said they were going to take their time to mull it over. One lobsterman said he was worried the formation of a union might create division in the community, with half of the harvesters joining and the other half sitting out.
“I’m an independent businessman, and I want to stay that way,” said Robbie Gray, a Stonington harvester. “I’m just gonna have to think about this.”
While there are no fishing unions in Maine, lobstermen’s’ counterparts across the Canadian border have been organized for decades. But that doesn’t mean a Maine union would compare apples-to-apples with unions in the Maritimes.
For one, Canada’s socialized health care system means workers don’t have to rely on their union to negotiate medical benefits. And Canadian law doesn’t prevent unions from actively working to affect market price, though most unions there don’t often participate in those sort of discussions.
Christian Brun, executive secretary for the 1,300-member Maritime Fishermen’s Union, said that in many ways, his organization is more like the Maine Lobstermen’s Association than a traditional labor union.
“MLA seems to be doing a lot of the work that we’re doing,” he said. “There are differences in the history, legislation and context, but we do a lot of the same work.”
McCarron, with the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said she’s taking a wait-and-see approach to how a union would or wouldn’t complement her organization’s goals.
“I don’t see it as toe-stepping,” she said. “It is what it is, and if they truly have the lobster industry’s interests at heart, we’ll be well-aligned. But we won’t know that until we get there.”
Once the union’s charter is approved by the IAM, members will elect leaders and write bylaws for the organization. That process could begin within a couple months, Pitcher said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.