March 2, 2013
Lobstermen pursue union, seek clout before Legislature
International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers ready to certify fishermen
by Tom Groening
VINALHAVEN, Maine – It's not the textbook definition of a union, a group of island lobstermen readily admits. But the nine fishermen who traveled to Maryland last month to learn about how they might join an international labor organization believe it's time to think outside the box.
Tristan Jackson and eight others attended a week-long training session in Hollywood, Md., Feb. 18-22, meeting with legal and organizing staff of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. They returned to Maine convinced it's time to start recruiting others in the bid to form a local union under the IAMAW's wings
Joel Pitcher, an organizer and business representative for the IAMAW, based in Lisbon Falls, said the union paid for the trip.
Though the models for unions most understood are those in which workers organize to negotiate with employers for better compensation and conditions, Pitcher said there are organizations that more closely resemble what the lobstermen hope to form.
About a year ago, the IAMAW organized the so-called black-car drivers in New York, those who drive the black limousines often seen on the city's streets. Even though many drivers own or lease their vehicles and are independent contractors, Pitcher said they have formed a chapter.
The IAMAW's website features the slogan "Your 21st century labor union." Pitcher explained that unions have to diversify and rethink their role as the economy has moved away from factories and other businesses that employ large numbers.
"We're seeking members that don't necessarily fit that [traditional union] mold," he said.
The IAMAW has about 9,000 members in Maine and 400,000 nationally, Pitcher said.
Jackson and his fellow lobstermen were circulating a brochure seeking membership at the Maine Fishermen's Forum in Rockport, Feb. 28-March 2. During some down time at the forum, Jackson and two others from the group who attended the training session met with a reporter. To questions about how a lobster union could help raise the dock price, Jackson said larger concerns were the focus.
"The goal of organizing any labor force is to achieve equitability," he agreed. But matters such as "the health of their industry, the health of their community, the health of their quality of life" are driving lobstermen's effort to form a union.
"People want affordable health care," he said, "the hope of retiring, a paid day off, to be valued for the skills they have."
Jackson and others are convinced lobster buyers discuss price among themselves, despite laws prohibiting such collusion. And as fishermen, they are unable under federal law to work at fixing their price, as much as they might want to withhold catch to raise their income.
Instead, they want to take the talk away from the dock and to the State House.
Though organizations like the Maine Lobstermen's Association and the Downeast Lobstermen's Association represent thousands of fishermen, Pitcher and Jackson believe a union would be more visible and more powerful.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the MLA, said her group would continue to work to represent lobstermen, regardless of the union effort.
"We're doing what we've been doing for 59 years," she said Monday, March 4. "The issues facing the lobster industry are very complicated. They're local, they're state, they're federal. There's plenty of work to do," she said.
Pitcher said the next step is to write a charter that will govern how a Maine lobstering local will operate. Members would pay dues, with some of the money going to the international organization, and some available for the local chapter, he said. Certification under the standards of the National Labor Relations Act would follow.
If 70 percent of the 5,000 or so lobstermen in Maine join within a few years, the organization would be heard in Augusta and elsewhere, both Pitcher and Jackson said. Though they do not want to be seen as being dismissive of the lobstermen's associations, they believe a union would have more clout.
"It gets them one voice, which they've never had before," Pitcher said.
Which brings the discussion back to price. Though Pitcher and Jackson steer questions away from price-per-pound issues, clearly, quality of life, retirement and other long-term goals are tied to what lobstermen can earn. Last summer's large supply, steady demand and resultant low price put all those goals in jeopardy, and are driving new strategies.
The brochure fishermen circulated at the forum included this bullet point making the case for a union: "Legally negotiate catch value."
Pitcher said that once fishermen have the status before lawmakers that comes with a union, the options are endless. Lobstermen might pursue price supports, like those enjoyed by dairy farmers. Or they might influence smaller matters, such as a legislative proposal to have higher license fees cover most of the cost of a marketing effort; instead, the bulk of the surcharge could be put on dealers, he suggested, if fishermen had that clout.
For now, the group is focusing on the organizing and recruiting plan they crafted in Maryland. For more information, call 380-1883 or 751-3878.
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