by Connor Beatty
Maine lobstermen may not initially strike you as the type of workers who would join a union. Yet as of this past fall, approximately 600 lobstermen from up and down the coast had done just that. Why would lobstermen join a union, and what does this say about the state of organized labor in today's economy?
Not your typical unionizers
Many people around the state were surprised when Maine lobstermen began to form a union last year — chief among them, fellow lobstermen! Lobstermen don't fit the traditional model of a labor union. For starters, lobstermen — unlike factory workers, for example — aren't employees working for a common employer.
Rather, each lobsterman is essentially the owner of his own small business. Therefore, a union of lobstermen wouldn't be able to strike, and any complaints deriving from such a union couldn't be heard by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Second, and relatedly, there is a strong ethos among lobstermen of independence and competition. It isn't unheard of for a lobsterman to have his trap lines cut or his boat vandalized for breaking one of the community's unwritten rules. So why have so many competitors joined or considered joining the Maine Lobstermen's Union organized by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM)?
Why a union may work for lobstermen
The primary reason a growing number of lobstermen are putting aside their differences and looking toward unionization is to raise their prices and improve a struggling industry. The "boat price" of lobster fell to $2.20 per pound this past summer, roughly half of what a lobsterman could have expected from his catch eight years ago.
Meanwhile, the cost of living along the Maine coast has increased, as has the price of fuel, bait, and other equipment. The bottom line for many of our state's lobstermen is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to make a living in this industry, and many see the union as a vehicle for improving the situation.
But not everyone agrees. The Maine Lobstermen's Association, an organization boasting over 1,000 members within the state, has questioned the need for and wisdom of a lobstermen's union. Meanwhile, the state has increased the lobster promotion fund to $2.4 million in order to boost the industry.
The lobster industry serves as the latest example of the broadening scope of the modern labor union. As membership in traditional unions has dwindled, labor organizers have looked to new industries where their organizational skills and lobbying efforts could be put to use. In addition to working with Maine lobstermen, the IAM has organized workers in a wide variety of industries, including paralegals, retirement home nurses, and private car drivers.
The role of the union is evolving from an organization primarily focused on negotiating with management to one that encompasses lobbying and marketing efforts. As this trend continues, will your industry be the next to see unions?
It will be interesting to see whether more Maine lobstermen decide to join the union and what impact the organization can have both on the docks and up in Augusta. We are also interested to see if the trend of the modern union continues and where organized labor branches out into other previously unimagined industries.
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