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April 21, 2013

Seeking stability, some Maine lobstermen join union

By CLARKE CANFIELD, The Associated Press

PORTLAND - A union representing thousands of Maine's shipbuilding and paper mill workers now has its sights set on lobstermen.

With promises to fight bad legislation and negotiate prices for their catch, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers has been recruiting fishermen in some of Maine's most lobster-reliant communities, including Vinalhaven, Stonington and Jonesport. So far, more than 250 fishermen have signed up for what will be called the IAM Maine Lobstering Union.

The idea of lobstermen joining a labor union may be at odds with the traditional image of the self-reliant, independent lobsterman, said Riley Poole, who has joined the union. But with fishermen getting rock-bottom prices for their catch and expenses continuing to rise, lobstermen have to do something to preserve their way of life and Maine's traditional fishing communities, he said.

"I'm looking toward the future and if other people don't, they won't be able to continue being independent," said Poole, 29, a fourth-generation fisherman. "They'll have to get a job somewhere else or work on a corporate boat."

Others aren't so sure.

"I think commercial fishermen are fiercely independent, and to give up that independence to an organization without any experience in the industry would be a mistake," said Stonington lobsterman Genevieve Kurilec-McDonald.

Maine has more than 5,000 licensed lobstermen who account for about 85 percent of the U.S. harvest of North Atlantic lobsters, which are caught from roughly Maine to New Jersey.

With lobster prices on the decline in recent years, fishermen have struggled. Last year's prices -- $2.69 a pound on average, the lowest price since 1994 -- prompted Vinalhaven fisherman Magnus Lane to call up the machinists union in December in search of information.

Unless lobstermen take more control of their own situation, they're liable to lose their livelihood, he said.

Union organizers have been meeting with lobstermen and training some of them on union matters at IAM headquarters in Maryland. Once it receives its charter, the Maine Lobstering Union will work to provide members who pay their $12.05 weekly dues with benefits such as health care and pensions, and represent them before legislators and regulators. It'll also negotiate catch prices, said union organizer Joel Pitcher.

An end goal is to form a large union member-owned cooperative where fishermen would bring their catch and wield some power in the marketplace, he said. But the union will succeed only if lobstermen are active, Pitcher said.

The Maine Lobstermen's Association, a trade group with about 1,200 members, has launched a website that raises questions and concerns about the union.

"Can lobstermen even form a union to negotiate prices without running afoul of federal anti-trust laws?" the site asks. "And what does a machinist union know about lobstering?"

Within the fishing industry, the Seattle-based Deep Sea Fishermen's Union represents crew members working on halibut, sablefish and crab boats off of Washington and Alaska. In Canada, the Maritime Fishermen's Union represents fishermen in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The Fish, Food and Allied Workers union represents about 10,000 fishermen in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as shore workers.

Just this month, Newfoundland crab fishermen went on strike in a dispute with crab processors; fishermen wanted $2 a pound, but processors were offering only $1.85, Broderick said. About 200 fishermen dumped 30,000 pounds of crab in the harbor.

"We take our strikes seriously here," union director Bill Broderick said. "When fishermen mean business, we mean business. That's the only way to send a message."





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