March 31, 2013

Maine Voices: Maine lobsterman no stranger to unions

By CHARLES SCONTRAS Special to the Telegram

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Maine’s traditionally independent lobster fishermen have been known to organize in tough times.

2012 Press Herald file photo

National organizers joined in the labor organizing crusade and, in what was a first in labor union history, took a nautical turn as they hired a 36-foot sloop with AFL emblazoned on its sails to organize lobster fishermen along the coast and Nova Scotia.

On January 22, 1907, a charter was issued to the lobster fishermen as an affiliated international union and By the fall of 1907, the new union reported 1,055 members and 22 locals.

Counted among the achievements of the embryonic union was its success in bargaining with local buyers and with "smacks," usually steamers sent out by wholesale dealers from Portland, Rockland and elsewhere, which were able to store between 3,000 and 10,000 lobsters in their wells. Some of the steamers were persuaded to fly the union flag and to handle nothing but union lobsters. 

In 1931, lobster fishermen renewed efforts at unionization. Yet again, in 1954, they organized the Maine Lobstermen's Association to exert a measure of control over their labor, only to discover they collided with the nation's Sherman Anti-Trust law.

In recent years, tie up of their lobster boats in protest served as a strong statement of their reservoir of anger and militancy.

Today, they are once again reuniting with their militant tradition to protect and enhance their interests via the labor movement.

Charles Scontras of Cape Elizabeth is a historian and research associate at the Bureau of Labor Education of the University of Maine.


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