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Hidden History - The Maine Lobstermen's Union
09/03/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Labor Day celebrations yesterday saw Maine workers welcoming the state's newest labor union. Launched earlier this year, the Maine Lobstermen's Union attracted hundreds of Members, and is regarded by some as unusual for an industry of independent contractors. However, this is not the first time Maine lobstermen have unionized: it happened more than a hundred years ago... Local historian Herb Adams explains that it was 1905...and the nation was struggling to recover from recession

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Maine lobstermen found themselves having a very hard season. No-one knows why, but the lobster supply was very short. And the buyers of lobster were conspiring to keep the price down low. So the response was that lobstermen on VInalhaven island up in Knox County, where so many Maine surprises start, got together and formed a union of lobstermen. 

Soon this locally-organized union caught the attention of the American Federation of Labor, or AF of L.
The Federation, says Adams, sent some of its biggest guns into Maine to officially organize the lobstermen.

The AF of L actually rented a sailing schooner, a single-masted vessel, very pretty little vessel, called the Marion, which flew the American flag and had AF of L in big letters on the sail. And so into your harbor would sail this recruiting device with its people aboard. They'd organize onshore and cruise to the next harbor, and engage with the lobstermen in such a way as to say 'you have common cause in finding collective rights and collective bargaining, we'll assist you in sharing the worth of the wealth that you have halped others make.' The heart of all unionism.

These efforts paid off and in 1907 the Lobster Fishermen's International Protective Association was formed - 'International' because it hoped to attract Canadian members.
According to one account, the union had over a thousand members by the Fall of 1907.
And, says Herb Adams, it enjoyed some success in its collective bargaining efforts..

The buyers were insisting on paying a dime for a lobster. The lobster fishermen wanted 20 cents, and they bargained and came up with a compromise of 18 cents a lobster. Which, given the fact that a dollar then was worth about a 20 of today's dollars, a lobster then was just about of equitable price to a lobster today.

Adams says the union also played an important role in establishing a regulatory framework for Maine's lobster fishery.

Herb Adams: Laws began to be considered, that you have to have lobsters of certain lengths and that female lobsters should be thrown back and that there would be self-governed seasons where you let your traps rest and otherwise harvested them, that would be governed by the lobstermen themselves who understood the seasons.
Tom Porter: So it was fairly unregulated before then?
Herb Adams: It was the wild west of the waves before then.

The Lobster Fishermen's International Protective Association, however , was to be a short-lived adventure, Adams another recession hit in 1907 and the lobster catch that year was poor.

Herb Adams: Plus you have this thing called Maine Independence. You're signed up for that at birth.. and that independence just strained...
Tom Porter: So at the end of the day the lobstermen didn't really make ideal union members, I think you said it was herding cats..
Herb Adams: Yes, maritime cats, in a way. Self-regulation was ..
Tom Porter: I think there's an issue there that's talked about with the union today for lobstermen. Most unions have a management structure to negotiate with, and that doesn't seem to be the case with lobstermen does it.
Herb Adams: .. gulf between..
Tom Porter: And while lobstermen have tied up their boats
Herb Adams: how far down that road you go, and stay on the right side of the law.

Photo courtesy of the Maine Historical Society  


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