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Hundreds of Maine Lobstermen Are Unionizing
04/17/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

More than 250 lobstermen have joined a trade union within the AFL-CIO. It's an unusual move for an industry of independents who are their own bosses. But supporters said the union will give lobstermen a stronger political voice in their efforts to to preserve their livelihood. Not all lobstermen are on board, however, some fear the union issue will only divide their community.

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Riley Poole of Vinalhaven is no stranger to hard work. He's been a lobsterman for 18 years. But he said between the recession, regulations, and other factors, he keeps working more days, hauls more traps, and makes less money. The lobster glut last summer that drove prices to record lows was a tipping point.

"We've reached a point of, we have to do something," Poole said. "And standing around and doing nothing is not gonna be in our best interests. It's gonna go corporate, is what I feel. They're gonna have fewer and fewer lobstermen. The bigger boats will survive, and the people like me will be out of it."

Poole said he thinks lobstermen need to be more proactive about issues and policies that affect them. So back in December, when another lobsterman suggested they join a union, Poole was interested. They contacted the IAM - the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers, and, two months later, nine lobstermen went to the IAM's headquarters in Maryland. Afterwards, Poole was hooked.

"What we're really trying to do is unify," said Poole. "I guess, that's what I think a union is to do, is to try to get as many lobstermen on the same idea, working together."

"We really are grasping at straws to understand how the union would work, how the union would be effective," said Patrice McCarron, director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, an advocacy group with 1,200 members.

McCarron said she's thrilled that lobstermen want to join together - and there are already plenty of opportunities to do that, between her organization, two others in southern and Down East Maine, plus an advisory council. She said it's unclear how the union will represent independent business owners such as lobstermen.

"We want to make sure that lobstermen who may be considering joining an effort like this are clear on what tools will ultimately be available in the toolbox," McCarron said. "And that there are no false hopes for things that really aren't going to be an option."

Union membership come with a price, McCarron said, about $600 in annual dues, 60% of which goes out of state to the IAM's headquarters. The local organizer for the IAM Joel Pitcher said the money pays for lobbyists and lawyers who will represent lobstermen's interests. He said there's a misconception that if lobstermen join a union, they'll lose their independence.

"This local of Maine lobstermen is gonna be run by the lobstermen," said Pitcher. "I'm going to be the servicing business rep and I'm not going to be telling them how to be doing their business at all. It's a very democratic organization. They'll elect their own leaders. They'll all have a said and be able to vote on whatever their issues are."> Since lobstermen don't negotiate with employers, Pitcher said the IAM's biggest impact will be political. The knowledge, experience, and power of IAM's 5,000 state members, he said, will give lobstermen a stronger voice in Augusta. Lobsterman Riley Poole said he's already felt the union's strength.

"We had a few Bath Iron Workers come to the state house and lobby with us against the dragging bill the other day," said Poole. "That to me, is amazing. I've never seen that. I mean, other people caring about lobstermen."

But other lobstermen, like Genevieve Kurileck McDonald, said she worries the union will split the community. She doesn't see what the IAM is offering that doesn't already exist.

"The biggest concern for the industry right now, in my opinion, is the price," McDonald said. "And also marketing. And I don't think that's something that the union is going to be able to address."

The Maine Lobstermen's Association has developed a bill that would more than double the state's lobster marketing budget to $3 million. Lawmakers have yet to approve it. Meanwhile, over 250 lobstermen have signed up for The Maine Lobstering Union. The group should hear from the IAM within a couple months whether they will be officially recognized. Local rep Joel Pitcher said ultimately 60 percent of the nearly 6,000 Maine lobstermen need to join for the union to be truly effective.

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