VINALHAVEN, Maine — Late last year, Magnus Lane, a lobsterman with the propensity for wearing pirate-themed pajama pants around this rocky island town, found himself at the end of his rope. A glut of lobsters during the previous summer had pushed lobster prices to a 40-year low, while the cost of bait, fuel, and complying with state and federal regulations seemed to creep ever upward.
Lane, whose 30 years living in Maine have done nothing to dampen the deeply progressive political spirit he grew up with in his home country of Iceland, called some union organizers in the state, and made a wild suggestion: His ailing industry, despite its entrenched ethos of self-reliance, just might be ripe for their services.
That was the beginning of the Maine Lobstermen’s Union, a local organized by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The union has signed up 600 members — 240 of whom have paid dues, so far — drawn by the promise of dedicated lobbying at the state’s Capitol on their behalf and the hope of market clout that could get them higher prices for lobster.
Rocky Alley, the union president, stood up in a diner late last month in Portland and addressed a small group of local lobstermen who had come to hear his pitch. He recalled the first recruitment call he got from Joel Pitcher, the machinists union’s organizer who has been traveling Maine’s coast, piecing the lobstermen’s union together.
“I said, you’ve got to be joking,” said Alley.
It is a wariness shared, at least initially, by many of the union’s current members. Maine has about 5,000 licensed lobstermen, all of whom work on an independent basis. They compete for the sea’s spoils, and in some parts of the state it can turn nasty. Lobstermen who break unwritten rules can find themselves with cut gear or sunken boats; in 2009, a dispute escalated into a shooting.
But Pitcher has made gains by emphasizing that lobstermen face bigger threats — from the market, or from costly regulations — than from one another.
“You guys need to concentrate on what you have in common,” he said, at the meeting in Portland. “That saves the way of life you know today.”
The pitch was enough to persuade Greg Turner, 53, a lobsterman in Portland who wrote his first check for union dues — $52.22 a month — after the meeting.
“I hate unions, always have,” Turner said with a shrug. But he thought the union might actually help preserve his agency as an independent businessman. “We worry about getting enough support so we can do what we want.”
He was in short order handed a bright red union flag for his boat, and a matching T-shirt. Those flags dot masts here in Vinalhaven, an outpost with a year-round population of 1,100. It is here, as well as in similar lobster-reliant communities like Jonesport and Stonington, where the union has found the most traction.
The question of how effectively a machinists union with no previous experience in their trade can help lobstermen is paramount among the majority of Maine lobstermen who have not joined the union.
“The commercial fishing industry is not easy to navigate. It takes years of hard work and experience to develop an understanding about the issues we’re facing,” said Genevieve McDonald, a lobsterman in Stonington who heard the union’s recruitment drive earlier this year. “I believe I.A.M. is taking advantage of the issues facing the Maine lobster industry for its own financial gain through increased membership,” she added.