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Maine’s besieged lobstermen hear union recruitment pitch

PORTLAND, Maine — A union representing thousands of Maine’s shipbuilding and paper mill workers 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.

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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. The way of life, the way we've been doing things, is at jeopardy right now and I think this is a channel we can use to preserve that.’’

Others are not so sure.

Lobsterman Genevieve Kurilec-McDonald, of Stonington, said the union has no experience in the lobster industry. People join unions to negotiate with employers over pay and working conditions, she said, but lobstermen are independent businessmen, not laborers, so it is unclear who they would bargain with.

‘‘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,’’ she said.

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

For generations, fishermen for most the part have sold their daily catch to lobster dealers, who pay the going rate for the day.

There are also about a dozen harvester-owned cooperatives in various fishing ports where fishermen bring their catch.

With lobster prices on the decline in recent years, fishermen have struggled to make a decent living. Last year’s prices — fishermen got $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 are liable to lose their livelihood, he said.

‘‘We could get squeezed out like the farmers in the ’80s, and we don’t have Mellencamp and Willie to sing for us,’’ he said, referring to musicians John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson, who helped organize the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 to help family farms. ‘‘But it didn’t help them either. We can go down just like the farmers did to big corporations.’’

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 will 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?’’

Patrice McCarron, MLA executive director, said lobstermen already have the MLA and other lobster organizations to represent them in the Legislature and before regulatory boards. She also fears that the union could run afoul of the Sherman Antitrust Act — just as lobstermen did in 1957 — if it attempts to negotiate lobster prices for fishermen.

‘‘My frustration is they aren’t answering the basic questions,’’ she said. ‘‘What are you going to do? Who are you representing? What issues are you working on?’’

Union membership in the United States has been on the decline for decades, falling from 17.7 million workers in 1983 to 14.4 million in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Standards.

Within the fishing industry, the Seattle-based Deep Sea Fishermen’s Union represents crew members working on halibut, sablefish, and crab boats off the coast 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.

The Newfoundland union negotiates the prices that fishermen get for their seafood. If the prices are not agreeable, fishermen sometimes go on strike, said Bill Broderick, a union director.

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 protested at a Newfoundland port, dumping 30,000 pounds of crab in the harbor.

‘‘We take our strikes seriously here,’’ Broderick said. ‘‘When fishermen mean business, we mean business. That’s the only way to send a message.’’

Poole, the Vinalhaven lobsterman who is joining the union, said Maine fishermen do not want to strike.

‘‘We want to work, but we have to face these problems we have,’’ he said. ‘‘We can’t sit back and do what we've always done.’’

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