How Lobstermen Formed a Union Co-op to Claw Back Fair Prices
When you think of workers hamstrung by the “independent contractor” label, you probably don’t think of Maine lobstermen.
But it turns out that lobstermen—a title claimed by women as well as men who catch and sell lobster for a living—have something in common with warehouse temps and Uber drivers. As independent contractors they’re denied the collective bargaining rights and various other workplace protections and benefits afforded (to some) by U.S. labor law.
And the strategy they used to confront low wages is one that similarly exploited workers might want to try too: they teamed up with a union to set up a worker-owned co-op.
The lobstermen partnered with the Machinists to create both an affiliate union local and a marketing cooperative. Their success demonstrates how union membership coupled with worker ownership can strengthen worker power.
A TROUBLING TIME
The year it all started was a difficult time for Maine lobstermen, with lobster prices falling to a 20-year low of $1.80 per pound in 2012, far below their usual $3-$4 level. Despite their hard work, they could not support themselves and their families.
Because they were self-employed independent contractors, they were barred from organizing to demand a better price for their catches. They had no choice but to accept the prices offered by buyers on the docks, who were often representatives of multinational corporations interested only in getting the lowest price possible.
When the frustrated lobstermen threatened to stop fishing until they could secure a fair selling price, the state responded by threatening an antitrust lawsuit, claiming it was illegal for them to consolidate their economic power through an informal work stoppage. The lobstermen saw no path to a living wage.
MACHINISTS GET INVOLVED
The idea was born at a kitchen table in December 2012, when one lobsterman was having dinner with his brother, a shipyard worker at Bath Ironworks and member of IAM District 4. When he described the difficulties he faced, his brother suggested that they might need a union.
The lobstermen reached out to the Machinists and began meeting with Dave Sullivan, business representative for IAM District 4, and Joel Pitcher, an IAM member from a family of lobstermen.
Sullivan and Pitcher recognized that this would not be a typical organizing campaign. There was no employer with which to negotiate, and no way to win a collective bargaining agreement. But they also saw that the lobstermen wanted the same things as other members: to use their collective power to gain control over their working lives and to make enough to support themselves and their families.
With sign off from the union’s Eastern Territory leadership, Sullivan and Pitcher launched a nontraditional campaign to organize Maine lobstermen. They began to host regional meetings, and held an educational retreat at the union’s Maryland training center. In this collaborative format, the lobstermen shared their experiences, explored the regulatory constraints with union researchers, and learned about union representation.
By February, 99 lobstermen had signed union authorization cards. They became members of the Machinists under the newly formed Local 207, named for Maine’s area code and known informally as “Lobster 207.” The network of organized lobstermen continued to grow throughout 2013.
A COOPERATIVE MODEL
Shortly after the formation of the local, members and IAM researchers began to explore the idea of creating a marketing cooperative, a legal structure for lobstermen to collectivize their selling power. Although local lobstering cooperatives had already existed in Maine for years, these small collectives had long lost all power for pricing at the docks and were not influential at the statehouse for regulations. IAM and these lobstermen were imagining something statewide, with greater market influence.
In September 2013, the Machinists helped members incorporate as a statewide marketing cooperative. The co-op, also called Lobster 207, was designed to allow lobstermen to sell their catches collectively without violating federal antitrust laws. Members agreed to vote democratically on major decisions, and to share all profits among lobstermen who sold their lobsters to the co-op.
Once the cooperative was formed, IAM staffers and Lobster 207 members worked to create a viable business model. They set out to purchase a lobster wholesale facility, where their catches could be prepared for sale without a middleman.
Because such properties rarely go up for sale, Lobster 207 did not find an available facility until 2017. Then they hit a significant roadblock when several banks refused to provide them a loan to purchase the facility. The Machinists stepped in to help close the deal. They helped secure a bank loan from the Bank of Labor, and facilitated unsecured loans from IAM locals. The remainder of the deal was a note from the seller. All combined, this assured a conversion from a private family-held business to a union-supported cooperative.
The lobstermen could now sell their catches to a facility which they owned, finally controlling their catches beyond the dock. Today the Lobster 207 co-op purchases lobsters from 130 member boats. It has built a network of wholesale and retail customers, and a strong online direct-to-consumer presence. (You can order delivery at their website, lobster207.com, for your own special occasions! Lobster can be delivered all over the continental U.S., with union labor when possible.)
LOBSTER 207’S INFLUENCE
Beyond succeeding in its central mission to strengthen the lobstermen’s economic power, Local 207 has also created a meaningful place for its members in Maine’s labor movement and political landscape.
Through their union, lobstermen have lobbied for legislation and policy that protects both their livelihoods and Maine’s natural resources. For example, Lobster 207 worked with the Sierra Club to defeat a project which would have included dredging in Maine’s Penobscot Bay. Lobster 207 embraces the idea that the long-term viability of the lobstering industry relies on a sustainable environment. Members have also engaged in solidarity with the wider labor movement, including helping to defeat a right-to-work bill in 2015.
The decision to pursue this nontraditional organizing campaign has been beneficial for the Machinists as well—expanding the union’s influence into a new sector and new communities. Neil Gladstein, retired Director of IAM Strategic Resources, said that partnering with Maine lobstermen had generated goodwill in many small communities that previously saw unions as outside organizations.
A MODEL FOR MISCLASSIFIED WORKERS?
The Lobster 207 story offers a window into the potential for union membership and worker ownership to empower other workers who are either true independent contractors or have been exploited by misclassification.
Misclassification—where workers are wrongly classified as independent contractors, when in reality they work and generate profit for a company—is a common corporate tactic to deny workers a fair wage, benefits, and even basic protections. It’s widespread in the gig economy, for instance, at app-based companies like Uber, Lyft, Handy, and Doordash.
It can seem challenging for unions to support independent contractors and misclassified workers, because they cannot negotiate with an employer or win a collective bargaining agreement. But the Lobster 207 story demonstrates an unconventional approach to help these workers to build collective power.
The new report, A Union Toolkit for Cooperative Solutions (published by the Community and Worker Ownership Project at the School of Labor and Urban Studies at the City University of New York), includes this story and six other case studies where unions helped workers to establish co-ops. The other cases include workers in health care, telecom, manufacturing, and grocery stores.
The toolkit analyzes the resources, capacities, and skills demonstrated by the unions engaged in forming these co-ops, and suggests that other unions can deploy these same tools to help workers collectively confront challenges beyond the realm of collective bargaining agreements. If labor is open to new kinds of organizing and new models of ownership, we can build power in a shifting and increasingly exploitative economy.
Bernadette King Fitzsimons writes on issues of labor rights, worker power, and cooperative economics. Rebecca Lurie is the founder of the Community and Worker Ownership Project at the City University of NY, School for Labor and Urban Studies.