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Organized labor continues to branch out

by Connor Beatty

Maine lobstermen, paralegals, and college football players may not initially strike you as the type of workers who would join a union. Yet, in the past year, each group has taken steps toward unionizing, highlighting the trend of the modern union with organized labor branching out into previously unimagined industries. Why would these groups want to join a union, and what does this say about the state of organized labor in today’s economy? 

A union of lobstermen
Many people around the state were surprised when Maine lobstermen began to form a union last year—chief among them, fellow lobstermen! Lobstermen don’t fit the traditional model of a labor union. For starters, lobstermen—unlike factory workers, for example—aren’t employees working for a common employer. Rather, each lobsterman is essentially the owner of his own small business. Therefore, a union of lobstermen wouldn’t be able to strike, and any complaints deriving from such a union couldn’t be heard by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Second, and relatedly, there is a strong ethos among lobstermen of independence and competition. It isn’t unheard of for a lobsterman to have his trap lines cut or his boat vandalized for breaking one of the community’s unwritten rules. So why have so many competitors joined or considered joining the Maine Lobstermen’s Union organized by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM)?

The primary reason a growing number of lobstermen are putting aside their differences and looking toward unionization is to raise their prices and improve a struggling industry. The “boat price” of lobster fell to $2.20 per pound this past summer, roughly half of what a lobsterman could have expected from his catch eight years ago. Meanwhile, the cost of living along the Maine coast has increased, as has the price of fuel, bait, and other equipment. The bottom line for many of our state’s lobstermen is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make a living in this industry, and many see the union as a vehicle for improving the situation.

But not everyone agrees. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association, an organization boasting over 1,000 members within the state, has questioned the need for and wisdom of a lobstermen’s union. Meanwhile, the state has increased the lobster promotion fund to $2.4 million in order to boost the industry.

A union of college football players
On March 26, the NLRB ruled that Northwestern University’s football players are “employees” and can form a union. The effort to organize a union has been spearheaded by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who is supported by the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) and the United Steelworkers.

The Board’s decision was based on the largely “economic” relationship football players have with the university. Players are compensated with scholarships, which are worth up to $76,000 per year, including the summer semester. In return, the players devote a significant amount of time to football—far more than they devote to academics. Additionally, coaches exert considerable control over players’ lives, including where they live, when they attend study hall, whether they can work outside jobs, and even what they can post on social media websites.

Although many people are decrying the NLRB’s decision as the end of college sports as we know it, the immediate impact of the ruling is unclear. The decision applies only to a handful of private institutions that field Division I football teams. Will state labor boards follow the NLRB’s lead, or will the rules that apply to private universities not apply to public universities such as Florida State? Additionally, Northwestern’s players are seeking primarily health-related benefits, but could player salaries be next?

Northwestern has already announced that it will appeal the decision to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C. The case will almost inevitably head to the courts, and a final decision may not be reached until after the players graduate.

A union of paralegals
The same day the NLRB issued its decision in the Northwestern case,  Portland, Maine, newspaper The Forecaster published an article about a recently formed union at the McTeague Higbee law firm in Topsham. Paralegals and support staff organized and entered into a three-year contract with firm management. The contract covers topics such as wage increases, better benefits, and more time off. As one paralegal put it, “Just like other workers in shipyards, paper mills, or any number of worksites, we wanted to have a unified voice on the job and a seat at the table.” McTeague Higbee has a long history of representing unions. On its website, the firm stated, “We are honored to work with our employees who are members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.”

Takeaways
At first glance, lobstermen, college football players, and paralegals may not seem to have very much in common. But together, they serve as example of the broadening scope of the modern labor union. As membership in traditional unions has dwindled, labor organizers have looked to new industries where their organizational skills and lobbying efforts could be put to use. The role of the union is evolving from an organization primarily focused on negotiating with management to one that encompasses lobbying and marketing efforts. As this trend continues, will your industry be the next to see unions?

Many employers do not consider the possibility of unionization, meaning successful unionization campaigns often take them by surprise. Employers should not get complacent. Focus on having good employee relations.

Connor Beatty is an employment law attorney with Brann & Isaacson in Lewiston, Maine. He may be contacted at cbeatty@brannlaw.com.