Defying the Odds: Organizing Lobstermen, Cab Drivers, and People Under 30

Two crew members of the Jericho III unload their haul of lobster in Stonington, Maine, on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012.  Photo: Mario Moretto, Bangor Daily News

Governor LePage made headlines last week with his ridiculous – and patently false – claim that “about 47 percent of able-bodied people in the state of Maine don’t work.”  Politifact, a nonpartisan fact-checking project, gave LePage’s statement a “Pants on Fire” rating on its Truth-O-Meter.

It’s unclear where LePage got the 47% number, unless he was trying to recreate Mitt Romney’s flub last year about 47% of Americans being “dependent on the government.”  In truth, only about 20% of all Mainers aged 18-64 are not working.  That number drops further to 10% if you subtract those whose ability to work is limited by a health problem or disability, and drops even further to 3.6% if you subtract those who aren’t currently working but are actively looking for work.  The 47% number is accurate only if you count people like my 2-year-old daughter as an “able-bodied Mainer” who should be working, and I can’t think of anything more frightening than a workforce of toddlers.  

But last week while I was attending the Maine AFL-CIO’s Biennial Convention in Bangor, I heard another disturbing, and unfortunately much more accurate, statistic about workers.  Union membership for private-sector workers in the US has now fallen to just 7%, and the overall rate is only 11%.  Those numbers have fallen dramatically in recent decades, from over 30% just after WWII and 20% in the mid-80s.  And the declining union membership has come with skyrocketing wage inequality.  As another Convention speaker noted, the average CEO makes more money before lunchtime on his first day at work than the average US worker will make in the entire year.

The keynote speaker at the Convention, AFL-CIO Executive VP Tefere Gebre, did not mince words:  the union movement is in crisis.  Mr. Gebre spoke passionately about the movement.  He moved to the US as a teenaged refugee from Ethiopia, got his first unionized job as a UPS driver, and never looked back.  Back in Ethiopia, he had dreamt of coming to the US because it was a place where anyone could make something of themselves if they worked hard enough.  But today, he fears that if the union movement continues down this road, that dream will not be a reality for his children and grandchildren.

Mr. Gebre’s prescription for the ailing union movement was straightforward:  organize, organize, organize.  He told stories of surprise successes when the labor movement opens its arms to workers who haven’t traditionally been organized.  He spoke of his own success organizing laborers in Orange County, California, a county that had long been written off because of its right-wing politics.  He spoke of the movement’s success organizing cab drivers, who had been considered outside the movement because they’re generally considered independent contractors.  He spoke of the need to organize young people, because without the next generation, the movement has no future.  And of course, he spoke of Maine’s incredible success forming the Maine Lobstermen’s Union, 600-strong and counting, which many said could never be done.  (A number of the newly organized lobstermen were in attendance at the convention, proudly wearing their IAM Local t-shirts with lobsters on the back.  By the way, if anyone from the union is reading this, I would really like one of those t-shirts).

The statistics on organized labor were sobering, but I left the Convention feeling hopeful.  If the formation of the new Maine Lobstermen’s Union teaches us anything, it’s that the union movement can defy the odds.  

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