Alaska Seafood Processing Worker Unions

Some processing plants in Alaska are unionized. Though only about 20 percent of plants have workers who are members of a union, it might help to have a general understanding of the role unions play in the Alaska fishing industry.

History of Unions in Alaska

Local unions first began to be recognized in Alaska around 1937, when workers organized to represent themselves through unions in contract negotiations, thereby replacing the notorious contractors’ system. This was the heyday of Alaska cannery unions.

Although not as strong as they once were, unions are still active in the Alaska seafood processing industry. Some of the most visible in recent years have been the Inlandboatmen’s Union and the Alaska Fishermen’s Union. The International Associations of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the Teamsters’ Union, and the Alaska Fish Cannery and Crab Workers Union of the Pacific also represent or have represented workers in the industry.

Alaska Seafood Industry Unions Today

Cannery Workers Union

Region 37 of the Inland Boatmen’s Union (once called Cannery Workers Local 37) is the oldest union founded by and for workers in the Alaska seafood processing industry. The union has contracts representing workers all over Alaska in salmon, crab, herring, cod, black cod, pollock, and halibut processing. Region 37 is actually a subsidiary of the Inland Boatmen’s Union, and the IBU is, in turn, a division of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union.

For more information contact:

    IBU Region 37
    1711 W. Nickerson St., Suite D
    Seattle, WA 98119
    (206) 284-5321
    Fax: (206) 284-5043

Alaska Fishermen’s Union

The Alaska Fishermen’s Union (AFU) is the other major union in Alaska representing seafood workers. Unlike the Inland Boatmen’s Union which represents only processors, the AFU also represents all manner of shoreside workers, including culinary personnel, construction workers, machinery operators, beach gangs, and dock workers. The only offshore workers represented by the AFU are tender boat workers.

In the fish processing sector, the AFU only represents Alaska residents. If  you’re coming from the Lower  48 and work as a processor, you cannot be a member of the AFU; you would have to join the IBU instead.

For more information contact:

    The Alaska Fishermen’s Union
    721 Sesame Street
    Anchorage, AK  99503

Pros and Cons of Unionization

From an employee’s standpoint, the benefits of union representation in the seafood processing industry include:

  • better wages
  • protected rehire rights
  • better benefits
  • full or majority airfare to job site
  • notification of job openings
  • protection from unsafe or illegal working conditions
  • professional representation in labor or management disputes
  • protection from discrimination and arbitrary termination
  • camaraderie

There are few short-term drawbacks of unionization from a worker’s standpoint. Dues, which amount to anywhere from $60 to $200 a season, are the only real negative.

Cannery owners generally consider the costs of a unionized work force greater than the benefits. The seafood processing industry is very competitive. Labor, safety, and employee benefit costs are major expenses, and can jeopardize profits. Higher costs can make it tough for a unionized plant to compete. Unionized plant managers sometimes respond by reducing labor costs (either through labor negotiations or by breaking the union) or by shutting down. Few corporations willingly settle for lower profits, and no one wants to shut down, which means that many seafood processing workers’ wages and benefits have been cut in recent years.

The Future of Alaska Fishing Industry Unions

Labor unions of all kinds have been in decline for decades, and the ones listed here are no exception. Today only about 10 – 15 percent of the seafood processing industry’s employees are unionized, and there are few signs that this number will increase.

On the other hand, things change very quickly. A rise in the demand for (and price of) Alaska seafood could improve the industry’s profit margins, and unions could start organizing again tomorrow at any time. Labor groups may move away from traditional union tactics, which focused primarily on wages and benefits, and try innovative new approaches.

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