Boston Labor Conference Measures Pandemic Impact, Labor Revival

Boston Labor Conference Gathers In Shadow of Pandemic

DORCHESTER ⁠— On March 26, labor academics, journalists, and scholars joined with union members and leaders for the annual Boston Labor Conference. The conference presentations marked a crossroads for the labor movement, as scholars and practitioners alike drew lessons from the most recent period of struggle, marked threats and opportunities for the next period.

The pandemic overlaid the conference, as participants observed what for many was their first large gathering since society shut down more than two years ago.

A mixed panel of epidemiologists and economists marked the suffering of the working class over the last two years. Of course, we all know the story: the pandemic decimated all parts of society, but workers, people of color, immigrants, and those with disabilities were hardest hit. Still, it is crucial that we take an account of the challenges and traumas of the last year, as well as the victories, and draw lessons for our future fights.

Measuring A Labor Revival

Many of the day’s breakouts investigated the significant progress being made to rebuild the labor movement. Last fall’s “Striketober” wave saw IATSE film workers, John Deere factory workers, and many other workers move into class struggle. Alex Press of Jacobin cautioned against an unrealistic reading of Striketober; but highlighted that there is still much cause for optimism.

Some of the breakout discussions of the day focused on the healthcare, education, and hospitality sectors; comparing the discussions highlighted how the various sections of our movement are at different stages in revival. 

Healthcare workers faced some of the most dangerous and stressful working conditions during the pandemic. Still, as in the St. Vincent nurses strike, healthcare unions move from strength to strength even in the illusive private sector, as the continued growth of the industry empowers offensive fights.

In the education sector, the militancy of a handful of teachers unions has continued to spread. The conference heard how academics, K-12 teachers, and graduate student workers are building off of the Red For Ed movement, continuing to draw on a “bargaining for the common good” framework, and taking the fight to neoliberalism in the education sector.

Hospitality workers were also some of the hardest hit during the pandemic, both through mass layoffs as well as the dangers of working on the front lines without adequate protections. Workers are ready to fight, especially in hospitality strongholds like universities, hotels, and the public sector; however, the majority of hospitality workers remain unorganized, and issues around immigration status and precarity remain obstacles to organizing. The pandemic saw mainly defensive fights, often for justice for laid-off workers, but the recent Starbucks drive points towards the potential of winning unionization outside of traditional strongholds.

In all three sectors, COVID-19 posed serious challenges both to workers and their unions. But as the pandemic sharpened class struggles, workers in the sectors were largely prepared to meet the moment with newfound militancy.

Two other factors in this revival also received attention at the conference: spontaneous organizing and socialism. There was much discussion on self-activating workers, from those forming cooperatives, to the Starbucks organizing wave, to app workers and street vendors pioneering new ways to organize in New York City.

Connor Harney presents on his paper Rediscovering Class: Emergency Workplace Organizing and Pandemic Labor Activism. Henry De Groot/Working Mass

Connor Harney’s presentation on the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee did a fantastic job highlighting how many, but not all, of this new-found militancy among non-unionized workers is being sown, fostered, and concentrated by socialists, including DSA members.

Crossroads For Labor

Looking beyond the pandemic, the labor movement is clearly entering a new stage. On the one hand, there are many positives to highlight.

The multi-decade assault on labor density appears to have largely stabilized, if only because we can hardly shrink any smaller than we stand today. Since the strike wave in education, militant organizing by existing unions has continued to capture national attention and demonstrates the will-to-fight among the American rank and file. And this past year, a confluence of the Great Resignation, a favorable labor market, and newfound militancy led to an increased movement in the heretofore harsh private sector. We aren’t just on the threshold of a labor revival; we have taken several steps forward in just a few years. Many do not even remember the times when strikes were all but an empty threat.

But if the Reagan era anti-union drive is beginning to run out of momentum, another villain casts its shadow from the wing.

What job can’t be put on an app?

Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman

This year in Massachusetts, Uber, Lyft, and other Big Tech titans are spending upward of $100 million on a referendum to exempt themselves from labor regulations by misclassifying their app-based workers. In a characteristically fiery speech, Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman highlighted the threat of misclassification; he rightly argued that the fight is not just about drivers but the future of the labor movement. Pointing out that Big Tech has now set its sights on grocery delivery, room service, and healthcare workers, Tolman posed the question: “What job can’t be put on an app?”

Steve Tolman opens the conference. Henry De Groot/Working Mass

As Massachusetts stares down a Prop 22 clone, the labor movement stares down the threat of losing NLRB protections through misclassification. A handful of new ballot measures or legislative tweaks ⁠— combined with a Democratic Party too weak to block them ⁠— have the potential to throw millions of unionized workers outside of the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). And you cannot win NLRB elections if you are carved out of the NLRA.

Ultimately, misclassification has the potential to eliminate the “labor peace” enshrined by the NLRA. While I cannot disagree with those who argue that the National Labor Relations Board has softened the fighting spirit of the unions and accommodated them to capitalism, it will be a lot less painful to regain our fighting spirit within the NLRB than without.

This year’s Boston Labor Conference has done as much as any organization in highlighting the pressing questions facing the labor movement, drawing lessons from recent struggles, and pointing the way forward. The UMass network of labor programs is an asset to the Commonwealth and its labor movement, and we hope to continue building relationships between academics, unionists, and socialists.

Henry De Groot is a Working Mass editor, Boston DSA member, and Executive Director of Massachusetts Drivers United.

Featured image: Unionists from Massachusetts and beyond gather at the Carpenter’s Training Center in Dorchester. Henry De Groot/Working Mass

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