The State of the Labor Movement

EASTHAMPTON — At 92 years old, Bob Jensen has spent nearly all his life in the labor movement. A union bricklayer who arrived in western Massachusetts on a football scholarship at American International College, he ended up becoming a labor educator at the University of Connecticut, a negotiator with the American Federation of Teachers and an active organizer locally.

As Jensen surveys the state of organized labor in western Massachusetts and beyond, after decades involved in workers’ struggles locally and nationwide, he said there’s a lot to be optimistic about.

“Workers are fed up in every area,” he said, from airline pilots to baristas. “They’re organizing to demand what is rightfully theirs.”

Jensen was addressing a large gathering of union members, activists and organizers celebrating Labor Day at the Western Mass Area Labor Federation’s picnic in Easthampton on Sunday.

As a wave of high-profile union organizing continues to sweep across the country, including in western Massachusetts, several recent nationwide polls have found that support for unions is higher than it has been in decades. After a summer of strikes and almost strikes, from actors and writers to UPS drivers, 2023 may see the most U.S. workers walking off the job since the 2018 “Red for Ed” teacher strikes.

Western Massachusetts has had its own moment in the spotlight, too, amid all of that organizing. Since last summer, Hadley has been home to several “firsts” in unionizing large corporate chains: Trader Joe’s last July, Barnes & Noble this May and Michael’s last month. Educators across the region fought public battles for new contracts, retail workers walked off the job, nurses picketed the loss of hospital beds and daycare workers in Springfield went out on strike.

Now, as the summer comes to a close, labor organizers and union leaders around the area are reflecting on the rejuvenated state of the labor movement in western Massachusetts and the struggles they see ahead.

“It definitely feels like there’s a new energy and excitement,” Max Page, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, told The Shoestring. “So often, we’re like: ‘Everything sucks.’ Now we’re like: ‘What can we achieve.’”

Page is part of the rank-and-file, activist caucus within the MTA — Educators for a Democratic Union — that over the past 10 years has reshaped the union’s vision to fight aggressively for progressive policies inside and outside of the classroom. Last year, the MTA successfully put forward a ballot question that raised taxes on the state’s millionaires to better fund education and transportation — an initiative Page said that western Massachusetts turned out in large numbers to vote for in November, playing a vital role in its passage. The union has also supported educators across the state going out on strike, despite the fact that state law bars public employees from striking.

Now, the MTA is prioritizing two long-time goals of education activists: scrapping Massachusetts’ high-stakes MCAS testing and making public higher education debt-free for the state’s students.

“This is the year to win it,” he said.

The past year, immigrant workers have also seen some of the fruits of their longtime struggles for economic and racial justice.

In a phone interview with The Shoestring, Pioneer Valley Workers Center Executive Director Claudia Rosales said that immigrant workers and their families won a major victory this year when, in July, undocumented immigrants could begin applying for driver’s licenses in Massachusetts. After years of organizing work by the Workers Center and other groups across the state, state lawmakers last year passed the Work and Family Mobility Act — a major priority for immigrant workers and their allies across the state.

“It’s so important because it stops families from being separated by detentions on the part of ICE,” Rosales said, using the acronym for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Now, Rosales said, the next legislative priority for local farm workers is challenging the state’s minimum wage law. After a five-year hike to the minimum wage, workers in Massachusetts earn a minimum wage of $15 per hour. However, agricultural laborers are exempt from that law, meaning employers can pay them as little as $8 per hour.

“We need to get that off the books,” she said.

Those who have spent decades organizing workers locally expressed optimism that now is the time to win victories like those.

Jeff Jones first got involved in the local labor movement as a Stop &s Shop worker in the 1980s. Now the president of UFCW Local 1459 and the executive board of the Western Mass Area Labor Federation, he said those entering the workforce now are increasingly organizing for better pay and conditions.

“It’s a whole new, younger generation that has come in and is eager to learn the history of the labor movement and apply it,” he said. And western Massachusetts, he added, is “one of the most progressive pockets in the labor movement,” having an outsized influence despite the region’s small size.

Clare Hammonds, a professor at the influential UMass Amherst Labor Center, pointed to the workers unionizing at Barnes & Noble and Michael’s as an example of western Massachusetts organizers tackling big issues.

But union membership does still remain in decline, however, despite the high-profile surge in new organizing. In 2022, union membership hit a record low of 10.1%. But Hammonds said that as more workers win unions, that winning is contagious.

The issues those workers in Hadley and beyond are discussing — fair pay and decent hours, for example — aren’t new. What is new, she said, is the energy and support they feel from the community as they step up and take risks to improve their working conditions.

“It feels like we’re on the cusp of something really exciting,” she said.

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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Stories From the Picket Line: Shasta County Workers Speak Out As UPEC Strike Begins

Shasta County staff pose with an inflatable “Scabby the Rat,” a familiar symbol of labor activists, representing employers who are holding out on their staff for financial reasons. The name tag “Ratrick Jones” was added because of comments made by County Supervisor Patrick Jones, who told staff the County can’t afford to increase their wages, despite having spent $1.5 million on optional election system changes in the last few months. Photo by Annelise Pierce.

May 2, 7:10 am: We have updated the article to correct a state-mandated timeline for services.

May 1, 6:32 pm: We have updated the article to correct an error in an employment date and program name.

By 8:30 on May 1, nearly 300 Shasta County employees had already signed in at the picket line in front of the County’s Administrative building on Court Street.

They’re part of a bargaining unit that represents almost half the County’s staff. They’re striking after months of failed negotiations led to a Declaration of Impasse, a California labor law term that indicates recognition that future discussions would be futile.

Twyla Carpenter is a County employee and Vice President of UPEC Local 792’s General Unit.

Twyla Carpenter spent her early morning at the picket line. She’s the Vice President of Shasta County’s General Unit, a bargaining unit under United Public Employees of California Local 792.

Carpenter says many of her fellow staff are college-educated and like their jobs, but are so overworked and underpaid they don’t tend to stay with the County for long.

“Once they get in here,” Carpenter said, “and they see how little their paycheck is, once they bring it home and see the high cost of medical, they find out they can’t afford to work here.”

Shasta County’s General Unit includes almost 1,000 staff, working in almost 200 different classifications that include vital services like accounting and auditing, social work, animal regulation, permitting and building inspecting, and epidemiology.

They’re asking for a wage increase of 15% over the next three years which, they say, will help their salaries keep pace with rising inflation and a recent steep increase in their insurance premiums.

We visited the picket line on International Workers Day. Here are a few of the stories we heard.

Catreena Johnson

Catreena Johnson, who works in the Eligibility Call Center, stands on the picket line in downtown Redding. Photo by Annelise Pierce.

Catreena Johnson says when her grandmother worked for Shasta County seventeen years ago, finding an opening for a County job was a rare opportunity.

Now, Johnson says, the number of staff vacancies and high staff turnover are overwhelming.

“I’m the lead worker in the call center for eligibility,” Johnson said, speaking to Shasta Scout at the UPEC Gen picket line on Tuesday morning.

“And the staffing shortages have really just shoved us into the ground. We’re drowning in work. We’re out of compliance. We can’t stop getting further behind and the State’s breathing down our necks for being out of compliance.”

Eligibility staff work in the County’s Economic Mobility Branch, helping to ensure that eligible Shasta County residents are able to access California-funded programs like CalFresh, which provides food stamps, and CalWORKS, which provides cash assistance to help families with children pay rent and other essential costs.

Those services must be provided on a strict state-mandated timeline to ensure that those most at-risk receive the help they need to prevent a further downward spiral into poverty, hunger, and homelessness, Johnson explained.

“Our direct services office, they handle the intake. They handle families coming in the day of, saying that they need homeless assistance or they’re going to sleep in their car. And we do interviews on the spot and get them what we can to help get them into a motel for the night, up to 16 nights for emergency assistance. And then once applicants are granted CalWORKs, there’s additional housing support that helps pay their monthly rent.”

Johnson said at the wages the County pays, she’s unsurprised that recruiting, hiring, and maintaining staff are so hard.

“When minimum wage is $15/hour,” Johnson explained, “and the positions we’re hiring start at $17 an hour and it takes three months of training before you even touch a live case?”

Virginia Mason

Virginia Mason is striking over low wages that she says contribute to staff vacancies, endangering the ability of her and other County staff to serve their clients in the way they deserve. Photo by Annelise Pierce.

Virginia Mason came to Shasta County from Contra Costa in 2021. She says she worked the same job there with fewer requirements and for twice the pay.

As an employment and training worker, Mason says she teaches people how to write resumes and perform well on interviews. Her program also provides a number of additional services, she says, including paying for childcare, education, housing, and transportation.

“We’re trying to reduce barriers to people becoming employed,” she said.

“We’re skilled workers and we have extensive training in our field. We’re not cashiers, you can’t train us in a week to do this. Not only that, but because of the social services that we provide, we talk to people at their worst. We definitely have emotional fatigue. It’s actually a training we have to go through. So to ask us to work for the same amount of money as the people at Chick-fil-A or Denny’s without giving us the pay that we deserve . . .”

Mason says the low wages are challenging. It’s hard knowing that she has clients who have graduated her program and are now making far more than she is.

But she’s also very concerned about staff vacancies.

“Right now, with the lack of workers that we have, there’s no way that we’re meeting state timeline requirements (for our program) and we must be being fined,” Mason said.

“I would be interested to know how far behind we are, because right now the state says case-carrying workers should have between 60-65 cases, but right now our workers are carrying 90-plus cases. So we’re not being able to give the correct services and attention to our clients that they deserve.”

“We’re overloaded,” Mason continued, “but they can’t hold onto workers at these wages because of the amount of stress [we experience]. Might as well go work somewhere else.”

Mary Shaver

Mary Shaver (center, with glasses on head) stands on the UPEC Gen picket line with other union members from Shasta County’s General Unit. Photo by Annelise Pierce.

While Mary Shaver loves what she does, she says her income is no longer enough to pay her expenses.

“At this point, with inflation I’m struggling to pay my mortgage,” Shaver said. “I have two of my grown children living with me to help pay the bills.”

Shaver was a beneficiary of the County’s cash assistance program, before she began working for the County in 2010.

“Right now, I’m giving back and helping people. Some of our participants have never really had anybody to support them or be there for them. To tell them that they can make a difference, they can get good jobs. So we help people get education, work on barrier removal so they can get out and become productive members of society.”

You can read additional coverage of the Shasta County UPEC Gen Strike here.

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