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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Michaels Workers in Hadley Organize Store’s First-Ever Union

HADLEY — Earlier this month, 24 workers at the Hadley location of the arts-and-crafts retailer Michaels announced their intent to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459. If they win an election before the National Labor Relations Board, they’ll become the very first union recognized at any store in Michaels’ nationwide chain.

On Aug. 10, the workers filed cards with the NLRB, triggering an election. Michaels employee Peter Boots-Faubert works as a framer at the store — a job they said pays minimum wage. In a phone interview, they told The Shoestring that a supermajority of workers have signed union cards. Two of the biggest issues for those workers, they said, were low pay and a lack of staffing.

“A lot of the time, people don’t get breaks,” they said. “There’s not enough people working.”

Michaels did not return an email from The Shoestring requesting comment.

With a population of just over 5,000, Hadley is best known, perhaps, for its asparagus. But now, the town is gaining fame outside of the region for another reason: new union organizing.

Hadley has now become a town of “firsts” in unionizing large corporate chains. Last July, workers at the Trader Joe’s just down the street from Michaels formed the first-ever union at that chain. Their independent union born in Hadley, Trader Joe’s United, went on to organize workers at Trader Joe’s in Minneapolis, MN, Louisville, KY, and Oakland, CA.

Then, this May, workers next door at Barnes & Noble in Hadley voted to unionize with UFCW Local 1459. That was the first stand-alone Barnes & Noble location in the country to unionize; two weeks, prior around 70 workers had voted to unionize a Barnes & Noble College Booksellers location at Rutgers University.

Michaels now becomes the latest store on the Route 9 corridor to unionize. The spark of new organizing led the news outlet More Perfect Union to dub Hadley “Solidarity Central.”

Chase Goates, who works mostly as a cashier at Michaels, said that he and others were inspired by Trader Joe’s United and then further buoyed when they saw Barnes & Noble workers unionize in the same Mountain Farms Mall building as them. Since the Michaels staffers went public with their union, he said the other nearby unions have reached out over social media to connect with them.

“Their support so far has been very positive,” Boots-Faubert said. “I love all of the ‘Hadley is a union town’ stuff going around,” Goates added.

Boots-Faubert said that workers at Michaels are paid very little and have to deal with workplace struggles like not being able to sit down, a lack of janitorial services and difficult hours. Goates added that the company responded to the union effort with “one of the most copy-paste union-busting letters I’ve seen.”

UFCW organizers Drew Weisse and Gillian Petrarca told The Shoestring that the union will represent all non-managerial workers at the Michaels location.
Weisse said that Trader Joe’s United had a big impact on both the Barnes & Noble and Michaels workers who decided to unionize.

“Once you see retail locations start to move, other workers at smaller companies or less prominent ones say, ‘Oh, we can do that too,’” Weisse said.

Michaels describes itself at the largest arts-and-crafts retailer in North America. Filings with the NLRB show that Michaels has hired a lawyer from the firm Ogletree Deakins, which is known for the “union avoidance” services it provides clients.

Photo by Mike Mozart

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

The Shoestring is committed to bringing you ad-free content. We rely on readers to support our work! You can support independent news for Western Mass by visiting our Donate page.