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The Massachusetts DSA Labor Outlet
Updated: 1 hour 4 min ago

St. Vincent Nurses Reach Tentative Agreement as Strike Nears 300 Days

Fri, 2021-12-17 21:38

By Cory Bisbee

WORCESTER — Early Friday night, the Massachusetts Nurses Association announced a tentative agreement had been reached with Tenet Healthcare Corporation to end the nine-month nurses strike at St. Vincent Hospital. Pending ratification by the union’s membership at the hospital, the agreement provides safe staffing improvements and guarantees all nurses the right to return to their original position, hours, and shift.

The tentative agreement follows two years of negotiations with Tenet and specifically comes after two weeks of discussions with federal mediators and an all-day session on Friday mediated by U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh.

The union believes that although the nurses did not win everything they wanted, they secured the staffing improvements needed to reenter the hospital and ensure safe care for their patients amid an expected surge in new COVID cases from the Omicron variant. The nurses had been prepared to accept Tenet’s offer of staffing improvements in August, but they steadfastly refused the hospital corporation’s punitive demand that around 100 veteran nurses lose their original roles and shifts to scabs. Tenet had begun hiring these permanent replacements in May, and their refusal to agree to the standard “back to work” provision successfully reached at Friday’s session was likewise another element of their attempt to bust the union.

“This agreement, and the improvements it includes was hard fought, and represents a true victory, not only for the nurses, but more importantly, for our patients and our community, who will have access to better nursing care, which was why our members walked that strike line for the last nine months through four seasons” said Marlena Pellegrino, RN, and co-chair of the St. Vincent Hospital nurses’ local bargaining unit.

Dominique Muldoon, RN, the bargaining unit’s other co-chair, added that “With this agreement we can go back into that building with great pride not just in what we got in writing in the agreement, but for what we have built together as nurses who know they did everything they could for their patients and their community.”

In what has been the longest nurses strike in the United States in 15 years, the nurses have received support from across the country and around the world. More locally, Worcester DSA has joined the nurses outside the hospital since the informational picket before the strike began, working especially closely with Boston DSA’s Labor Working Group and members of River Valley DSA in Western Massachusetts to back the nurses by organizing events on the picket line, raising over $11,000 from DSA members for the strike fund, and organizing independently of the union to interfere with Tenet’s attempts to permanently replace the nurses. The strike was also supported and boosted by National DSA and its Democratic Socialist Labor Commission as well as chapters around the nation, including Orange County DSA in California and DSA North Texas outside Tenet’s headquarters in Dallas.

DSA members from across Massachusetts have lent their support to striking nurses.

“Worcester DSA has been proud to stand with the nurses of St. Vincent Hospital in this historic struggle for safer conditions for workers and patients alike,” said Tom Merolli, a member of the Steering Committee of the Worcester Democratic Socialists of America. “What this strike has shown is that when the working class digs in and stands up against corporate greed, our collective power wins out. Pending the ratification of the agreement, we look forward to celebrating this impressive victory with the nurses and continuing to support working people throughout Central Mass.”

Thanking “the dozens of unions, community and faith-based organizations that stood with us and supported us in so many ways,” Marie Ritacco, RN, a member of the nurses negotiating committee and vice president of the MNA, said “We have been so moved and uplifted by all the support we received throughout this ordeal… Our strike struck a chord, and for that and because of that we will walk into that building with our heads held high.”

The union is withholding specific details of the agreement until they can be shared with their rank-and-file members. The nurses hope to hold a ratification vote as soon as possible.

Since walking out together on March 8, the nurses have spent 285 days on the picket line. Pending ratification of this agreement, they will all have the right to walk back in together too.

Cory Bisbee is an editor at Working Mass and a member of Worcester DSA.

Opinion: What Is DSA’s Role in a Broader Progressive Movement? A Response to Matt Miller’s “Lydia Edwards Doesn’t Deserve Socialists’ Energy”

Sat, 2021-12-04 17:22

By Beth Huang

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not represent the official position of Boston DSA, its working groups, National DSA, or the National Political Committee.

I am responding to Boston DSA member and nationally elected leader Matt Miller’s provocative statement that socialists should not spend their time volunteering for Lydia Edwards’ campaign. Matt makes a strong case why Boston DSA is not supporting Edwards, and I agree that Boston DSA should not offer organizational support to Edwards in her 2021 campaign for State Senate. Edwards made clear that she does not identify as a socialist in her Boston DSA questionnaire in 2017. It makes sense that our endorsement criteria are more stringent than in 2017 – given that Boston DSA has grown five times since 2017 and has cadre running for office. I agree with our chapter’s strategy to elect active chapter leaders to office, because the deep relationship with cadre fosters collaboration and accountability needed for co-governance. But what individuals can and should do does not face the same burden as what our collective chapters likewise may and will do.

As an individual, I am volunteering for Edwards, a credible progressive who has consistently stood with organized labor and fought in the trenches with workers’ centers. In 2014, Edwards led the charge to pass the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which has transformed workplace protections for low-income BIPOC and/or immigrant women who perform reproductive labor in wealthy, disproportionately white households. Numerous labor unions, including UNITE HERE Local 26, UFCW Local 1445, and the Massachusetts Nurses Association, all of whom Boston DSA have supported during recent strikes, have endorsed Edwards. As a city councilor, Edwards organized the hearing on graduate student workers’ right to form unions in order to put pressure on universities in the city, a common workplace where Boston DSA members exercise their labor power as workers.

Importantly, when racial and social justice activists called out Edwards for her problematic vote on the 2020 budget, she responded by collaborating with them to change the structural conditions behind the vote and democratize the process of city budgeting itself. Edwards navigated the labyrinth of state and city bureaucracy to place charter reform on the ballot, a reform that allows the city council to amend the budget itself. While we can disagree with Edwards’ use of the words of Audre Lorde to justify the vote for the mayor’s budget, she was referring to the need to reform the city charter.

Not only did Edwards lead the charge on charter reform on the city council, she also collaborated with BIPOC-led community organizations in a way few elected officials do. Edwards centered the working-class BIPOC membership organizations, not as spokespeople for a white-led agenda as most campaigns do, but as partners and co-decision-makers. In 2019, she organized study groups with the Center for Economic Democracy and Neighbor to Neighbor for community leaders to understand the city charter and develop the case for democratic change. In 2021, Edwards made the decision with Right to the City Boston, whose platform Boston DSA endorsed in 2018, to put charter reform on the ballot. Boston DSA was not at the table for either of these stages, which warrants internal discussion about how we approach relationships with endorsed elected officials. But Edwards’ approach to co-governance with working-class BIPOC communities is my greatest hope for her candidacy for state senate.

Telling DSA members to refrain from volunteering for a credible progressive candidate like Edwards raises questions about how DSA relates to a broader progressive movement. DSA cannot pass intermediate campaigns, such as rent control, the Green New Deal and Medicare for All alone, nor can we accomplish long-term priorities to organize the multiracial working-class by ourselves. Certainly, Boston DSA brings much to the table at any coalition, with an active membership (yes, compared with many organizations) that has political analysis, tech savvy, and enthusiasm to volunteer. Many organizations (sometimes labor unions, sometimes nonprofits) have a stronger position (tools and know-how, multilingual capacity, name recognition and credibility) to organize BIPOC working-class people than Boston DSA does. 

This organizing done by individual members can have a net positive for DSA. Visibility of DSA members to activists and community members – and the benefits if allies like Edwards win – can help DSA in future work even if the chapter does not formally get involved. That’s a great use of energy without committing DSA resources.

We are movement builders, not empire builders. We cannot build a movement on our own – but neither can anyone else. DSA needs relationships with organizations with a membership base and credible progressive elected officials to change material conditions for working-class people in the short-term and intermediate time horizon as well as shift the narrative of what’s possible and organize workers in the long-term. On its own, adding one more progressive senator will not tip the balance of what is possible in Beacon Hill for working-class people. One month of individual DSA members volunteering for a candidate alongside organizations with membership bases rooted in the working-class also will not result in a multiracial coalition. Of course, we can build relationships in many other ways, such as at demonstrations, through issue campaigns, and on picket lines. 

At the end of the day, volunteering for Lydia Edwards is a step toward building relationships with members of other mass organizations and progressive candidates. These relationships provide the basis for collaboration and accountability in a broader progressive movement that DSA needs, in our current form, to win in the short term and build power of the working-class in the long term.

Beth Huang is a member of Boston DSA and currently serves as one of the two Membership Coordinators. She is a member of the Socialist Majority Caucus, which embraces multiracial coalition building as a core strategy for advancing democratic socialism.

Opinion: Lydia Edwards Doesn’t Deserve Socialists’ Energy

Sat, 2021-12-04 17:18

By Matt Miller

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not represent the official position of Boston DSA, its working groups, National DSA, or the National Political Committee.

Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards is running for Joseph Boncore’s vacated State Senate seat in a December 14th special election. The First Suffolk and Middlesex District covers parts of Cambridge, Boston, Revere, and Winthrop. Many Boston DSA members will be eligible to vote in this election and they will need to decide who to vote for. Boncore himself won his own race in a 2016 special election that Edwards also ran in. These frequent special elections are a key part of the system that keeps recalcitrant, conservative Democrats in control of all the levers of power, blocking change.

I did not, however, write this to convince you of the need for systemic change in Massachusetts. I want to address the question of what socialists who live in the district should do on December 14th. Currently, only Lydia Edwards and Revere School committee member Anthony D’Ambrosio are in the race. State Rep. Adrian Madaro had been rumored to be running but recently announced he’s not running.

Here’s my recommendation: Forget about the race. Check in on December 13th, see if anything has changed, and if Edwards is the best on policy, then vote for her. But don’t donate. Don’t volunteer. Feel free to sit this one out.

You’re going to hear a lot about how she’s progressive, her leadership on City Council, her organizing work pre-2017. A quick history is in order:

  •  In 2018, Councilor Edwards took a more conservative position than Mayor Marty Walsh when it came to regulating short term rentals like AirBNB.  Mayor Walsh wanted to limit owner occupied listings to only 120 days per year, to ensure landlords weren’t taking units out of the housing market long term. Councilor Edwards was publicly opposed to that provision, and the council successfully removed the cap. Owner occupants can essentially take a full unit off the market for 365 days a year, contributing to the scarcity of housing units that drives up rent in Boston.
  • In the summer of 2020, a few months after the murder of George Floyd, the city council had a chance to weigh in.  Tens of thousands of people were in the streets in Boston, demanding that elected officials reduce the police budget, but Mayor Marty Walsh sought to pass a budget with no cuts to the police. Other councilors led the fight for police budget cuts, using the only mechanism they had: voting down the proposed budget, and forcing the mayor to the negotiation table. The mayor threatened the council that a vote against his budget would mean many city workers would be furloughed, trying to pin the blame for his intransigence on them. That was enough of an excuse for Councilor Edwards to vote Yes on the budget (joined by “progressive” councilor Elizabeth Breadon who represents Allston/Brighton).  Had Edwards and Breadon flipped their votes, the budget would have been rejected 7-6, forcing the mayor back to the table.  The mayor’s threat about what would happen to city workers? It could have been solved through a continuing budget, or 1/12th budget to fund the city while a final deal could be worked out.  The threat to city workers was a bluff.
  • Shortly after that vote, Edwards penned a pro-cop editorial (“Progressives, Too, Can Back the Blue”) in a local paper, raising questions about how much Edwards actually wanted to trim the police budget.
  • At the end of 2020, the MA Democratic party had an election to choose whether disgraced chair Gus Bickford would be re-elected. Bickford and the state party had been implicated in the attempts to undermine Alex Morse, a progressive congressional challenger to Congressman Richard Neal. Lydia Edwards cast a vote to re-elect Bickford. Again, Edwards might have the best policies of the candidates currently in the race. We’d all benefit by having a slightly better State Senator. Important policy is decided on Beacon Hill. But the narrative you’re bound to hear from Councilor Edwards in this race is that the “stakes are high” or that it’s an important election or that she needs you to donate or to show up and doorknock for her.In the 2021 Somerville elections, Edwards made a donation to DSA member JT Scott’s opponent, Steph Aman. Aman had taken outrageous positions on development that shocked progressives, saying he was excited about the massive development happening in Union Square because “We can transform our community into Kendall 2.0 – This would be a great opportunity to cash in on our city, getting the trickle-down effects of that wealth

Again, Edwards might have the best policies of the candidates currently in the race. We’d all benefit by having a slightly better State Senator. Important policy is decided on Beacon Hill. But the narrative you’re bound to hear from Councilor Edwards in this race is that the “stakes are high” or that it’s an important election or that she needs you to donate or to show up and doorknock for her.

While she was casting her vote in favor of Marty’s police budget, Councilor Edwards said: “To those of you who are disappointed or wanted me to vote no…, I would say you should be more disappointed because you placed your beliefs and hopes for systemic reform in a flawed, oppressive process. You thought we could undo the master’s house with the master’s tools. We cannot.

It is breath-taking to watch an elected official use a famous quote by Audre Lorde to shift blame onto activists. Punting tough decisions to the voters does not fix the underlying need for political courage. It does not remove the need for courage to take on the police. Important policies that would benefit working class people fail year after year in this state, and there is no shortage of excuses. Elected officials always seem to have some process reason, some provision of a city charter or the state constitution or public opinion that means that today isn’t the time for action. It’s always easier to wait.

In 2017, I argued strongly in favor of our chapter endorsing Lydia Edwards. Progressive non-profits in the city were going in hard on this race. Edwards had a background in social justice & labor organizing. Her opponent was clearly more conservative. Our chapter was deeply divided on the issue, but my side won out, and we endorsed her. I looked past the fact that she isn’t a socialist. I looked past the fact she wouldn’t reject contributions from real estate developers. I wanted us to engage in politics in Boston and I had a sense that we’d be able to build a relationship with her and work with her.

I was wrong. We will not win socialism by electing progressives who aren’t accountable to our organization. Our chapter has continued to refine our approach, focusing more and more on DSA members, open socialists, who aren’t afraid to stand up to the Democratic party in the state of Massachusetts. We have begun that process in earnest, and we have had success with an electoral model with a higher bar, and that is where we should focus our limited energy and resources. Let’s elect more socialists and not worry about these other races.

Matt Miller is a member of Boston DSA, DSA’s National Political Committee, and the outgoing co-chair of Boston’s electoral working group.

Confessions of a Liquor Store Clerk

Tue, 2021-11-23 22:05

By Conrad Codder

In a small town a liquor store is more than a place to get booze, cigarettes and lottery tickets. It becomes that impromptu place where locals gather to catch up on news, engage in more than a little gossip and commiserate about their lives. In some cases this may be their only human interaction of the day. 

Summer on Cape Cod begins on Memorial Day weekend. The solitude of the Outer Cape evaporates with a 100,000 tourist explosion. These Summer people all arrive hell-bent for their annual gratification, while the locals scramble from their off-season hibernation to try to make as much money as possible.

The economy of the Outer Cape is a playground for tourists, supported by a workforce of locals and seasonal immigrants and commanded by mostly itinerant business owners. They arrive tanned from their winter homes to reclaim their positions as pillars and benefactors of the communities they abandon during the off-season. They have spent their winters vacuuming up tourist dollars down South and now begin the process again here, amongst us. It is upon the beneficence of these vultures that most locals depend to make enough money to survive the coming winter.

Image provided by Conrad Codder

One summer I worked at a liquor store in another town nearby. Every town on the Cape is a bit insular with its own cast of characters, local lore and culture. Locals are largely uninterested in what goes on elsewhere and so I entered this town as a stranger from another world. 

The average wage of retail workers on the Outer Cape is under $700 a week[1]. Most local workers persist by working multiple jobs. These meager wages do not attract sufficient help, so businesses turn to the J1 Visa Summer Work Travel Program to import seasonal workers mostly from the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.

On my first shift, which was Memorial Day weekend, I was introduced to my new best friend Alice with whom I would share shifts throughout the summer. She showed me the ins and outs of how to use the cash register, run the credit card and the lottery machines. She taught me where all the stock was and where to shelve it. Most importantly, she introduced me to every character in town, told me their secrets and whether they could be trusted or not. I liked Alice very much; she would do anything she could for me. I could always count on her support.

There was a regular routine at the store. I worked nights and would always show up around 5pm to start my shift. There were usually two clerks each night. The store manager might float in every once in a while just to check up on us. Our top agenda items were to make sure there was sufficient cold beer in the cooler and that the counter display was full of nips.  When necessary, the lottery ticket and cigarette dispensers would also need to be filled.  

Almost on the strike of 6pm an elderly woman would always come in to purchase her single bottle of Guinness. I would patiently listen to her tell me all about her grandchildren and how much she missed them. The conversation was always the same and its content didn’t really matter. The surfers would show up around 8pm to purchase their thirty pack of Miller High Life and trot off to their beach parties before sunset. The local underage  hooligans would always be trying to sneak into the store to steal a bottle of something only to be chased out by one of us. A stained glass artist whose shop was a few doors down would punctuate the evening by popping in and exclaiming that he “needed a nip!” as he took a break from creating his latest bauble. Such was the cavalcade of characters that enlivened our shift.

There was always a steady stream of Lottery players as well. They had their own angles on how to best play: some were quick pickers, some played their children’s birthdays, and others had more secret numerologies. There were also a variety of rules for the scratch tickets. Luck sometimes varied depending on the position of the ticket in the roll and for each game the day of the week had some effect. It was all inscrutable to me. 

Occasionally I would have to work a shift with Butch. Butch was a brutish man who worked construction and loved to dispense his rules to the local kids or anyone else he thought he could bully. I hated working with Butch. Butch would be all smiles and compliments at the beginning of the shift when the manager and her husband were there. Always willing to help when in front of them: he would show off his prowess with putting beer cans into 6-Pack ring holders using his massive mitts. But when they were gone the self-appointed tyrant would emerge. 

Shifts with Butch were punctuated by calls from his co-conspirator with updates on the latest conspiracy theories. When the identity of “Deep Throat” was exposed during one shift he spent the rest of the night on the phone denouncing that traitor. When things got slow Butch would decide that there was only need for one clerk and would tell me to go home. I never protested; to be rid of Butch was a pleasure.

We also had the unpleasant responsibility of enforcing the rules of the shop. Certain feral kids were banned and not allowed in. It was a constant task of kicking the little devils out. One evening when filling up the nips display I was shocked to look up and find a poodle staring back at me. At the counter was a tall slim woman with black curly hair (much like the poodle’s) glaring impatiently at me. “Would you please ring this up!” she snapped. “Ma’am is that your dog?” I responded. “Of course this is my dog! Did  you think it was a turtle?”. “Ma’am you’re not allowed to have dogs in this store; the Board of Health does not allow it.” ”Why?” she retorted “Do they think my dog is less sanitary than someone like you?” “Ma’am the dog needs to leave now.” In a huff she grabbed the dog’s leash and stormed out of the store, leaving her bottle of “Belle de Brillet” on the counter. Happily, she never returned. 

When things became really slow we needed to resort to amusements to keep our sanity. Alice standing behind the counter exclaimed one night: “Jesus Christ can it get any slower!” At which point she took off her shoes and placed them on the counter, pulled her shirt up just below her bra, pulled her arms out of her sleeves and replaced them with two gloves from under the counter, and then placed her hands into her shoes. She then proceeded to tap dance across the counter with her diminished body belting out a rousing rendition of “Mr Bojangles”. I have never experienced something more hilarious and I roared with uncontrollable laughter. These are the things that kept us going. 

At the end of our night at 11 I would usually give Alice a ride home unless she wanted to walk. Her housing was always precarious at best and a constant traveling adventure. At the time she was living in a friend’s basement. Luckily she was well liked and always found a spot to land. 

Rents on the Outer Cape are high, averaging over $1200 per month[2] and remain high in the offseason, even as over 60%[3] of homes remain empty. Second home ownership has devastated the real estate market on the Outer Cape with wealthy “Off Cape” buyers inflating housing prices and contributing to an average home price of over $400,000[4] which is far beyond the means of most locals. The seasonal cottages and motels rented to summer people become the rental stock in the offseason for locals. These rental opportunities typically disappear during the summer as the owners evict their off-season tenants to rent to tourists at substantially higher rates. (Many locals find housing in the summer by renting campsites.)

My adventures at the store ended on Labor Day when I was informed that my services were no longer needed during the offseason. This is when most workers here would file for unemployment and attempt to survive off it through the winter. Fortunately, I still had a day job to keep me afloat and so I faded from the collective consciousness of that place, leaving with a slightly fatter bank account and an abundance of wonderful memories. 

Around 9%[5] of Outer Cape residents live below the poverty line and it is a hard life for most. Nevertheless, they choose to live here because it is home: a place of beauty, community and inspiration.







Conrad Codder is a member of Cape Cod DSA.

Emerson College Workers Fight For Fair Pay

Mon, 2021-11-01 21:54

By Binx Perino

Two years of labor organizing started in the Service Employees International Union Local 888 office on Tremont Street, when John Albert-Moseley and Anna Feder walked in to unionize the staff workers at Emerson College. John had emergency surgery shortly after being hired by the College and didn’t have the sick hours to cover his leave. Anna asked HR if she could donate her sick hours to him, and HR didn’t agree until after repeated insistence. While John recovered, the two set in motion to organize their workplace. Their first fight: a sick bank, where employees can donate their unused sick time and withdraw paid hours in case of emergency.

After several years of rigorous organizing, about 70 clerical, technical, and professional employees at Emerson College voted to unionize with the SEIU Local 888. At the time, Emerson College said in a statement that it “look[ed] forward to entering into a collective bargaining process” with the newly-elected union. By the spring of 2018, attitudes at Emerson College had changed and the union filed unfair labor charges against the College for failing to bargain in good faith. After the union ratified their first collective bargaining agreement with Emerson that same year, management at the College hired known union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis.

From 2018 to 2020, the number of students at Emerson College grew by 13% while the number of staff employees reduced by 2%. When COVID struck in the spring of 2020, the union’s fight for higher salaries and new benefits grew more difficult. Citing financial uncertainties, the College gave the staff an ultimatum: suspend retirement benefits, commuting benefits, and raises for the year, or the College would start laying off workers. Workers reluctantly agreed to the suspension for 12 months, until the College had a clearer financial outlook––in practice, this has become an indefinite delay. Since the pandemic, the shrinking staff at Emerson College is proving to make things more challenging for students who need assistance.

Though union and non-union staff employees agreed to this delay in the interest of saving as many jobs as possible, by December of 2020, the College told employees that they would not have solid numbers on their financial outlook until February 2021. During a meeting in February, the College claimed that the outlook was still unclear. Administrators refused to negotiate and ignored correspondence from the union. Staff employees adjusted to unanticipated changes over a whole year of COVID, such as losing office space and upgrading personal internet plans or providers. These changes took a financial toll on many, while the College refused to reimburse staff for expenses related to the work-from-home transition.

Frustrations mounted. During the spring of 2021, Emerson administrators held a forum for staff via Zoom, where attendees discovered that they were muted and their chat feature was disabled. Staff had to submit questions to management through a Google form to be vetted before being addressed. In protest, union members added “SEIU/Proud Union Member” to their Zoom display names and changed their backgrounds to an SEIU graphic. Shortly thereafter, union members attended the May 2021 commencement with flyers and signs, asking new graduates to email management for better treatment of Emerson workers, and to sign a postcard addressed to trustees of the College.

Their protests were met with a small return: a flat 3% bonus for 2021 in recognition of their “hardships.” Union members declined the flat bonus, demanding their contractual raises. They took to the streets again in September with a petition demanding that the College return to negotiations. This petition proved successful: the College, represented by Jackson Lewis, agreed to negotiate. Though the union’s first contract expired at the end of September, a limited extension is under consideration. While the union waits for Emerson to return to negotiations, union members remain intent on having their demands met.Their negotiating committee have been toiling over the language of three articles with the hope that the union can take concrete steps in their next contract to provide better accommodations for staff with disabilities, and make Emerson a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. The union wants to expand the Sick Bank and make it available to more employees. They are working to establish a regular Teleworking policy that will better address the needs of departments and allow for more flexibility for employees. The union also introduced a new article that will establish a better framework for addressing issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. This new article includes new processes to find and address bias in hiring and promotions, recognition and compensation for staff of color who take on the extra burden of DEI-related work, and regular anti-bias training for staff. In the long-term, they hope that these measures will retain staff employees.

 While it isn’t clear what the union is planning next, it’s important that we keep our eyes on them for any future support they may need. Follow their twitter for updates.

Binx R Perino is a member of Boston DSA, an MFA candidate at Emerson College, and a housing advocate in the city of Boston’s homelessness services.

Opinion: HB1094 Is Our Best Weapon Against Uber’s Assault on Worker Rights

Fri, 2021-10-22 07:59

By Henry De Groot

Big Gig’s tidal wave of propaganda is coming to Massachusetts. 

Do you remember when Michael Bloomberg’s radio and TV ads flooded the airwaves? As a presidential candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary, Bloomberg spent around $1 billion dollars—or $3 per U.S. resident—on his campaign. It seemed like his ads—on TV, radio, webpages, and social media—were inescapable. 

If Bloomberg’s messaging annoyed you, just wait until Uber and Lyft’s ads start running for their 2022 Massachusetts ballot initiative. The app companies collectively spent over $220 million in California—or $5.50 per resident—to push through Proposition 22, which stripped app-workers of important labor rights. For a cool $33 million these companies’ new pet organization – the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work—could spend at the same rate, flooding the Massachusetts airwaves from Mount Greylock to Provincetown with their corporate messaging. 

To stand against Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and the rest of Big Gig, unions and community groups have formed an organization of their own, the Coalition to Protect Worker Rights. But what will it take for labor’s coalition to emerge victorious?

If we fight the battle Big Gig has picked, we will lose

These companies are not stupid. Their ads will not trumpet how their business model is based on avoiding and eroding basic labor protections. We can get a sense of their strategy from their campaign in support of  HB1234, “An Act Establishing Portable Benefit Accounts For App-Based Drivers”—a stalking horse for their ballot initiative which faced strong opposition at a state house hearing on Wednesday, October 6th. They aim to disguise their attack on worker rights—in this case, exempting drivers from regulations around employee benefits  – in the shroud of financial  “guarantees” which a recent UC Berkeley study found were worth a measly $4.82/hour. 

Fear-mongering will accompany the sweet talk. These corporations will warn that ensuring driver rights will strip drivers of their coveted flexibility, and seize on popular social justice narratives to present employee rights as a threat to the best interests of their largely immigrant and POC workforce.

At the statehouse hearing earlier this month, panel after panel of well-spoken drivers—obviously hand-picked and groomed by Big Gig—testified in support of H1234. They spoke about how they appreciated the flexibility of app-work, which allowed them—as mothers, retirees, and students—to better manage their other commitments. 

UC Hastings professor Veena Dubal – an expert on labor and employment law – fired back at this company narrative. She pointed out that there is no law which requires employees to have set schedules, and that the only threat to drivers’ flexibility comes from the app companies themselves. 

Convincing drivers that they should be employees is an uphill battle because it runs counter to their lived experience. The fact of the matter is that for many drivers, being classified as an independent contractor means flexibility, while being classified as an employee means set schedules and tight supervision. We must remember the second of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals—“Never go outside the experience of your people.” In my personal experience—more than two years of organizing app-based drivers—convincing a driver that they would be better off as an employee is no easy feat, even in a fair fight.

But this will not be a fair fight. We can have all the community groups, all the experts, and a well-funded campaign. But Uber and Lyft can and will drop $30 million, $100 million, or even $200 million to convince drivers and the public that employee status means losing flexibility. We will be pushing a boulder up a hill in the middle of a mudslide.

Fighting for the workers’ voice

In the fights over California’s Proposition 22 initiative and Massachusetts’ Safe Staffing Initiative – where hospital corporations successfully beat back proposed improvements to nurse/patient staffing ratios – both sides sought to lay claim to the voice of the workers. In both initiatives, both labor and corporate put the voice of impacted workers at the core of their messaging strategies, because both sides knew that voters would trust workers. 

In the early stages of the Safe Staffing campaign, the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) had polling that showed that voters overwhelmingly trusted nurses. Therefore, the MNA deployed the slogan, “Nurses Say Yes!” 

But what they didn’t anticipate was that anyone—or at least anyone with millions of dollars—can hire an actress to put on scrubs, buy the airwaves, and raise the counter-slogan “Nurses Say No!” Voters trusted nurses, but the nurses themselves appeared—and because of fear-mongering about hospital shutdowns, were to a degree – divided.

In California, it was more of the same. One poll shows that 58 percent of all voters – including 40 percent of those who backed Uber’s initiative—thought they were helping drivers’ ability to earn a liveable wage, while only 33 percent thought they were ensuring that businesses like Uber and Lyft could continue to exist.

Ultimately voters—not drivers—will decide this initiative. But if Uber or the MNA’s experience is any indication, voters will largely vote for what they think is best for drivers.

HB1094 breaks Uber’s false choice

HB1094—An Act Establishing A Driver Bill of Rights—is our best weapon to cut across Uber’s ballot strategy.

The bill was democratically drafted by drivers and specifically designed to win driver support to our cause and away from Uber’s proposal.

Because it does not  undermine existing law or create a third category of workers under the law, HB1094 skirts the issue of classification to give drivers the rights that all workers deserve—including paid sick leave and overtime—regardless of status. It also legally guarantees driver flexibility by banning set schedules for drivers. Drawing on legislation passed in Seattle, HB1094 sets mandatory minimums for driver per-mile and per-minute rates, establishes a Driver Resolution Center to advocate for drivers, and gives drivers a path to unionization. 

Drivers may not agree on employment status, but drivers can all agree that we would like higher pay rates, more rights, and protections from unfair deactivations. If we can present  drivers with a  choice between Uber’s bill and the Rideshare Driver Bill of Rights, we can win an army of drivers who can proselytize to voters during every Uber and Lyft ride in the Commonwealth. 

If the Coalition to Protect Worker Rights decides not only to fight Uber’s legislation, but also endorses HB1094, it will have a crucial weapon to organize drivers in its fight against Big Gig’s assault on worker rights.

If we lose, we can still win

Furthermore, HB1094 is relevant even if Big Gig is successful in hoodwinking drivers and voters. If HB1094 is passed in the legislature after a defeat at the polls, it makes the app-companies’ legislation largely irrelevant. Does it matter if drivers are called independent contractors if they have all the rights afforded to employees, as well as pay guarantees well above minimum wage, just cause termination provisions, and a path to unionization with terms more favorable than those afforded under the National Labor Relations Act? 

In California, unions spent over $18 million to fight Proposition 22; after they lost, they had little to show for that money. Building support for HB1094 now as part of the fight against BigGig’s initiative means that even if they win, we will have invested that money in an enduring project for driver rights.



Henry De Groot is an editor of Working Mass, a member of the Boston DSA Labor Working Group, and a board member of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild.