As the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of safe working conditions, and with two consequential ballot questions likely coming in 2022, Western Massachusetts labor leaders see the year ahead as a crucial one.
There are major challenges, including the prevalence of low staffing levels in health care settings, a rise in housing insecurity and a proposed ballot question that would take away employee status, and corresponding protections, from workers for gig economy operators such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash.
But, some in the labor movement also see opportunities to pass legislation that would make major investments in infrastructure, support frontline workers, crack down on wage theft and protect workers’ right to organize, among other priorities.
About 100 people attended a virtual meeting Friday morning as union leaders, workers and elected officials discussed a range of priorities for the year ahead. The Western Mass Area Labor Federation, which represents more than 50,000 workers across the four western counties, hosted the event on Zoom.
Marie Geary, a registered nurse at Berkshire Medical Center, said that before the pandemic, she never had seen her co-workers “so exhausted, demoralized and burnt out” in 25 years as a registered nurse.
“We have put our lives and our family on the line to care for patients while facing rapidly changing and, at times, unsafe situations,” said Geary, who also is a member of the bargaining committee for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, a statewide union. “As nurses on the floor every day, we see ways that BMC can both support the retention of current staff and encourage new hires. This current set of affairs is just not sustainable.”
Through seeking increased staffing levels, Geary said, nurses aim to “give our community the safe and adequate care that they deserve.”
BMC nurses went on strike in 2017 over staffing levels, and that issue prompted an ongoing nurses strike at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester. At six months, the Worcester strike has become the longest nurses strike in state history.
Several speakers drew attention to a proposed ballot question that would classify workers for gig economy operators as “independent contractors,” a change that would exempt them from protections that employees receive under state law. The campaign for the question is led by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and many of the same companies that poured more than $200 million into a similar ballot question that passed in California. But, a California judge has ruled the law unconstitutional.
While those companies say the question would allow workers greater flexibility, union leaders overwhelmingly agree that workers should not have to choose between flexibility and employee status, which comes with legally protected benefits.
Attorney General Maura Healey has sued Uber and Lyft for claiming that its workers are independent contractors in order to avoid paying workers millions of dollars in compensation. Healey has said she believes that those companies are violating a law that has been on the books in Massachusetts since 2004.
“It’s about making sure that drivers receive the wages and the basic protections that they’re entitled to as employees: minimum wage, overtime, sick time and more,” Healey said.
D. Beth Griffith, board chair of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild, which is fighting the proposed ballot question in Massachusetts, said the question would “further marginalize Black and brown and immigrant workers and further strip away our protections.”
Labor leaders, though, have thrown their weight behind a separate 2022 ballot question that would raise taxes on top earners in order to pay for investments in transportation and education. The question, known as the Fair Share Amendment, would raise the tax rate from 5 percent to 9 percent on the portion of annual income in excess of $1 million.
Four state senators and 11 state representatives, including state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, attended the annual event, which is tied to Labor Day. Representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, among other elected officials, also attended.