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Boyle Fellow Blog: Thoughts on the Boston Labor Conference

My experience with the Boston Labor Conference has been an enlightening one. One full of anticipation of a boring conference with a focus on an endless stream of facts and figures turned into one that is interpersonal, and very relatable to hundreds of millions in the workforce today. Perhaps I was wearing jade-colored glasses when I heard it was to be hosted by my alma mater: University of Massachusetts Boston or UMB (I did not know labor studies existed there) due to I perceived as their organizational funding issues during my time there. However, UMB staff seems to be as resilient as ever in my interactions with them in between presentations, making do with what they have to the best of their abilities, just like many other working folks in their professions.

When the time came to select a group to sit in and listen to the first session’s meeting, there were two choices: “Starbucks Organizing: Why Now, and What Does It Mean?” and “Labor Law, Bargaining, and Movement Building.” I did the mental calculus in my head and decided that Starbucks was the best choice for me for the first session. This was due to the Labor Guild already offering all the information from the other choice from instructor Paul McCarthy, and due to my own questions and interest in Starbucks from to the media coverage lately regarding union busting by their most visible executive board member Howard Schultz. “Why now? Why 50 years after Starbucks’ first shop opened up?” What does it mean for those that work there in my generation- the millennials- and those that come after; the gen Z or the few baby boomers? While I got my answers from my Starbucks contact, I was left frustrated that the answers were better work conditions and treating their employees as people instead of replaceable cogs in a corporate machine chugging away. Things such as sick leave and freedom from retaliation from their employers and customers can go a long way towards employee loyalty and lower turnover rates.

As session two started, so did the second phase of the mental calculus in my head. This time, the options were: “Big Tech, Big Gig and the Fight for Fair Work” and “Building Solidarity within the Education Sector.” As a former teaching assistant and having worked in IT, I could fit in either of them. As much as I hate to admit it, I felt that the education issue has been a long running one since before I was alive and will continue to be a problem even as I grow older. Technology, however, will continue to progress whether we want it to or not. In the past 20-30 years, we went from blocky cumbersome desktop computers to portable touchscreen phones that can fit in your pocket, weigh less than a cup of water, and computing power many times more powerful than the ones that took man to the moon. To my surprise it was not about computer technology per se but the human interface aspect of it in recent innovative taxiing and delivery platforms like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash.

When consumers use these delivery applications, the employee drivers will deliver the consumer to their destination- in the case of Uber and Lyft- or product to the consumer in the case of Instacart and DoorDash. In an effort to reduce cost to the companies’ bottom line, they allegedly misidentify their employees as independent contractors in order to “pay sub minimum wage and shifting of primary risks and costs of doing business onto individual workers, consumers, and public safety net programs.” The companies that these employees work for have spent money lobbying for more lax restrictions on companies that use their business model so that they can increase revenue at the expense of their employees. As an amateur historian (does having a Master’s Degree in American Studies make me a qualified expert or an amateur?), I felt like this is the next technological and sociological evolution of the concept of the taxi business model. If there is one thing I feel that is the same, it is that the grievances and the alleged exploitation that the employees feel under their company of employment seem to be no different than since before 1937 when the Hess Act was signed to regulate taxi medallions. The difference today is that with the explosive progress of technology and the large sums of money being paid to public relations firms, rideshare companies can influence public opinion much more easily than the average employee who struggles to get by. The speakers suggested that to solve this issue, we would need to close loopholes that allow companies to classify their workers as contractors, strengthen laws that prevent their business model being a special exception to labor laws, and strengthen laws that allow workers to organize and collectively bargain.

The final and most interesting speakers (in my opinion) were the workers and union organizers from Amazon, Trader Joes and the Teamsters. While the previous speakers were important as well for union organizing, I felt these last few folks were more interesting because of who they work for: Amazon. They were the next step after Walmart, just as Walmart was the next step from Sears. They have become almost integral to American consumption due to the ease in obtaining goods that it is difficult to go back to brick-and-mortar stores. If the workers of one of the richest and most powerful commercial companies have such significant problems with their employers that they would want to unionize, then it is worth paying attention to. The “Interim and Co-Founder of the Amazon Labor Union” Chris Smalls spoke of the appalling work conditions and how people have actually gotten hurt- and in one instance died- in the warehouse where the Amazon goods were stored to be delivered to customers. He made a plea to anyone supporting or buying from Amazon not to make big purchases in one instance, but to spread one expenditure out into several smaller ones.

Overall, I felt the conference was productive and a positive experience. I had expected to see mostly older folks of academic or politically situated background but I was once again pleasantly proven wrong. The opening speaker from UMB was right about one thing that I can see immediately: “the political and economic environment caused by years of older generation-led policies had caused many younger people, people my age or even younger to join the labor movement.” I for one, whether I lead the charge or someone younger than I, am hopeful that perhaps we can make life better for our fellow working folks, or at the very least, the generations that come after us will live a slightly better life than we do.

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