Saturday, April 6, 2019, 8:30 am - 4:00 pm
Add to Calendar 


MA Archives & Commonwealth Museum 
220 Morrissey Blvd.
Dorchester, MA 02125



Wally Soper 
Labor Resource Center 

Key Debates in the Labor Movement 

April 6, 2019

UMass Boston Labor Resource Center

We are at a critical moment in the history of unions and the labor movement. We face an ever-widening wealth gap, a growing carceral state, intense anti-immigration rhetoric and policies, an unprecedented attack on public-sector unions, and a President who actively tries to divide the labor movement. At the same time, however, there are strong indications that working people are fed up and willing to fight, from the massive teachers' strikes; to Black Lives Matter and #MeToo; to the success of progressive candidates and the increasing public support for unions. In a climate characterized by both deepening inequality and promising sparks, this conference explores key debates for labor that are at once old and new:

  • How do we build power in ways that address the immediate needs of working people while also advancing the labor movement in the long term?
  • How do we overcome policies and laws that make organizing and building a labor movement extremely difficult?
  • And, finally, how do we build solidarity across differences?
Guest speakers include:
  • Lane Windham, Georgetown Univeristy, author of Knocking on Labor's Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide
  • Erik Loomis, Univeristy of Rhode Island, author of A History of America in Ten Strikes
  • Cedric Johnson, University of Illinois-Chicago, author of Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics
  • Beth Huang, Director Massachusetts Voter Table
  • Eric Blanc, New York University, author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers' Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics
  • Carlos Aramayo, Financial Secretary-Treasurer for Unite-HERE Local 26
  • Darlene Lombos, Executive Director of Community Labor United and Vice President of the GBLC
  • Immanuel Ness, Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education, author of Southern Insrugency: The Coming of the Global Working Class

Conference sessions include:

Right-Wing Populism, Race, and the US Working Class: Although unions spent millions of dollars and mobilized voters to support Democrats in the 2016 elections, Trump won 43% of union households and 37% of union members. In some of the key Rust Belt states, Trump even won outright majorities of union households. Understanding the rise of right-wing populism--including its embrace of white identity politics with explicitly racist appeals--requires situating labor's current challenges within the broader context of its long-term decline. But it also demands addressing a problem that goes deeper than issues of union density and bargaining power: the inability of labor and the progressive movement to shape and mobilize working people's political identities. What are the obstacles to doing so? How does the labor movement build collective identities that transform how working people think about where they are, how they got there, what is possible, and what they are capable of changing?

Labor and Inequality in Boston and Massachusetts: The first ten years of the twenty-first century were termed a "lost decade" for Massachusetts. Top earners increased their incomes by up to 10%, while low wage workers saw their income stagnate or decline by up to 20%. Massachusetts is now one of the most unequal states in the country, with Boston leading the way. Nor did the post-2008 recovery do much to reverse these trends. Massachusetts recovered from the recession faster than the rest of the country, but over 85% of the new jobs were in low-wage sectors. Unemployment remains significant, and disproportionately high for black and Hispanic workers. What is the current state of working people in Massachusetts? How have workers been impacted by recent political and economic changes? What is the impact of Massachusetts' unions on working people and the state as a whole?

Strikes, Lockouts, and Workplace Power: During the 1970s, there were an average of nearly 300 major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers annually in the United States. By the 1990s, that number had fallen to about 35 per year. And in 2009, there were no more than five. Moreover, when work stoppages do occur they are twice as likely to be the product of a company lockout than they were a decade ago. However, in the last year, workers--pushed to the limit both within and outside of unions--are breathing new life into the strike at the same time as employers have retained the upper hand and become increasingly brazen when confronted with such challenges. Some argue that labor needs to resurrect the strike as a central strategy to rebuild power at work and strengthen the labor movement as a whole. By contrast, others see the strike as outdated, or a tactic that could produce disastrous results for workers given the overall weakness of the labor rmovement. What is the present and future of one of labor's most powerful weapons--the strike--within a context where employers are sufficiently confident to impose lockouts? And, more broadly, what tactics--from the corporate campaign to street protests--have proven effective for recapturing power in (and beyond) the workplace at a tiem when laws, policies, and corporate power are so firmly stacked against unions?

Where do we go from here? Elections, Legislation, Organizing: The labor movement has long struggled with the question of how to engage in politics. As union density declined and the political winds shifted to the right, this discussion only intensified, with the loss of political power leading many in the labor movement to explore (or revisit) a wide range of ideas and strategies. Some have argued that unions and other labor organizations should concentrate their efforts on the electoral process--by supporting the Democratic Party, backing progressive candidates, establishing a third party, etc. Others have stressed the importance of building mass movements, seeing elections as a distraction from organizing. And still others advocate the backing of legislation and state-wide initiative campaigns as more effective tools for raising wages, protecting the public good, or altering the tax structure. Such debates, in turn, hinge on even broader questions: What is the relationship between labor and the larger progressive movement? How do we best approach elections, legislation, and organizing in ways that address short-term needs while strengthening unions, labor, and social movements for a long-term fight against inequality? What are effective paths in the current political climate?