Labor’s Moment: The 2023 Boston Labor Conference


By Drew Whitt

On Saturday, April 1st, the Boston Labor Conference held the latest annual meeting of the who’s-who in Boston labor. Umass Boston put on the conference with collaboration from the EPI, Trader Joes United, and the Amazon Labor Union.  

When I arrived around 10:00 AM the room was bustling with energy and conversations of a common goal, capitalizing on labor’s current “moment.” Shortly after everyone split into two rooms. The main room was a panel with Jen Sheer, Max German, and Anneta M from Umass. The talking point of the panel was “Flexible Work without Exploitation.” Jen Sheer with the Economic Policy Institute talked about the importance of state laws and gig work. Sheer says,

“State legislation is changing Labor laws, especially for gig workers.”

“One in seven gig workers earned less than the federal minimum wage.”

While arguing this point, Sheer notes that in companies employing gig workers (Uber, Postmates, etc), exploitation is disguised as innovation. Toward the end of the talk Sheer shares that the bill the EPI is helping to push through a bill in the state legislature, called “Massachusetts Is Not For Sale!”

After the first panel, the next presentation came from Jamie McCullum, the author of Worked Over and Essential. He explained the importance of workplace struggles and the importance of a unified working class. The speech also touched on workplace safety, and how the implementation of workplace safety legislation was only possible because of the workers. Lunch followed McCullum’s speech and the energy was not allowed to dissipate, we all knew what was following lunch, and it was evident that people were excited. 

The final panel consisted of Chris Smalls, who is the president of the Amazon Labor Union, Paul Wiesle of Teamsters Local 25, Jamie Edwards, president of Trader Joe’s United, and Rand Wilson. Chris Smalls started by providing some knowledge on what he thinks is important in labor.

“A big part of the new labor movement will and has to be education.”

Without education, the working class will be more and more exploited. This notion was seconded by the second speaker on the panel, Peter Wiesle. He explains the benefit of unions and how labor is more important than one workplace. Jamie Edwards is next and he tells the story of how he was able to organize the first Trader Joe’s in the country and his struggles with doing so. The whole “moment” was capitalized by Edwards. He was able to do the impossible and secure the vote with the NLRB.

The conference ended with a speech from Rand Wilson, a local organizer. His energy was contagious. He wrapped the whole conference with the theme of labor’s “moment.” He explains that an upswing of young people caring about labor is what’s making these momentous occasions happen. It’s true, while the old guard has paved the way for us, it’s the rank-and-file members of unions and the people that hope to unionize that are going to be able to affect the labor market. As evidenced by the energy of this conference, you are either capitalizing on the “moment” or you are against the working class.