Labor leaders across Massachusetts are seeing the current moment — between the pandemic, nationwide staffing shortages and “the strongest labor president in American history,” according to Mass. AFL-CIO Chief of Staff Chrissy Lynch — as a golden opportunity for union strength and advancement.

The pandemic caused millions of workers to rethink their jobs and workplace priorities, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh at a forum Wednesday morning hosted by MASSterList and State House News Service. The event was a homecoming for the former Boston mayor, who made a point to name-drop and greet audience members mid-speech.

Walsh said he was “optimistic about this moment in time” for labor, telling audience members about an event at the White House this summer with labor organizers from around the country.

“They were from warehouses, coffee shops, retail stores, media companies and libraries — non-traditional union workplaces — and they were younger workers, primarily workers of color and women,” Walsh said. “But what surprised me the most was the fact that they weren’t talking about wages. They weren’t. They were talking about working conditions and the way they were treated on the job. They were talking about respect.”

Union organizers on a panel at the event echoed Walsh’s statement, saying that while wages remain an important part of labor contract negotiations, workers right now are looking for respect.

Carlos Aramaya, president of Unite Here Local 26 representing hospitality workers, said workers have advocated for this “respect” in the form of safety and sexual harassment protections and job security during the pandemic.

“I saw the most profound difference, and I think workers did too, between unionized and non-unionized workplaces during the pandemic. At non-unionized workplaces, workers were permanently terminated. They were fired from their job,” Aramaya said during a panel talk at the Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education office on Winter Street. “There’s been a lot more interest in wanting to join our union because people just heard about what happened over the past year.”

Gallup poll in August found that 71 percent of Americans approved of unions, the highest approval rate since 1965, and up 64 percent since before the pandemic.

“I think one of the good things that came out of it is that folks are finally acknowledging their work and are ready to stand up for it,” said panelist Dana Alas, vice president for BMC/Community, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

The widespread unionization drive the U.S. has seen over the past year has had no shortage of traction in Massachusetts. Starbucks workers in Brookline made national headlines in a historic 64-day strike, which only ended on Sept. 21; Saint Vincent Hospital unionized nurses in Worcester won a new labor contractlast year after nine bitter months of striking; and art museum employees at Mass Moca in North Adams mounted a strike in August to call attention to “disappointing” negotiations.

On Beacon Hill, Senate staffers this year waited months to learn whether Senate President Karen Spilka would recognize their unionization effort with IBEW Local 2222, before Spilka seemed to shut the door on that possibility in July.

On a national scale, Labor Day came and went under the threat of a rail strike, which Walsh personally intervened in to avoid a national rail shutdown that could have damaged the already sinking U.S. economy.

Walsh offered insight into the incident that captured the country’s attention. He said the workers’ union and railroad companies had been clashing for years over contract negotiations, with a quickly-approaching deadline of mid-September to resolve the conflict before workers went on strike. The morning before the deadline, Walsh had both groups come to his office in Washington to sit down until they came to a tentative agreement.

The two camps were put in separate rooms and, apparently, were served Italian food, while Walsh served as a mediator. The union and railroad companies came to a tentative agreement 20 hours into the marathon negotiations at 5 a.m., Walsh said.

“Our freight rail system would have come to a grinding halt,” Walsh said. “That would have caused devastation to the U.S. economy and untold harm from loss of food, energy and health products to communities.”

He emphasized that the most important piece of productive labor negotiations is trust.

“I think there is an opportunity right now, a moment in time, with coming out of the pandemic to really think about moving forward,” Walsh said in a press scrum after his speech. “People are leaving one job and going to another because they have the ability to make more money. We’ve seen year-over-year 5.5 percent increase in wages… but people are expecting more and demanding more from their employer.”

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