WHEN CHRISSY LYNCH set out to right injustices as a college journalism student, she quickly bumped up against the profession’s traditional uneasiness with advocacy. But the new head of the Bay State arm of the nation’s largest trade union federation eventually found her voice and her people, after a winding path through political campaigns, bartending, and waitressing as she went.
Lynch is the Massachusetts AFL-CIO’s first female head, succeeding Steven Tolman this fall to be the first new president in more than a decade to lead the 800-organization federation.
Some 17 years ago, when she first found the AFL-CIO, “there were very few people my age back then in the sort of labor space. And there were even fewer women,” Lynch said on The Codcast. “When I think back on some of those women, they were sort of what taught me what solidarity looks like. I saw how they looked out for each other in spaces where we’d be in big rooms full of men, and there would be only a few of us.”
With the backing of her fellow women and men, Lynch is looking to help usher the AFL-CIO into a more diverse era. Public approval of labor unions, which Gallup has been polling since 1931, slowly declined since its 1950s and 1960s heyday, dropping to 48 percent approval in 2009. Over the last two years, however, labor union approval hit highs not seen in half a century – 71 percent approval in late 2022 and 67 percent this August.
All the while, membership in unions slid from about one in five US workers in 1980 to around 10 percent now, a decline that majorities of Americans think has been bad for the country, according to the Pew Research Center.
The last few years have been marked by high-profile labor actions, kicking off broadly with the wave of strikes in October 2021 that came to be known as “striketober,” which drew tens of thousands of workers from sectors including health care, manufacturing, education, and entertainment.
“I think that we are seeing a resurgence in labor actions because I think workers are fed up,” Lynch said. “The pandemic brought a lot of societal inequities to a head. We saw essential workers who were on the front lines with no PPE, no sick time, no recourse if they got sick, making largely poverty wages. At the same time, we saw hundreds of thousands of workers lose their jobs with no idea when unemployment was coming, how long it was gonna last. While all of this was happening, corporate profits were soaring even more than usual.”
On the national level, unions are facing a mixed bag. The country has a loudly pro-union President Biden, who last week celebrated tentative deals between the United Auto Workers and three major US automakers after weeks of strikes, and a Trump-era Supreme Court, which handed down decisions like Janus declaring that unions may not collect fees from a non-member without affirmative consent.
That decision “made public sector unions double down on internal organizing to make sure that we are not taking those members for granted,” Lynch said, adding that “it’s really given us a fresh energy” internally.
Externally, the AFL-CIO is trying trying to organize in new sectors, Lynch said, like tech, coffee shops, and graduate student workers. New technologies like artificial intelligence loom as potential existential threats to fields such as writing and acting.
Broadly, she said, “we’re trying to seize opportunities in front of us to grow the labor movement, diversify it, and do other things like save our planet.” That could mean more of a focus on childcare, or environmental justice issues, along with programs that specifically target bringing more women and people of color into union jobs.
But unions aren’t a monolith. The trade unions and service worker unions aren’t all in agreement on how to approach the forthcoming gig worker ballot fight. Several general municipal elections, like the Boston City Council race, saw teachers unions and construction worker unions coming down on opposite sides.
“Every local union has the autonomy to do what their union wants to do,” Lynch said. They all have their own endorsement processes, and “typically if there’s some unions here and some unions there as far as different candidates, if you actually peel back the layers and take away the names, there’s not all that much of a difference between the candidates typically on the issues. And in those cases, the AFL kind of steps out and we’re like, all right, you guys work it out amongst yourselves.”
But she is expecting solidarity on a number of legislative priorities, from giving striking workers unemployment insurance benefits to establishing a right for legislative staff themselves on Beacon Hill to unionize.
“They absolutely should have the right,” Lynch said. “We have a staff union at the AFL-CIO. I was the steward of it for a long time. I’m now management. But it’s important; we need to live up to the values we espouse.”