Union leaders reflected on an unprecedented year that has thrust the economy’s “essential workers” into the COVID-19 spotlight, as they gathered outdoors around Massachusetts Monday for drive-in movie screenings and other unconventional Labor Day celebrations.
“This year is certainly going to go in the history books, and not just as the year of the pandemic. It will be the year of the essential worker,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh told the crowd at a Greater Boston Labor Council rally in the parking lot behind the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
For years, the council has hosted a Labor Day breakfast at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, organizers instead opted for a socially distanced outdoor gathering billed as a “workers’ rally for a just recovery.”
Organizers provided face masks and encouraged attendees to stay in their cars or to space out across the large lot. Many stood several feet apart or clustered in small groups.
“We feel like it’s important for community and grass-roots organizations to really celebrate what Labor Day is, what the labor movement is,” said Maria Belen Power, associate executive director of the Chelsea environmental justice group GreenRoots, who sat on a My Little Pony blanket with her husband and their two young daughters. “Labor Day is really about the workers — and the essential workers that have been putting their lives on the line, especially during COVID.”
Walsh and union leaders addressed the crowd from a flatbed truck provided by Teamsters Local 25. The speaking program was followed by a drive-in screening of the animated film “Chicken Run,” in which hens organize to oppose a farmer planning to automate his farm to increase profits.
The mayor, a former head of the Boston Building Trades, received a warm welcome from the crowd.
The workers who kept the country going during the worst weeks of the pandemic are the heroes of 2020 “because it was working women and men — truly essential people — who stepped forward to keep us safe, keep us fed, keep us going, keep … giving us hope,” he said.
Walsh then shifted from praise for working people to criticism of the federal response to the pandemic, joining several speakers in slamming President Trump.
“The president said the coronavirus would magically disappear,” Walsh said. “He undermined the public health experts all along, and he still does it today.”
The economic fallout from the pandemic has been especially hard on workers furloughed or laid off in the restaurant and retail sectors, which have had to adjust to strict COVID-19 health and safety measures.
Massachusetts recorded the highest unemployment rate in the country in June and July, falling from 17.7 percent in June to 16.1 percent in July, according to data released last month by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Al Vega, president of United Steel Workers Local 9358 Unit 1, said the “pandemic has created an unprecedented worker health and safety crisis and devastated our communities.”
“Since March, thousands of workers have become ill, hospitalized, and in the worst cases, died from workplace exposure to this virus,” Vega said.
Steven A. Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL–CIO, called on state legislators to pass an “essential workers’ Bill of Rights.”
“They need hazard pay, paid sick time, and the presumption that if an essential worker contracts COVID, they did so in the line of duty,” he said of essential workers. “They need whistle-blower protection and a reliable place to turn when our workplaces are unsafe.”
Tolman also saluted other Labor Day events around the state, including a gathering on the State House steps that was shown on the 27-foot-wide video screen outside the convention center.
At the State House rally hosted by Raise Up Massachusetts, Beth Huang, a member of the organization’s steering committee, said this is an important time to make workers’ voices heard.
“As the pandemic continues, we must make lawmakers on Beacon Hill make a choice between our communities and workers, or they can choose to keep business as usual, to keep corporations profitable above security, and safety, and health for everyone,” Huang said.
In New Bedford, an estimated 50 cars gathered in the high school parking lot for a rally and “Chicken Run” screening. Organizers from the Greater Southeastern Massachusetts Labor Council gave out five scholarships to recent high school graduates.
“This was our way of engaging the general public,” said Lisa Lemieux, the council’s president. “People are not learning about unions and the history of unions in schools, so … we said, ‘We need to get out there and talk about the labor movement.’ "
Lemieux said the event was a celebration, both for the labor movement’s past achievements and for “the workers that persevered through the pandemic.”
In Springfield, a few dozen people rallied in front of City Hall. Speakers discussed the work needed to help people recover from the pandemic and to protect essential workers, said Jeff Jones, president of the Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation, which coordinated the event.
“The overall message is that the labor movement’s very much alive, very much well, and very much fighting going forward,” Jones said. “At this particular moment, we have to be dealing with a pandemic but that, even if we weren’t, we would be dealing with issues to try and raise the quality of life for working people in this state and around the country.”