Brian Lang wears two hats in Boston. As president of Boston’s Unite Here Local 26, he represents about 10,000 union workers in the hotel and food service industries. That work included leading a high-profile, weekslong strike of Harvard University dining hall workers last fall, which ended in late October when the employees secured annual wages of at least $35,000 and a deal to prevent sharp increases to health care costs. But on most Mondays, Lang is management. That’s when he usually can be found at a Department of Transportation conference room as a member of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board. Lang has been active around Boston labor issues for decades, but knew little about trains and transit before he joined the board in 2015. With the control board meeting several times a month in an effort to reform the agency, he’s had to learn a lot fast. He spoke with the Globe about labor issues — both in his day job, and at the T.
1. He got his start in labor in the union for the Colonial Provision Company, a meatpacking company that made the original Fenway Frank. Lang worked there for about a decade, until it closed. The union fought unsuccessfully to prevent the closure in the mid-1980s.
“We actually got the City of Boston to start the process of taking the plant over by eminent domain and then selling it to someone to keep the plant operating here. In the end, we didn’t have the political clout to do it, but it was a good campaign and we went down swinging.”
2. Lang’s union represents dining hall workers at several Boston-area colleges and universities. He believes the Harvard food fight, which generated headlines around the world, set the standard for other schools — including Northeastern University, where the union contract expires this year and negotiations are underway. At Harvard, Lang said, food workers benefited from the support of students, faculty, and alumni during the strike.
“Harvard in many ways is a financial institution that also does education. Corporations are set up to reward the shareholders and the shareholders are set up to reward shareholders and maximize profit. What makes Harvard and educational institutions different is that you have a whole other set of people — the students and the faculty — who are not there to make a profit. And there’s a tension between the corporate and what I call the higher side of the institution. With that strike we never impacted the corporation’s ability to make a profit; what we impacted was the image of the institution and it’s an image that many participants in the institution value.”
3. Lang was among the five people chosen by Governor Charlie Baker to serve on the T’s control board in 2015, even though his union endorsed Baker’s opponent — Martha Coakley — in the 2014 gubernatorial campaign. While the T has several labor unions, and some of the control board’s work has featured pitched disputes with workers, Lang said he was not selected for the board due to his labor ties.
“I asked the governor [why I was chosen] and he said two things to me. As president of a 10,000-member organization of folks who live in and around Boston, he thought I was someone who knew more people that were dependent on the T than anyone else he knew. And he said he respected us. He had contact with our organization during our campaign. We didn’t endorse him but he spent an hour and a half with us. He saw us as a principled organization with a vested interest in fixing the T.”
4. Other board members sometimes pick his brain about labor issues, and Lang has been more skeptical about outsourcing T work and services than fellow board members. While the agency has faced backlash from unions during the Baker administration over outsourcing and is bracing for a fight over reforms to the worker pension fund, Lang believes it’s “doing pretty well” on the labor front.
“It kind of comes with the territory that there’s going to be tensions. When an organization like the T has so many challenges and enters into labor negotiations, this is to be expected. The good news is that there’s dialogue going on continually between the union leadership. There’s a lot to talk through on the pension issue. Everyone wants to protect the retirement of the workforce. That’s where the union is coming from and that’s where T management is coming from. A secure retirement is the goal here.”
5. He believes labor unions could prevent job losses from automation.
“Nobody’s going to stop progress, in terms of technology and automation. But what we need to do as worker representatives is think a little outside the box. If there’s going to be technology coming in, we have to negotiate that those jobs go to our members, and that training be given to our members if technology replaces those jobs.”Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.