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Ideas | David Scharfenberg

Boston’s middle class is getting crushed — does anyone care?

Errata Carmona for the Boston Globe

MALINI CADAMBI-DANIEL was feeling a little nervous standing in that grand, glassy event space along the water — sun riding the ripples of Boston Harbor and washing through the enormous windows.

It was the spring of 2013 and she was working as a strategist with the Service Employees International Union.

A local branch had organized hundreds of adjunct instructors at colleges and universities in Washington, D.C. And now, SEIU wanted to launch an ambitious, national campaign building on that effort.

Boston seemed like a good place to start, with its liberal politics and heavy concentration of colleges and universities. But as Cadambi-Daniel helped arrange the fruit and mini-pastries for the initial organizing meeting, she couldn’t help but wonder: Was this really going to work? Were people really going to show up?


Then, an hour before the official start of the event, they began to trickle in. One or two at a time, at first. And later, dozens and dozens. “We almost couldn’t keep up with it,” Cadambi-Daniels said. “It was overwhelming. We had so many different schools, and people going, ‘Oh my God, we so need a union.’ ”

That symposium would key a burst of organizing at schools including Tufts, Bentley, and Boston University — an effort that would inform more than a dozen similar campaigns in cities such as Minneapolis, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

It was also an important moment in a surge of local white-collar organizing that has swept up theater directors, mental health counselors, and journalists at public radio station WBUR, putting Greater Boston in the vanguard of the most promising strategy for rescuing America’s beleaguered middle class — an old strategy made new, unionization.

The Democratic candidates for president have proposed all sorts of novel, intriguing ideas for righting our lopsided economy, from “baby bonds” — government-funded savings accounts for every child in America — to billions of dollars in subsidies for low- and middle-income renters.


But nothing packs the punch of a union. Nothing confers the sort of raw economic power workers will need to lead us out of this new Gilded Age.

From World War II to the 1970s, income gains were broadly shared up and down the economic ladder. But there has been a dramatic cleavage since. Between 1979 and 2017, real wages for the top 1 percent shot up 157 percent, but increased just 22 percent for the bottom 90 percent.

Unionized workers can demand a greater share. And research shows they get it, making about 14 percent more per hour than comparable, nonunionized workers. They’re also 54 percent more likely to have a retirement plan.

Some professionals, including employees at a number of newspapers, have been unionized for years; Globe workers are negotiating a new contract with management right now.

But a growing number of white-collar workers seem to be warming to the idea of unionization — particularly a younger generation scarred by the Great Recession and untouched by Cold War-era fears of anything that smacks of socialism.

Over the last 20 years, more than 1 million professionals joined unions, pushing the white-collar total to an all-time high of 6.18 million — even as the number of unionized blue-collar workers plummeted by some 3 million over the same period.

That Boston would be such an important hub for the new office-worker solidarity only makes sense: Stagnant wages and a sharp increase in housing prices have created a genuine crisis for the middle class here.


A recent Boston Foundation study, “Boston’s Booming . . . but for Whom?,” found that the median new rental listing here — $2,613 per month — eats up 51 percent of median household income.

That’s a staggering figure. In the housing policy world, households that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing are considered “housing cost burdened” and households that spend more than 50 percent are “extremely housing cost burdened”; financial panic, in other words, is something like a steady-state condition for Boston’s middle class.

Here’s the thing, though: Even as the raw number of professionals joining unions has grown in Boston and across the country in recent years, organized labor has struggled to keep pace with the expansion of the white-collar workforce.

That means the share of professionals who have unionized has actually declined, slightly, over the past decade — from 13.4 percent in 2008 to 11.2 percent in 2018.

Jumpstarting the movement will require some big, long-term changes. The federal government will have to toughen weak penalties for anti-union activity by employers. A struggling labor movement will have to build its capacity. And more white-collar workers will have to channel their inner Bernie — summoning greater outrage over our rigged economy and seeing themselves, maybe for the first time, as union material.


But in the short term, in blue states like Massachusetts, we can demand more of our leading institutions: the local business community, our universities, the state Legislature.

These are supposed to be the pillars of a progressive Commonwealth. In too many cases, though, they have disappointed — smothering or slow-walking white-collar union drives and failing to think creatively about what can be done to help the state’s struggling middle class.

That failure of leadership has left us in a maddening position: out front on one of the most important social movements of our time — but not nearly as far forward as we should be.

I MET RACHEL Scotch at a Dunkin’ Donuts on Broadway in Everett. Blue scarf around her neck. Hot cup of coffee at her fingertips.

She’s bright and purposeful. And her story sounds, in some respects, like a classic tale of upward mobility.

Scotch grew up in Connecticut, the daughter of an unskilled draftsman and a homemaker. And she worked in retail before getting a law degree at Northeastern and taking a job as a public defender.

“I wanted to help people,” she said. “Very corny.”

The work was as meaningful as she hoped. But the salary — $41,000 to start in 2010 — was abysmal for someone who had to pay off $150,000 in student loans.

Several years into her tenure, a Massachusetts Bar Association report found that, adjusted for the cost of living, the state’s public defenders earned the lowest salaries in the nation compared with their peers.


Many had to work side jobs to stay afloat. Scotch had colleagues who doubled as liquor store clerks and shelf stockers at Banana Republic. And she worked as a greeter at Fenway Park for years. It was only after a car accident forced her to quit — she could no longer stand on concrete for hours on end — that she realized how much the part-time gig had sapped her focus at the office.

“I was working every weekend that [the Red Sox] were in town — Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” she said. “I’d go for weeks, sometimes, without a day off. . . . You’re hurting the clients, but you don’t realize it — you’re just doing what you need to do to survive.”

The poor pay had all sorts of material effects: She drove a used car and endured less-than-ideal living conditions. At her first apartment, a basement studio in the Back Bay, sewage backed up into her bathtub when it rained too hard.

But for Scotch, who lives in a working-class neighborhood in Everett now, the real indignity was more personal. “All right, I’ll tell you — this is incredibly embarrassing, but I want to share it,” she told me, her eyes starting to water. “Up until January, my mother was subsidizing my income. I’m 48 years old. That doesn’t feel good.”

What changed in January? Scotch got a significant bump in her salary.

The state Legislature approved the first substantial pay hike for public defenders in years — prompted, in no small part, by lobbying from Scotch and her colleagues. And that was real progress — an example of a Massachusetts institution doing right by the middle class.

But Scotch, who is single, still has a household income below the Greater Boston median and, with little in savings after all these years, she has no chance of buying a place anytime soon.

Moreover, public defenders are entirely at the mercy of the state Legislature going forward. They don’t know when their next raise will come. That makes it hard to plan for the future. And without a union, they don’t have a vehicle for speaking up about working conditions or advocating for indigent clients who could use a voice in the political arena.

Scotch is leading an effort to unionize about 700 lawyers, social workers, and investigators at the state’s public defender office — the Committee for Public Counsel Services. But the Legislature needs to pass a bill authorizing the move.

Last year, Scotch met with House Speaker Robert DeLeo in his ornate office on Beacon Hill and “he looked me in the face and told me that he understood.” But the legislation, despite broad support among rank-and-file lawmakers, hasn’t come up for a vote yet.

Scotch feels “very betrayed.”

“We have this reputation for being such a progressive state,” she said, “and our own speaker of the House is blocking our bill.”

DELEO’S OFFICE PUSHES the blame onto the leadership of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which sent a letter to lawmakers this spring calling for an analysis of the “budgetary consequences” of unionization and an examination of any impact it could have on the agency’s ability to fulfill its “constitutional and statutory responsibilities to its indigent clients.”

Catherine Williams, a spokeswoman for the speaker, told me in a statement that, “While the Committee for Public Counsel Services has implied that there are both quality of representation and constitutional concerns with allowing its employees to unionize, they have unfortunately failed to provide any details on what exactly these concerns are, much less propose any solutions on how to mitigate them.”

It’s time to sort out the details and move — on this bill and another one that would allow licensed mental health counselors, such as Denise Peaslee, to band together.

I met Peaslee recently at her office in Chelmsford, about 45 minutes northwest of Boston, where she sat in a red, velvety chair as soothing ocean sounds drifted in from a speaker in the hallway.

The cozy environs are meant to comfort her often-fragile clients: teenagers and adults wrestling with various eating disorders.

Finding the appropriate counseling can be a challenge; there aren’t a lot of specialists like Peaslee in the area. For years now, she’s had to put would-be clients on a waitlist. And sometimes, she meets with children in the morning because there aren’t enough slots available during after-school hours.

If demand is high, though, she’s hardly getting rich. The rates paid by insurance companies are pretty modest. “Sometimes, mental health feels like the ugly stepsister,” Peaslee said. “I don’t know how valued it is.”

Two years ago, she moved her practice from Lowell to Chelmsford because the $1,800 monthly rent was growing difficult to afford. Now, between the mortgage for her current office space, the cost of liability insurance, and the $18,000 she had to sink into a new heating system, she’s feeling the squeeze.

Peaslee, 54, works long days. And she and her husband, who used to have two dogs, have decided they can only afford the one they have now — a German shepherd rescue named Libby.

Recently, lawmakers took a modest step to help Peaslee and others like her by approving a measure that imposes a one-year time limit on insurers hoping to “claw back” payments to clinicians; insurers sometimes make payments for services they later claim were uncovered and while everyone agrees, in principle, that they should be able to get the money back in cases of genuine error, it can be difficult for counselors to assess — much less defend — a payment made four or five years before.

Again, though, the central problem — the power imbalance holding back these white-collar workers — has not been addressed.

If Peaslee wants to earn a better living, she’ll have to coax the insurance companies into higher rates. And that’s impossible to do on her own. She’ll only have leverage she needs if she can join with other licensed mental health counselors and social workers to negotiate. And antitrust law prevents her from doing that.

That leaves the government in the perverse position of protecting enormous insurance companies against a small band of counselors and social workers — all in the name of fairness.

State lawmakers have broad authority to grant exemptions to antitrust law. But a bill to do just that in this case hasn’t gotten much traction in the Legislature.

Denise Peaslee wants to band together with other counselors to collectively negotiate with insurance companies over fees. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

IT’S NOT JUST Beacon Hill that has disappointed.

Metropolitan Boston is undoubtedly one of the most important hubs of campus organizing in the country.

Six years after SEIU’s initial meeting in that big, glassy hall, the region represents the union’s second-largest cluster of organized academics in the country, trailing only Miami-Fort Lauderdale.

But our supposedly enlightened universities have proven to be stubborn opponents of unionization at times — an opposition that’s particularly troubling in the context of the extraordinary shift in higher education’s labor practices over the last couple of generations.

Consider this: In 1969, nearly 80 percent of faculty were tenured or on tenure track, meaning they had a certain amount of job security. Now, that’s flipped almost entirely, with about three-quarters of faculty off the tenure track and in a far more tenuous position.

Not long ago, I watched a group of about 150 protesters push for something better with a colorful march through the Northeastern campus — banging on drums, blowing trumpets, and bellowing call-and-response chants: “Workers rights are under attack, what do we do?” “Stand up, fight back!”

They were calling on the university to recognize a union of nontenure track, full-time faculty — a group that falls somewhere between part-time adjunct instructors and full-time tenured faculty.

Among the marchers was Brandon Sichling, a nontenure track professor who teaches the theory behind game development. Sichling told me he enjoys his job. But the uncertainty of year-to-year contracts, he said, is “pretty nerve-wracking.” I heard similar concerns from other protesters.

Northeastern, though, has refused to recognize the union, arguing that these instructors are legally “managers,” and therefore, ineligible to organize. The university insists that SEIU, which is organizing the faculty, is free to contest that argument before the National Labor Relations Board.

But union organizers say that’s not really an option; if the case lands before the Trump-era board, the panel could use the “managers” argument to make a broad, precedent-setting ruling that would eviscerate organizing efforts on college campuses all over the country.

Bottom line: a progressive university in the heart of Boston is holding back its workers — and getting an assist from President Trump.

CLEARING THE way for individual organizing efforts probably won’t be enough.

Given the depth of the challenge facing white-collar workers, and the weakened state of the labor movement, we’ll likely need something more — measures that will confer some of the power that unionized workers enjoy on nonunionized labor.

Here in Massachusetts, the SEIU has already made real progress on that front — forming a potent political coalition with left-leaning faith and community groups that has won some impressive victories at the ballot box and in the Legislature: an increase in the minimum wage, paid sick leave, and paid family and medical leave.

There is more to do.

One local SEIU official I spoke with — Matt Dauphin, who works to organize college campuses — suggested a government-run fund that employers who hire part-time or “contingent” workers would have to pay into.

Those workers, many of whom piece together gigs all over, could then apply for benefits based on the total amount of labor they’re performing. Full-time work — even if it’s cobbled together — should get full-time benefits.

Another promising idea: “wage boards,” which bring together business, labor, and government to work out wage scales for entire industries.

Take higher education. Negotiators could set minimum standards for adjunct instructors at every college and university in the region — from the University of Massachusetts Boston, to Northeastern, to Harvard.

Each school would be able to offer its workers more than the minimum, if it chose to. But there would be a floor — improving conditions for workers industrywide and eliminating the disadvantage that unionized employers face when they’re competing against nonunion shops.

This sort of “sectoral bargaining” is common in Australia, where — not surprisingly — wage growth has been much stronger in recent decades than it has been in the United States. Several American states have wage board laws, too, including California, Colorado, and New Jersey.

In 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, facing opposition in the Republican-controlled state Senate, convened a wage board and won approval of a phased-in, $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers at chain restaurants.

A year later, the New York Legislature set a $15 minimum wage that applied across industries, but gutted the wage board law at the same time — another big, blue state handing a temporary victory to workers but refusing to deliver them real power.

This is the cycle that needs breaking. And we can start in Massachusetts.

The fate of our middle class — the fate of the American Dream, even — depends on it.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe