With a rise in female labor leaders, union priorities expand

By Katie Johnston Boston Globe Staff

Most mornings, Chrissy Lynch heads to the Dunkin’ down the street from her Beacon Hill office at the Massachusetts AFL-CIO for a large hot coffee with skim milk and a caramel swirl.

But no matter where she is, work follows.

On a recent visit, an employee updated Lynch on a labor dispute between managers that led to the store closing unexpectedly one afternoon. The employees don’t necessarily know that Lynch, chief of staff and secretary-treasurer at the state AFL-CIO, is slated to be the next leader of the labor umbrella organization. But, she said, “They know I fight for workers.”

Lynch listened intently, then reminded the woman about a building trades program that could propel her into a union construction career with higher pay and better job security. “You’d be great,” Lynch said. “Tell me when you’re ready.”

Lynch, 41, has been part of the Massachusetts labor movement for most of her career and is always looking to bring more workers into the fold. When the election is held at the state AFL-CIO convention on Oct. 11, Lynch, who is running unopposed to replace retiring president Steven Tolman, is set to become the first woman at the helm of the organization, which represents around 800 local unions and labor groups in Massachusetts.

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The Massachusetts branch of what is now the American Federation of Labor — Congress of Industrial Organizations was formed in 1887 to improve the lives of working people and unify labor groups around the state. The organization endorses pro-labor candidates for the Legislature and backs worker-friendly bills, addressing issues ranging from wage theft to climate change, and works to identify common goals among the wide range of unions it represents — janitors, teachers, construction workers, government employees, and more — to “keep everybody rowing in the same direction,” Lynch said.

“Labor is a stakeholder in everything,” she noted. “This is about humanity . . . and basic dignity.”

Labor has become decidedly more female in recent years. Women make up almost half of union members nationwide, up from just a third in 1983. One of the country’s biggest unions, Service Employees International Union, is run by Mary Kay Henry. The national AFL-CIO — the largest federation of unions in the country, 10 of which are run by women — is led by Liz Shuler, and Lynch is set to be the 18th woman at the helm of the group’s state federations.

The AFL-CIO is actually the largest organization of working women in the country, given that nearly half of its 12.5 million members are women, said Darlene Lombos, a member of the state AFL-CIO executive council and the first woman to run the Greater Boston Labor Council. Shuler was the one who raised that point to her, Lombos said, and it’s telling that she did it while they were out knocking on doors. Women leaders not only bring valuable perspectives and life experiences, she noted: “We don’t mind getting into the weeds.”

Still, of the 80 officers, union presidents, and worker advocates who make up the Massachusetts AFL-CIO’sexecutive council, only 13 are women. But that’s more than it used to be. Executive council member Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said there used to be so few women at board meetings that they would text each other every time another woman walked in — “Number six showed up.”

As unions have become more female, their priorities have become more inclusive. Lynch and Lombos recently formed a statewide women’s labor committee to empower women for leadership roles and help unions better protect the women in their ranks. But it’s taken time for male-dominated leadership teams to get comfortable with some topics, Kontos said. “With more women in the room, we began talking about reproductive rights, comprehensive health care, child care, and some people needed to adjust to these conversations,” she said.

Lynch has been advocating for workers since she was a teenager working at Dunkin’ Donuts in Pembroke. As a shift supervisor, she fought to get everyone a raise and to have the front doors locked at night — with just the drive-through open — to better protect the high school girls working the late shift alone. Her manager, Joanne White, said Lynch was “determined to take charge” when her co-workers needed help and she’d march into White’s office with her “horns sticking out.”

“If something needed to be done or could be rearranged or improved, she was going to speak up about it,” said White, who still gets a Christmas card from Lynch every year.

Lynch’s late father got into a serious car accident when Lynch was young and never worked again. Her mother supported the family as a middle manager for what is now Verizon — going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark, as Lynch recalls: “I learned a lot of my work ethic, and that women can do any job, from her, because she was working with mostly men.”

After getting a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Suffolk University, Lynch moved to San Diego with a friend and started working on political campaigns, where she realized the power of the labor movement. “I wanted to expose injustices,” she said. But she missed her roots, including the “jaywalking and sarcasm” of Boston, and within two years she was back working as political coordinator for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. And with the exception of a stint for the Greater Boston Building Trades Unions, she’s been there ever since.

A self-professed sports junkie — and former player in the Boston Women’s Flag Football League, whose time was cut short by ACL surgeries on both knees — Lynch said she’s always gotten along with the guys. But she’s had to develop thick skin and sharp elbows, and feels obligated to overprepare — and even then has found herself being underestimated.

“I’ve certainly been mansplained to,” she said.

Lynch, who is married and has an 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, planned her pregnancies for nonelection years, noted Tolman, the retiring president — something Lynch said she felt compelled to do as the organization’s first female political director but a decision she stressed women shouldn’t be expected to make. She’s always a step ahead, Tolman said: “I would think of something and call Chrissy and she would have already done it.”

Colleen Glynn, who was one of the first local women to rise through the union ranks, is well aware of the difficulties of being in a male-dominated domain where women have historically been dismissed and undervalued. This disrespect has diminished greatly, said Glynn, international vice president of the live entertainment and stagecraft workers’ union IATSE, and business manager of Local 11 in Boston. But still, she noted: “It’s not easy being a woman stepping into these roles.”

Lynch has also been quick to understand the needs of the rising share of workers who have few traditional employment protections. When the 2022 ballot proposal was ramping up to officially classify ride-hailing and delivery drivers as independent contractors (it didn’t make it to the ballot but is being revived for 2024), Lynch reached out to Nicole Moore, president of Rideshare Drivers United in California, where the fight over gig drivers’ employment status has been raging for years. Unlike other leaders, Lynch is keenly aware of what’s happening “around the edges” of established labor and knows the artificial intelligence guiding app-based gig workers “is the new boss” that needs to be reckoned with, Moore said.

Lynch is often the first person to show up to support political candidates — organizing field campaigns to knock on doors and raise money, even bringing her kids to a holiday weekend labor canvassing event, said Theresa McGoldrick, national executive vice president for the National Association of Government Employees, who is based in Massachusetts.

“She’s a 24/7 kind of person,” McGoldrick said. “She’s there for every fight.”

Read the original article in The Boston Globe here.


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