First Virtual Troublemakers School a Hit in Western Mass

Local union activists joined the Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation's Labor Day rally, "Workers Rising for a Just Recovery." The Area Labor Federation was formed in 2019 by the merger of three local Central Labor Councils. Photo courtesy of WMALF.

The Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation joined forces with Labor Notes last month to organize a virtual Troublemakers School. Nurses, carpenters, grocery workers, teachers, and social workers met to share strategies and build solidarity.

It’s unusual (though not unheard of) for a labor federation to sponsor a Troublemakers School. What made this experience unique is that the Area Labor Federation did most of the organizing—and used it to build their organization.

How We Got Here

The Western Massachusetts region includes four counties with a total population of more than 800,000 people. Among them are 50,000 union members, plus hundreds of thousands of non-union workers.

The region is made up of both urban and rural communities with significant wealth inequality, underfunded public services, chronic wage theft, and growing racial diversity. Like the rest of the country, Western Massachusetts has been hit hard by the pandemic. Essential services were cut back; eviction threats skyrocketed. In Hampden County—home to more than half of the region’s population and its largest city, Springfield—unemployment hit 20.2 percent in June and remained at 8.9 percent as of December.
For many years, the Western Massachusetts labor movement operated through three Central Labor Councils (CLCs): Pioneer Valley, Hampshire-Franklin, and Berkshire, which together had about 25,000 affiliated members. As small CLCs, they lacked the resources to hire staff, struggled with low participation, and had insufficient capacity to coordinate and to implement an organizing and political mobilization program.

Recognizing the limitations of this structure, in the spring of 2017, local unions began working with the Massachusetts AFL-CIO to restructure the three CLCs into an Area Labor Federation with the combined resources to hire a full-time organizer and expand organizing capacity. The Western Mass Area Labor Federation formed in early 2019 when the affiliates of the three CLCs voted overwhelmingly to merge.

Since forming, the ALF has been working to build affiliation and engagement. Monthly meetings and organizing committees bring together union leaders and rank-and-file activists to discuss regional labor fights and strategize how to collectively build power.

“It is still a work in progress, but our leadership is united around a vision of building up our region’s labor movement through a real culture of solidarity,” said WMALF President Jeff Jones, who was recently elected president of Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459. “We want all union members to get involved and build relationships where we can organize around our common struggles.”


The idea of organizing a Western Massachusetts Troublemakers School came out of our WMALF Education and Training Committee. In October, a core team of delegates began meeting to discuss how we could organize a training series that would grow our area labor movement and spark discussion on common issues.

After months of meeting and planning a potential program, the Education Committee introduced a resolution at our December delegate meeting to host the school. Delegates voted unanimously to organize the event and shared their input on organizing issues and stories they wanted to see incorporated.

“I have been part of training development committees in the past, but never one that brought together people from different industries and unions,” said SEIU Local 509 member Cynthia Davis, who was on the planning committee. “It was valuable because I was embarking on a learning experience that would allow me to collaborate with folks from different cultural backgrounds, various walks of life, different work experiences, and different unions, but all with a common goal: educating and organizing the people.



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

"That hits differently—coming together, to learn together. There is power in that!”


We kicked off with a plenary that included:

  • UMass Amherst workers who formed a coalition of campus unions to fight layoffs and austerity
  • domestic violence support workers who unionized during the height of the pandemic
  • nurses who are re-energizing their local to fight takebacks and address the impacts of Covid
  • educators who launched a successful campaign to save five career-path programs slated to be cut at Springfield Technical Community College

These talks gave attendees a sense of the range of labor struggles in western Massachusetts.

Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, joined us from California (that’s the upside of a virtual Troublemakers School!) to talk unions and racial justice, building solidarity with the community, and staying strong when things get tough.
Over the course of the weekend we not only learned organizing skills but also had time to discuss key issues for workers in our area. A panel on austerity heard about campus fights to protect public higher education, worker-client organizing to save regional offices of the state Commission for the Blind, and how austerity impacts access to broadband in rural communities as well as telecom jobs. Representatives from housing fights in and around Boston joined up with Springfield No One Leaves to help us think through how unions can join the fight against evictions and for fair housing.

But we also talked about how to build more democratic, rank-and-file unions, with examples from Residents and Peer Mentors at UAW 2322; Educators for a Democratic Union, a progressive caucus in the Massachusetts Teachers Association; and a member from the Operating Engineers who is organizing her co-workers to develop a Tradeswomen group to connect women across different building trades and support their development as union activists.
The event exposed members and leaders to hands-on ways to organize, coordinate, and connect. Breakout groups provided the opportunity for deep discussions that were powerful and thought-provoking.

It was just what the Western Mass labor movement needed to move us into 2021.


The ALF is now planning to build on the connections and conversations from the Troublemakers School to strengthen cross-union solidarity. Our young workers group alone grew by almost a dozen members after the Troublemakers School.

We plan to develop strategies to fight issues like housing affordability and austerity, and to support new organizing with greater coordination. And we plan to host additional forums that expand on conversations started in workshops at the school, which we hope will lay the groundwork and spark inspiration for regional and statewide campaigns. 

Ethel Everett is a member of SEIU Local 509. Lydia Wood is an organizer with the Western Mass Area Labor Federation.