Can Liss-Riordan’s Victories for Workers Translate into Victory for Mass. Values?…
SPRINGFIELD—When ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft began pushing a ballot question to keep employees classified as contractors, the strategy was not exotic to Shannon Liss-Riordan. Yet, for years the companies had reminded her of something exotic—dancing, that is. Battling abuse of employee classification, whether at strip clubs or in the app economy, had earned Liss-Riordan accolades across Massachusetts and the country.
On that foundation, Liss-Riordan is building her campaign for attorney general. Spurred to now pursue change from within government instead of outside it—courtrooms aside—she and her supporters are arguing she has the specific experience on many of the issues for which residents turn to the AG.
“I am the progressive and workers champion who can win this race,” Liss-Riordan said in a recent interview.
Although all three candidates in the race have styled themselves as “progressive” champions, the race features differences. Generally, Quentin Palfrey, a former Commerce Department general counsel and lieutenant governor candidate, has tried to claim the mantle as the most progressive AG candidate. Former Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell has tried to center her personal connection to criminal justice reform as part of her pitch.
Liss-Riordan has argued, quite overtly sometimes, that her work in the judicial trenches makes her the best candidate. The claim engendered pushback, but she describes herself as the most experienced attorney in the race. Liss-Riordan has also points to her management of a law firm, likening that to overseeing AG’s office and its battalion of lawyers.
Allies of hers in the labor movement eagerly concur that she has the most experience.
Chrissy Lynch, the chief of staff at the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, which has endorsed Liss-Riordan, said labor was “very excited to have an attorney general who can hit the ground running.”
Labor officials note all three candidates have great positions on issues important to workers. They shower praise on outgoing AG—and gubernatorial candidate—Maura Healey. Yet, they stress Liss-Riordan’s focus on worker issues. The AG’s office is the principal enforcement agency for the commonwealth’s wage & hour laws.
“Shannon has been living and breathing this fight her entire career and that’s why she really stood for us,” Lynch said.
Misclassification of workers had long been a problem in construction and strip clubs. But the rise of app-based ride-hailing apps opened up a whole new front. Liss-Riordan, who has sued Uber and Lyft before, told Insider in 2015 she first heard of them when a friend described the app to her over dinner in San Francisco. She recalled thinking right away this would be trouble for workers.
Though she may be a union household name, Liss-Riordan has to broaden her reach to win the September 6 primary. Her prominent cases against big corporations or large institutions like Harvard—rarely does she not note she has sued her alma mater—she is no stranger to press attention.
Speaking to WMP&I at a Springfield café less earthy than Dunkin but less bougie than Starbucks, Liss-Riordan explained the arc of her career. Like her opponents, she is a fan of Healey’s work as attorney general, but has her own plans and focus for the office.
Early in her career, she worked for the late then-former Congresswoman Bella Abzug. Though best known for her stylish headgear, Abzug had been a fixture in progressive politics, a labor lawyer and a women’s rights champion.
“I went to law school knowing I wanted to work in human rights,” Liss-Riordan explained.
Indeed, with the Supreme Court upending Roe and abortion rights, such issues are very much on her mind as well. Though Liss-Riordan spoke to WMP&I before the Court ruled, she was adamant about defending those rights in the commonwealth. Moreover, she again pointed to her litigation experience as providing her with the “savvy” to prevail.
“I will not let any other states come into Massachusetts and enforce their restrictive abortion laws,” she said. This was a reference to anti-abortion states attempting to enforce subpoenas or warrants against providers or women who secure legal health care services in Massachusetts.
Liss-Riordan also said that the other side of that issue is enforced Massachusetts law on access, such as the expansion of rights under the Roe Act. The AG, she said, has to ensure the provisions are followed.
In the years after she left law school, Liss-Riordan gravitated toward workers issues to ensure they had a voice to match that of their employers. She cited a recent lawsuit she filed against Tesla for violating mass layoff notice laws. Elon Musk—who may be spending a lot of time in court soon—called the suit “trivial.” Liss-Riordan couldn’t agree less.
Such protections are “not too trivial to the employees who made this company,” she said.
Savannah Kinzer, a former client of Liss-Riordan’s who worked at a Cambridge Whole Foods, provided another example. During the pandemic and after George Floyd’s death, her employer made several commitments to social justice efforts. However, Whole Foods barred employees from wearing Black Lives Matter masks, said Kinzer, who now lives in Seattle.
Employees, she said, put their livelihood at risk in order to push back.
“We gained momentum and gained attention from people like Shannon,” Kinzer said.
“I am so grateful that she chose to believe in us. There are so many other people like us that want to speak up and speak out and can’t for fear of retaliation and she recognizes that,” Kinzer continued.
While the issue is not confined to employment, Liss-Riordan said the AG’s office must take on a bigger role battling discrimination. For several years, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which enforces state civil rights laws, has garnered bad headlines for its glacial process. Complainants who have lawyers can withdraw complaints and sue in court. Most wait years for their cases to reach a conclusion.
The AG has concurrent jurisdiction over these matters. That fits into what Liss-Riordan calls her desire to engage in more “impact litigation” in the area of civil rights, echoing her work in her practice.
MCAD, “is not really an institution to take on systemic challenges,” she said, emphasizing the need for action from the AG’s office.
Lynch, from the state AFL-CIO, agreed that the issue was a huge problem in employment. She connected it to the broader work Liss-Riordan had done in the area of employee classification.
“If somebody is being misclassified, there’s discrimination and wages,” Lynch said. “When you see one of these violations, you usually see a few of them.”
Liss-Riordan’s first ad centers her advocacy for workers and what she has recovered for employees. However, Lynch notes that scofflaws can hurt more than just workers. Communities and law-abiding businesses also take a hit.
“When there’s business who follow our laws competing against those who cut every corner, it’s a competitive disadvantage,” she said. “It disadvantages the businesses that are really doing the right thing.”
But of course, the AG’s office goes further than employment issues. Liss-Riordan agreed that the office should keep an eye on whether municipalities are following the law—as well as their own. “Every tool,” she said, should be available to ensure integrity in state government.
While the AG’s office has a legal and fiduciary responsibility to defend the state—though the office can recuse itself—Liss-Riordan said she would not be afraid to push back against improper actions. This would necessarily include the likelihood the governor would be fellow Democrat Maura Healey.
“I’ve gone up against the state plenty and I’ve beaten the state,” the labor attorney said. “I will make sure the state is not spending taxpayer money on the wrong side of the issue.”
Liss-Riordan briefly ran for US Senate in the 2020 cycle. She telegraphed her interest in the AG’s office as it looked increasingly likely, if not yet certain, that Healey would run for the commonwealth’s top job.
By any measure, Liss-Riordan has gotten much closer to victory than she did versus Senator Ed Markey and his other challenger then-Newton Congressman Joe Kennedy, III. Though Liss-Riordan placed third in the Democratic convention last month, she has a steady base among unions. Labor remains a force in Massachusetts politics. Plus, she has been willing to spend her own money to funder her campaign. While it is unlikely she will hit it, Liss-Riordan declared her voluntary spending cap to be $12 million.
With COVID no longer cancelling events, if flagging still too slowly, there have been more opportunities to campaign. When she spoke to WMP&I, Liss-Riordan was on a swing through the Valley meeting with supporters. The labor attorney said she had enjoyed traveling to the commonwealths far corners, even as she joined pickets outside a Starbucks or Zoomed into a court hearing.
But why leave the realm she built as one of the nation’s most prominent workers’ rights attorneys? Some of it is seeing how the state operates and how it can be approved. As she noted, it is not unusual for the commonwealth to be the party opposite her in court. But Liss-Riordan goes back to her experience as a litigator and how she could leverage the state’s power on behalf of those who, like many of her clients, face long odds in the legal system.
“I’m really proud of the work I’ve done over the last 23 years. It’s been a fulfilling and awesome responsibility.” But, she continued, “I feel like I have something more to offer.”