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A New Generation of Youth Labor Activists
I attended the 13th Annual Labor Notes Conference, “Building Solidarity from Below,” with 900 other labor activists this past May in Dearborn, Michigan and talked with many of the young people who attended. Nearly 100 of the participants were under 30, the highest number the organization has seen in the last 10 years. This piece is based on interviews with 7 young labor activists from all over the country, ages 21-29, who have dedicated themselves to this movement.
The State of Things
U ntil recently young people have seen the labor movement in steady decline and wondered why anyone would want to go there. For many, the U.S. union movement is rife with corruption and nepotism and doesn’t seem to actually do anything for people. A lot of young leftists see the labor movement as irrelevant—a dinosaur that lacks the power to make any sort of significant change—slow, irrelevant, reformist, small, unorganized, and—worst of all—mainstream.
But Tiffany Ten Eyck, a staff writer at Labor Notes and a former organizer with the Student Farmworker Alliance, counters these critcisms: “What’s wrong with the mainstream? The mainstream is where people are at. It’s where you’re going to effect the most change. You can’t just live in a separatist, fringe culture your whole life and expect to create any real revolution.” Ten Eyck worked with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) during their successful campaign against Taco Bell, Inc. The CIW organized a fouryear boycott of Taco Bell that forced the fast food chain’s owner, Yum! Brands, Inc., to increase workers’ wages and enforce a tough code of conduct on Florida tomato suppliers. They took on a corporate food giant and won. The Taco Bell campaign showed her how the labor movement was changing people’s everyday lives, as well as introducing them to the power of solidarity and what can happen when people get organized.
According to Chris Kutalik, codirector of Labor Notes , “Labor has really been on the losing end the last four years in their contracts and with concessions. People are getting pushed to the wall. But when people feel the wall behind them they start to move a little. There’s a sense of urgency that now is the time. I can’t think of any other time that seems more critical than it has been in these last two years.”
These sentiments are shared by a growing number of young people from different backgrounds who are now choosing to work for this movement. Some are children of immigrants, farmworkers, and longshore workers. Some have come to the labor movement out of a greater commitment to social justice; some out of necessity, after entering the working world and realizing that without a union their lives were a whole lot harder.
For whatever reason they were brought to the movement, they are here and they are doing powerful work. They are working towards leadership positions, forming national and international networks, and creating community-labor alliances. They are carrying on the work of activists before them while bringing their own perspective and organizing skills to the struggle.
When you’re talking about the labor movement, you’re talking about all kinds of people. Joe Sexauer, 28, a member of Teamster Local 743 in Chicago, sees this as a strength: “The labor movement is important because it organizes everyone, not just people who think like you, into a movement where you can work to make people’s lives better.” Sexauer was hit by the importance of organizing in his workplace. “I had this epiphany when someone said to me that if you don’t organize around what you do for over 40 hours a week, the other stuff is incidental.”
Building Across Borders
M any of today’s young activists understand the importance of creating coalitions across perceived movement boundaries. They view the labor movement as part of the larger global justice struggle, and recognize the value of joining forces to have a broader impact.
For Melody Gonzalez, 22, with the Student Farmworker Alliance and Interfaith Action in Immokalee, Florida, this realization is what brought her in and led her to identify as a labor activist: “It has not been until recently that I realized that the labor movement is and should be about more than just unions. There are community organizations of workers like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that are revitalizing the labor movement with new ideas, structures, strategies, and hope.”
Sexauer goes on to speak of the power of coalitions that can be built when labor works with other groups, such as the Teamsters and Turtles Coalition (made up of labor and environmental activists) that formed during the WTO mobilization in Seattle back in 1999: “The real threat of Seattle wasn’t just the non-profits and the students, but the alliances built with labor. Teamsters and Turtles didn’t just happen. It happened because of serious education in environmental movements about labor and in the labor movement about the environment. No one would have thought that labor and environmentalists would ever join forces, but they did. This speaks to the fact that these were not old-guard Teamsters, but honest and militant reformers and activists, open to new tactics and new ideas.”
Youth in the movement also recognize the need to organize across international boundaries. Emily Anderson (name changed to conceal identity), 23, working with UNITE-HERE in the South, says: “I met with people in Nicaragua that were trying to organize unions in the maquilas. That’s when it really hit me that there’s no way that we’re going to bring up labor standards if it’s not done internationally.” An international movement is the only way activists will be able to stand up against transnational corporations.
Many of the youth that I talked with saw labor as one of the main forces to change our society from capitalism to an alternative model, but do not currently see an outlet in the movement to do that: “There’s this terrible legacy of labor being partnered with capital in so many ways and not being anti-capitalist,” says Shafer. “But I think that the only way that youth are going to be engaged is to see the way that it’s not just challenging the boss against concessions, but challenging a system of exploitation. I think that’s why young people are excited about the labor movement.”
Diane Foglizzo, 22, full-time staff for the Living Wage Action Coalition in Washington, DC, sees the labor movement as a place that not only exposes the economic exploitation of people, but other forms as well: “It’s helped me see where a bunch of things intersect, like race and class and gender and sexuality and it makes sense,” she says. “There are a lot of connections that can be made with the exploitation of workers’ bodies in the capitalist system. In the context of labor and economic justice all these things come together and it’s just right there.”
Converting Ideas into Action
Y oung labor activists are doing things differently and, in large part, they are doing it on their own. According to Kutalik: “Now you have most unions dominated by the baby boomer generation, which is a generation that was fixated on age and age differences and the uniqueness of being young and wild in the streets. They pay lip service to that, so you have things like Union Summer that are bringing people in, but you’re bringing them in for the most part at the mid-level, straight from college into organizing roles and staff roles.” All the people interviewed did not view this as the most effective way of recruiting new activists and that unions that recruit people right out of college into staff roles are creating a larger rift between the members and the leadership. Foglizzo comments specifically about students who “are moving away from graduating from college and joining unions and organizations on a staff level instead of becoming rank and file workers. Groups like the Rank and File Youth Project and Young Workers United are organizing around that. I think it’s huge and it can change a lot.”
Young activists are organizing with this understanding, embracing a bottom-up philosophy similar to that of groups such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union and Labor Notes. Emily Anderson says, “The Rank and File Youth Project is a group of young adults, mostly high school and college age into their early 30s, who believe that the true power of the labor movement lives in the rank and file. We are getting jobs and doing union organizing in the workplace. We’re working to build clusters in different cities in the U.S. not only because we will be more effective organizing together, but because the work can be very demanding and isolating. Having other like-minded people around to help keep you grounded and to keep you focused on what you’re doing is essential when you are up against not only your employer, but often times your own union.” This is a new project, just about two years old, and already they have clusters in New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, and Knoxville, with more forming in Seattle, San Jose, and the Bay Area.
Young workers that have already established themselves in the workplace are taking leadership roles within their unions. Joe Sexauer is currently running for steward in his local and is working with members of his union to investigate the corruption of the local president who is accused of rigging the election in Teamsters Local 743. Anderson is taking part in an undercover union organizing campaign at the hotel where she works, a practice known as salting. “I’m trying to build relationships with co-workers and find out what their needs and issues are. Trying to figure out who the leaders would be at the time when the union would come in.” Students are also committing themselves to the labor movement. Groups like the Living Wage Action Campaign, the Student Farmworker Alliance, United Students Against Sweatshops, and others are bringing labor organizing to college campuses all over the world, and getting students involved in solidarity campaigns, both locally and internationally. One project that has really taken off in the past year has been the Killer Coke campaign, working to end the murder and harassment of union leaders in Colombia, human rights and environmental abuses in India, and the rest of a long laundry list of crimes that Coca-Cola has committed.
It is this diversity of tactics that will reinvigorate the labor movement and bring it forward into our globalized world. “When unions have grown in this country, it has never been incrementally,” says Kutalik. “Take 1926 for instance, unions had less density than they do now, but by the end of the late 1930s, they had grown almost fourfold. The same thing happened in the 1890s. These explosions happen when labor enters into dynamic movement phases.” Kutalik believes that we are on the verge of this now and that this generation will play an important role. Intergenerational dialogue is key in bringing us into this movement phase. The knowledge and experience of the older generation combined with the creativity, energy, and fresh political analysis of youth has the potential to be a dynamic force for change.
Rachel Parsons works in the labor movement and is a member of the Critical Moment editorial collective in Detroit, Michigan. Thanks to the interviewees and the work of thousands of activists, young and old, across the country.
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