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Democracy and the War on â€¦
Jonathan lawson and susan Gleason
Unions Must Tap Young Workers
2001 In Music
The Fruits Of NAFTA
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Unions Must Tap Young Workers
When the AFL-CIO held its national convention at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas this month, they had only to look at the men and women who were cleaning the tables, serving food, or doing security to get a good picture of today's American work force: young, brown, and knows very little about unions.
The working person the U.S. labor movement is trying to engage is not the white, middle-aged union man of yesterday. Today, the fastest growing employers of the new economy—the service sector and temporary agencies—have low or no union density, and are hiring people under the age of 25.
It was for this reason that the International Labor Communicators Association started the convention off with the question, “How do unions communicate with this new workforce?” In fact, the conversation is so critical to the survival of unions that for the first time in 40 years, the AFL- CIO president participated in the forum. The attendance of union leadership marks their understanding that the future of the U.S. labor movement is not just about signing on new members, it's about communicating with them.
Since John Sweeney took charge of the AFL-CIO six years ago, the union has been actively organizing to stop 50 years of declining membership and to show itself as a much-needed institution for equity in the modern economy. Consequently, unions have built surprising new bonds with young, idealistic college students. The relationship has helped ignite an anti-sweatshop movement on most major campuses, and has enlisted hundreds from the university to become union organizers through a program called “Union Summer.”
But ironically, the AFL-CIO has been less successful with communicating to young working people.
The difficulty the labor movement now faces when trying to reach young workers is that many people these days do not feel their job is part of their identity.
When I worked for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents grocery store workers, I saw how different the union looked based on the generational lens one looked through. My job was to talk to union members and ask them to come out to important pickets against non-union stores. When speaking to an older member, I would hear how his work and the union were woven into his identity. He would give me his name, tell me what he did for a living, and mention how long he had been part of the union.
“Butcher. Been part of my Local for 15 years.”
Those were the people who would come out to the picket.
Things were very different when I spoke to members in their early 20s—a growing population of grocery store workers. I would get a name, and what they did—not their job, but what excited them in life outside of work. “I make beats in my garage,” or “I do art, murals and stuff,” or “I go to school, and I skate.” Sure, they worked 40 hours a week, but that was not how they defined themselves. These were the people who didn't come to the pickets.
The fact that many younger working people do not see themselves primarily as “workers” puts the strategy of labor organizing in a bind. Historically, union organizers have involved workers in labor campaigns based on “craft consciousness”—a person's connection to their work. If people don't identify with their labor, how do you talk to them about the benefits of a union?
Even bread and butter issues such as wages and benefits are not that likely to inspire unionism among young workers, because few see themselves staying at the same job or industry for long. The working world young people enter after high school is one of constant turnover. Over 40 percent of all contingent (temporary and short time) workers are under the age of 25. One in every six young workers will find employment through a temporary agency by the time they are thirty.
The reason “the union newsletter goes from the mailbox to the trash can,” as one ILCA conventioneer put it, is because young workers don't want to simply hear the union line—they want to create it. The younger generation does not like to receive messages passively. Just look at the explosion of youth-created media in recent years. Poetry slams, zines, homemade websites, and guerilla radio are all ways that young people explain and relate to the world. Graffiti, for example, is an undeniable way to confirm that you are part of this society, even if no one gave you permission to belong. Spray-painting your icon onto the most public places—freeway overpasses, downtown buildings, railroad cars that will travel across the country—is way to transmit an uncensored message to a broad audience.
Right now in lunchrooms and parking lots at workplaces across the country, young people are debating the fate of the American Taliban and talking about the war on terrorism, which they may end up fighting firsthand. These are issues the AFL-CIO has been silent on. The labor movement can only relate to young people if it can engage in conversations that are happening.
Young working people are already organizing against the prison-industrial complex, environmental racism, and racial profiling and hate crimes. These movements may have little to do with workplace issues, but they have everything to do with the labor movement. Regardless of the struggle, they are giving young people an experiential point of reference that confirms that collective action is a way to change oppressive realities. This is fundamentally what unionism is about.
The vibrancy the U.S. labor movement so desperately needs already exists among today's youthful work force. The AFL-CIO just needs to listen. Z
Raj Jayadev is editor of www.siliconvalleydebug.com, the voice of young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley.