My labor education came pretty early in life. My father was a union steward at the job that he had held since before my birth, and I was always surrounded by union literature, clothing, and other paraphernalia. I vividly remember him being active in the rank-and-file drive to prevent NAFTA from becoming law, even continuing that fight after he was laid off. When my father officially reentered the labor movement as a labor educator in 1999, it solidified the union’s place in my life. As I spent my summers traveling with him throughout the Midwest to give steward’s trainings and new member/new hire trainings, amongst others, the images and the people we met along the way helped to solidify the notion that a union is as strong as its membership. There was one conspicuous absence amongst all of those workers that I met in my journeys throughout the House of Labor: young people.
I recognize that my entry into the labor movement was a lot easier than it is for most people. After all, not many people have a parent that is a labor organizer or educator. But as we search for ways to strengthen and grow the labor movement, especially in the South, we must make the integration of young people (my definition being 15-36) into labor a priority.
The challenges that Southern progressives have faced have been great, and they have touched every corner of our region. And like never before, progressives have met these attacks on our most basic of rights (voting, reproductive rights, not getting shot) head on, with organizing and visibility across the South. Youth organizing has been very present in these battles, and it has been getting results. The labor movement needs a similar infusion of youth progressivism to meet the challenges of organizing in a new era. The benefits are legion, but there are some important ones that immediately jump to mind:
- Young people are more comfortable with technology. We can never get away from non-digital sources of labor information, especially in a region that has so much poverty and where access to a reliable internet connection is not guaranteed. With that in mind, it goes without saying that digital organizing is and will be a key factor in building the labor movement in the 21st century. The tools being used for organizing people are increasingly online-based, and we must have the capacity to build smart, modern-looking, and user-friendly websites to bring communities into our invisible struggle.
- Young people will be able to bring their peers into the movement more seamlessly than their older counterparts. Call it the multiplier effect. People will always feel more comfortable joining a community where they feel like their concerns will be heard and acted upon. Having been a part of local and state-level Democratic central committees and being the youngest person in the room by decades at times, I can attest how feeling alone in your ideas will cause you to either not speak up or stay away from an environment altogether. While some unions have recognized this and been active in changing this dynamic, this has to be a movement-wide effort to not only bring in young people as rank-and-file members or organizers, but as decision-makers with a seat at the table.
- Young people will push labor organizing in a more progressive and militant direction. As an organizer friend told me, “…..just like everywhere else in the country, young folks in the south are more progressive than older folks. Progressives are coming out strong on the coasts. If these young progressives can raise some hell and get attention (again I point to their tech advantage), I think it would overall be a very good thing.” The future of unionism will be in aggressively organizing industries and communities that have been historically undervalued by national labor federations. Watching the fearlessness of today’s young Southern progressives, they are just the catalyst the movement needs to carry the flag of worker justice into its most hostile territory.
Let me be clear: I am not talking about a wholesale supplanting of older union organizers, representatives, and rank-and-file. I have spent a lifetime learning from my father and the people who have marched arm-in-arm in solidarity with him in the fight for justice in the workplace. Whether it was in my capacity as a trustee for my union local in Minneapolis or whether it was explaining the benefits of labor unions to a neighbor or classmate, the influence of those organizers and activists that came before me is powerful and long-lasting.
But the voices of wisdom must be balanced with the voices of innovation, and bringing more youth into the labor movement will ensure that their legacy is extended and improved upon as we forge ahead into a new century that presents its own unique challenges and opportunities.
Douglas Williams is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Alabama, where his research centers around public policy as it relates to disadvantaged communities and the labor movement. This post originally appeared on the excellent new group blog The South Lawn.