Working people know that the American economy doesn’t work for us. When we see corporate greed taking our voice at work away from us again and again, it becomes harder to hold on to hope. The share of workers who have union membership is less than 12% now, at its lowest rate in nearly 100 years. Given this equation, how much power can unions have to improve the lives of working families? When unions are mentioned in the media, we are painted as lazy, greedy and only fighting for ourselves. Why would anyone want to join a group like that? That is, if the general public knows about their rights at all. How can you join a union if you don’t even know that having a voice at work is possible?
One of the most important strategic priorities for organized labor is to engage the next generation of young workers in our fight for social and economic justice. The AFL-CIO has encouraged its affiliates and local bodies to create young worker groups, but once formed, the question is: Where do we go from here? In order for these groups to not simply become social clubs, but rather groups of visionary young leaders who are ready to change the world, we need to figure out how to instill union values and hope into these young leaders. We need to make them believers in the gospel of trade unionism. [Rosa Blumenfield has organized a February 22 young workers conference for the Boston AFL-CIO–Talking Union.]
When I speak to our current seasoned leaders about activating young workers, they will often tell me some version of the following story. “I gave them the flier about this work action that’s happening next week and told them to show up. A bunch of us will be there holding signs outside of the company’s headquarters, and if they want to be a good member of this union, they should join us. I was really disappointed when they didn’t show up. It seems like they don’t care about the union, or their future.”
I am not surprised that this young worker didn’t show up. Neither do I blame the person who tried to organize them into action. That’s always a good thing! To me, this story is about a generational gap in the way that we think and talk about the union. Seasoned activists have fought the good fight for so long they forget to take a step back and talk about the values of justice, fairness and equality that drew them to the fight in the first place. They don’t explain the reasons they are so loyal to the union: that union jobs weren’t always good jobs. That workers who came before us fought for the good working conditions and high standards we enjoy now. That our power as workers can only be exercised when we figure out what we want and demand it with one voice that includes everyone.
Young workers are eager for a space to engage in big picture conversations about our broken economy, our union values and how we build power for working people. Our labor movement does so much worker education. Young worker groups are an opportunity to expand the range of topics that we educate about, to involve young workers in planning actions and campaigns that go beyond holding signs and to make change together. We want to have meaningful roles in our unions that make us feel like the union is an organization and a movement where we can make a difference.
Conversations filled with our values and hope are where we start. Our hearts and minds are actively being courted by the right wing and corporate America with promises of a 1% lifestyle that are an illusion. Organized labor has to get to us first. Labor’s future depends on it.
Rosa Blumenfeld is the lead organizer at the Greater Boston Labor Council, where she staffs its Futures Committee. Go to www.bostonfutures.org to find out more about the young worker movement the committee is building in Boston, including a young worker conference for good jobs on Feb. 22. This post originally appeared on the AFL-CIO Now blog.