With the complex internal discussion occupying the entire labor movement today, I can’t help but add another dimension to the conversation. Within the AFL-CIO, many constituency groups are valiantly fighting for the interests of women, people of color, same-gender loving and other historically underrepresented workers … and are doing it so that these voices won’t be muted in the inevitable reorganization of organized labor. After all, nearly 30 percent of union workers are people of color, according to an article by Dwight Kirk in Black Commentator, and women now make up 42 percent of union membership. These workers clearly have much at stake as so many of them have lost their stable union jobs.
But who is fighting for the young worker? The bulk of young workers in the United States, especially those in the above constituency groups, haven’t lost their union jobs. Most of them never had a union job at all.
In an article entitled “Eyes on the Fries” that appeared at CampusProgress.org, Elana Berkowitz writes, “Only 5 percent of workers under 25 are unionized, and workers under 35 make up only a quarter of union membership.” She goes on to highlight how “young people — along with immigrants, minorities, and the elderly — make up the vast majority of workers in the service economy,” and despite the popular perception of young workers just earning an extra dollar during the summer, many are attempting to support their families or pay for school.
So why is there so little discussion of the role of youth, in particular young workers, in the internal labor debates? So many proposals call for organizing the unorganized into unions, and yet there is little mention of any well-resourced effort to target young workers. Where is the representative of young workers on the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO? Where is the industry map of unorganized young workers and what is the plan to organize them?
To their credit, many unions have begun to recognize the importance of strengthening existing members under the age of 25. But most young workers have been left to fend for themselves in the so-called era of McJob.
The anti-union movement has done more than hire expensive lawyers and lobbyists to erode labor law. They have also implemented a generational war, targeting youth — a population barely touched directly by unions, having never been a part of the workforce — as a way to avoid working with organized labor. Employers see youth as fresh, non-union bait — often indifferent to unions and separated from the history and importance of organized labor. Unions, on the other hand, often do not see young workers at all. If the labor movement continues to ignore this incoming workforce, no level of reorganization will guarantee its survival.
Many have spoken theoretically and quite eloquently about the importance of the relationship between labor, youth and students. But just as the labor movement must make itself relevant to youth and students in general, it must prioritize how relevant it is to young workers — the incoming generation of union membership. If only 5 percent of young workers under 25 years old are in a union, are we satisfied with the possibility that as they grow older this 5 percent will represent workers under 35 or 45?
A lot of young workers won’t be satisfied. In fact, many young workers have founded organizations to support our generation at work. Though these organizations are based locally, such as Young Workers United in San Francisco, they tend to do wonders for the youth they represent. Even if the AFL-CIO is not quick to form a youth constituency group from its ranks, it could aid efforts to connect these local organizations into a national network of young workers.
This leads me to question the potential role we could play in helping to organize young workers. In a recent national council meeting, the Young Communist League discussed the importance of strengthening key organizational allies as a way to aid the building of such a network in order to increase the presence and influence of young workers. With our current alliances and contributions to such groups as the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition, the YCL is poised to play a distinctive role in such an effort. Even so, organized labor will have to develop infrastructure to prepare for incoming young workers, prioritizing this constituency among the others in the discussion.
A good friend of mine reminded me recently that there has never been a successful revolution where young people were not at the forefront leading the way. We can easily apply this to the revolution brewing within the labor movement. Why run the risk of all generations of workers having to transition from union job, to McJob, to no job at all? Why not just bring in the youth?
Erica Smiley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is on the National Council of the Young Communist League.