Young workers discuss future in labor movement

“Why don’t young workers have an affiliate within the AFL-CIO?”

This was one of the questions raised on May 3rd in a strategy session held at the National Conference of Jobs with Justice. young workers, organized and unorganized, discussed the relationship between the younger generations and the labor movement.

Although U.S. union density rates over all remain low, young workers have the lowest rates, at below 5 percent. And the unemployment rate for young workers actively looking for work reached 18 percent in January, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There has been activity in organizing students in solidarity with the labor movement, peaking in the establishment of the Organizing Institute from the AFL-CIO, the Student Labor Action Project within Jobs with Justice and the US Student Association, and the United Students Against Sweatshops — who worked closely with UNITE-HERE to aid garment and textile workers in the late 1990s.

However, less has been done to organize young workers. Although there are some local successes to point to, such as the Young Workers United campaign to win sick days in San Francisco, a national void remains in young worker organizing.

That is until recently.

Jaime Sorenson, a young worker in Oregon, founded AFSCME Next Wave to provide a forum to develop and train young leaders within the union.

“Reality snuck up on us when we realized that a majority of our leaders were about to retire at the same time, and we wanted to ensure the survival of our union with new, young leaders that were prepared to lead,” said Sorenson. “We strongly encourage mentoring, so young workers know the history, and why things are the way they are.”

Sorenson and Next Wave are currently working on a tool kit that will be available at AFSCME’s June convention.

At the recent meeting of national young worker groups, Sorenson said AFSCME young workers differed early on from their elders in leadership in the presidential race, favoring an endorsement of Barack Obama, over AFSCME-endorsed Hillary Clinton.

The strategy session, co-facilitated by the Student Labor Action Project and the Young Communist League-USA, was the first time many young worker organizations and union young worker programs had been in the same room together.

Representatives from several unions including UFCW Young Workers, SEIU 1199 Young Workers and UNITE-HERE joined non-union organizations like the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) of NY and the newly formed Young Workers Collective to brainstorm potential points of solidarity and collaboration. Ideas ranged from a simple listserv to a national network that meets on a regular basis. Participants were interested in officer trainings for young workers as well as other tools to help young people become more active in their unions.

“We want to be more involved in our unions and know that we are making a contribution,” said Jill Peters, a young electrician and IBEW member from Chicago. “We founded the Young Workers Collective to better engage all young workers in the struggle for labor rights, both in our unions and in our communities.”

According to Peters, one of the biggest problems is that young people, especially those without a union, don’t think they can do anything about problems they face at work. “It is important to let young workers know that we can have power, and we can organize.”

Passion ran deep and spirits were high as all groups committed to continuing this ground-breaking effort.