Young workers are the future of America, says new labor official

Speaking at the “A Better Deal 2009” Demos conference Oct. 15, Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, said fixing the economic crisis and the future of America depends on the leadership and active involvement of young people.

Shuler, 39, the youngest person ever elected as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, said she is making it her personal mission to engage young people to become new leaders in the U.S. labor movement.

Shuler’s remarks highlighted the fight for new “green” union jobs with benefits, financial reform, health care, student loans and passing the Employee Free Choice Act. She stressed the way out of the economic crisis facing so many these days will be based on fundamentally rebuilding the nations economy so it works for young workers and future generations.

“I don’t need to tell you that we’re in an economic crisis,” said Shuler. “Your generation is living it,” she told the young crowd.

Shuler noted the economic crisis exposes the bankruptcy of ideas that have prevailed for a generation or more, which were built to work only for the wealthy.

Profit-driven corporations and speculators who end up begging for bailouts lead the failed economy, she said.

What we have now is the best opportunity to create a new economy that works for young people and all who work for a living, she said.

“And when crisis comes, it’s young people who drive change,” added Shuler.

Shuler noted it was young people who lead the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, women’s equal rights, the environmental justice struggle and the rights of the LGBT community. She said Martin Luther King Jr. was 26 years old when he led the Montgomery bus boycott and Cesar Chavez was only 25 when he registered Mexican Americans to vote. It was Walter Reuther who headed the strikes at age 30 demanding GM recognize workers’ rights and Elizabeth Cady Stanton was only 33 when she drafted the declaration of women’s rights, said Shuler.

“When the labor movement really grows, it’s because of young people and America needs you,” said Shuler.

Job security, health care security and retirement security are all very important issues to young people today and their future, said Shuler.

In the last 10 years, young workers have suffered disproportionately due to the downturn in the economy, she said.

One in three young workers is worried about being able to find a job, let alone a full-time job with benefits, said Shuler.

She pointed out that only 31 percent make enough money to cover their bills and put some aside – 22 percentage points worse than it was 10 years ago. Shuler said 31 percent are uninsured, up from 24 percent 10 years ago and nearly half worry about having more debt than they could handle. Less than half have retirement plans at work and one in three still lives at home with their parents.

Shuler said, “it was a union job that put me on the path to a better life and future.”

“My job now is to make sure the labor movement makes a difference in the lives of your generation – for students, for young workers and for young activists looking to build the kind of country you want to live in,” she said.

Shuler said today’s young people are facing an economic crisis that has resulted from a 30-year experiment in corporate greed, irresponsibility, deregulation and the dismembering of the social contract. This mess all started with the assault on workers’ essential freedom to bargain for a better life, she said.

The anti-government era of deregulation began with Ronald Reagan that imposed privatization and the refusal to invest in infrastructure and communities. Small government policies were responsible for sending good U.S. jobs overseas, notes Shuler, and globalization was designed only to grow corporate profits.

“When unions are strong, paychecks grow and workers have benefits like health care and pensions. When unions are under attack, paychecks shrink. Pensions vanish and health care becomes the emergency room,” said Shuler.

Despite the reality of these issues it’s young people who emerged as new voters to turn the country around following the 2008 election of Barack Obama, said Shuler.

Today young people are becoming well-informed and are following government and policy news, she said.

Young people “believe in collective action, and understand the power of having a union,” she said. “You have hope for the future, and the vision of a savvy, diverse movement to bring about progressive change.”

“We must create a new national economic strategy for a globalized world – with rules that reflect the priority we place on workers and the environment, here in the U.S. and everywhere,” said Shuler.

Next steps and the first five items on my priority list are, “JOBS, JOBS, JOBS, JOBS and JOBS,” she said.

We also need to win the fight on Capitol Hill for comprehensive health care reform that includes a strong public option in order to control costs and end abusive insurance company practices, said Shuler.

“No one in America should go without health care,” she said. “No one should choose between food and medicine.”

Student loan reform and making higher education accessible and affordable is also a must that includes increasing Pell Grants, cutting the wasteful subsidies to student loan companies and expanding the Perkins loan programs, noted Shuler.

Shuler urged young people to get active in coalitions of community, student, environmental, faith and civil rights organizations that offer great opportunities to win change at every level.

“The AFL-CIO has the strength of 11 and half million members and our strength brings a unique asset: We are everywhere,” said Shuler.

And young people need to know they have a partner in the labor movement, she said.

“Our commitment is to social and economic justice for all.”

Following her remarks, Shuler took questions from the audience who wanted to know what the union movement had to offer on issues of racial equality, education, training and apprenticeships for young people entering the job market. Members of the audience wanted to know how the union engages with low-income communities.

Shuler encouraged those who don’t have a union to stay active with politics in 2010 as they were in 2008 – and to join Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate.

The conference was organized by Demos, an advocacy organization that focused on building a fairer economy for youth and young workers. The event was sponsored by a variety of groups.

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