A New Generation of Youth Labor Activists




I

attended the 13th Annual Labor Notes Conference,
“Building Solidarity from Below,” with 900 other labor
activists this past May in Dearborn, Michigan and talked with many
of the young people who attended. Nearly 100 of the participants
were under 30, the highest number the organization has seen in the
last 10 years. This piece is based on interviews with 7 young labor
activists from all over the country, ages 21-29, who have dedicated
themselves to this movement. 



The State of Things 



U

ntil recently young people have seen the
labor movement in steady decline and wondered why anyone would want
to go there. For many, the U.S. union movement is rife with corruption
and nepotism and doesn’t seem to actually do anything for people.
A lot of young leftists see the labor movement as irrelevant—a
dinosaur that lacks the power to make any sort of significant change—slow,
irrelevant, reformist, small, unorganized, and—worst of all—mainstream.
 


But Tiffany Ten Eyck, a staff writer at

Labor Notes

and a
former organizer with the Student Farmworker Alliance, counters
these critcisms: “What’s wrong with the mainstream? The
mainstream is where people are at. It’s where you’re going
to effect the most change. You can’t just live in a separatist,
fringe culture your whole life and expect to create any real revolution.”
Ten Eyck worked with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) during
their successful campaign against Taco Bell, Inc. The CIW organized
a fouryear boycott of Taco Bell that forced the fast food chain’s
owner, Yum! Brands, Inc., to increase workers’ wages and enforce
a tough code of conduct on Florida tomato suppliers. They took on
a corporate food giant and won. The Taco Bell campaign showed her
how the labor movement was changing people’s everyday lives,
as well as introducing them to the power of solidarity and what
can happen when people get organized. 


According to Chris Kutalik, codirector of

Labor Notes

, “Labor
has really been on the losing end the last four years in their contracts
and with concessions. People are getting pushed to the wall. But
when people feel the wall behind them they start to move a little.
There’s a sense of urgency that now is the time. I can’t
think of any other time that seems more critical than it has been
in these last two years.” 


These sentiments are shared by a growing number of young people
from different backgrounds who are now choosing to work for this
movement. Some are children of immigrants, farmworkers, and longshore
workers. Some have come to the labor movement out of a greater commitment
to social justice; some out of necessity, after entering the working
world and realizing that without a union their lives were a whole
lot harder. 


For whatever reason they were brought to the movement, they are
here and they are doing powerful work. They are working towards
leadership positions, forming national and international networks,
and creating community-labor alliances. They are carrying on the
work of activists before them while bringing their own perspective
and organizing skills to the struggle. 


When you’re talking about the labor movement, you’re talking
about all kinds of people. Joe Sexauer, 28, a member of Teamster
Local 743 in Chicago, sees this as a strength: “The labor movement
is important because it organizes everyone, not just people who
think like you, into a movement where you can work to make people’s
lives better.” Sexauer was hit by the importance of organizing
in his workplace. “I had this epiphany when someone said to
me that if you don’t organize around what you do for over 40
hours a week, the other stuff is incidental.” 








The
importance of the workplace resonates across the board with people.
Meredith Shafer, 29, former member of the International Longshore
and Warehouse Union and former organizer with AFSCME in Portland,
Oregon, had this to say: “Organizing is all about where you
can build a base—and the workplace is where you do that. It
is a really complex place where people spend most of their lives
and it can’t be separated out from where people develop their
ideas about society and their expectations. People are often more
influenced by their co-workers than anyone else, even if they don’t
acknowledge that. That’s where political education should go
on. I’m not just talking about organizing and building labor
unions.” 



Building Across Borders 



M

any of today’s young activists understand
the importance of creating coalitions across perceived movement
boundaries. They view the labor movement as part of the larger global
justice struggle, and recognize the value of joining forces to have
a broader impact. 


For Melody Gonzalez, 22, with the Student Farmworker Alliance and
Interfaith Action in Immokalee, Florida, this realization is what
brought her in and led her to identify as a labor activist: “It
has not been until recently that I realized that the labor movement
is and should be about more than just unions. There are community
organizations of workers like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers
that are revitalizing the labor movement with new ideas, structures,
strategies, and hope.” 


Sexauer goes on to speak of the power of coalitions that can be
built when labor works with other groups, such as the Teamsters
and Turtles Coalition (made up of labor and environmental activists)
that formed during the WTO mobilization in Seattle back in 1999:
“The real threat of Seattle wasn’t just the non-profits
and the students, but the alliances built with labor. Teamsters
and Turtles didn’t just happen. It happened because of serious
education in environmental movements about labor and in the labor
movement about the environment. No one would have thought that labor
and environmentalists would ever join forces, but they did. This
speaks to the fact that these were not old-guard Teamsters, but
honest and militant reformers and activists, open to new tactics
and new ideas.” 


Youth in the movement also recognize the need to organize across
international boundaries. Emily Anderson (name changed to conceal
identity), 23, working with UNITE-HERE in the South, says: “I
met with people in Nicaragua that were trying to organize unions
in the maquilas. That’s when it really hit me that there’s
no way that we’re going to bring up labor standards if it’s
not done internationally.” An international movement is the
only way activists will be able to stand up against transnational
corporations.  


Many of the youth that I talked with saw labor as one of the main
forces to change our society from capitalism to an alternative model,
but do not currently see an outlet in the movement to do that: “There’s
this terrible legacy of labor being partnered with capital in so
many ways and not being anti-capitalist,” says Shafer. “But
I think that the only way that youth are going to be engaged is
to see the way that it’s not just challenging the boss against
concessions, but challenging a system of exploitation. I think that’s
why young people are excited about the labor movement.”  


Diane Foglizzo, 22, full-time staff for the Living Wage Action Coalition
in Washington, DC, sees the labor movement as a place that not only
exposes the economic exploitation of people, but other forms as
well: “It’s helped me see where a bunch of things intersect,
like race and class and gender and sexuality and it makes sense,”
she says. “There are a lot of connections that can be made
with the exploitation of workers’ bodies in the capitalist
system. In the context of labor and economic justice all these things
come together and it’s just right there.” 








While
acknowledging the gains of their predecessors, young labor activists
are very aware of the erosion of workers rights and see this as
an indicator that it is time to change the tactics to fit with the
changing times. “People forget that the eight-hour day was
once a radical demand because now it is so common,” says Sexauer.
“But if more people don’t get involved in the labor movement
with new ideas and energy, it may become so again.”  



Converting Ideas into Action 



Y

oung labor activists are doing things differently
and, in large part, they are doing it on their own. According to
Kutalik: “Now you have most unions dominated by the baby boomer
generation, which is a generation that was fixated on age and age
differences and the uniqueness of being young and wild in the streets.
They pay lip service to that, so you have things like Union Summer
that are bringing people in, but you’re bringing them in for
the most part at the mid-level, straight from college into organizing
roles and staff roles.” All the people interviewed did not
view this as the most effective way of recruiting new activists
and that unions that recruit people right out of college into staff
roles are creating a larger rift between the members and the leadership.
Foglizzo comments specifically about students who “are moving
away from graduating from college and joining unions and organizations
on a staff level instead of becoming rank and file workers. Groups
like the Rank and File Youth Project and Young Workers United are
organizing around that. I think it’s huge and it can change
a lot.” 


Young activists are organizing with this understanding, embracing
a bottom-up philosophy similar to that of groups such as Teamsters
for a Democratic Union and Labor Notes. Emily Anderson says, “The
Rank and File Youth Project is a group of young adults, mostly high
school and college age into their early 30s, who believe that the
true power of the labor movement lives in the rank and file. We
are getting jobs and doing union organizing in the workplace. We’re
working to build clusters in different cities in the U.S. not only
because we will be more effective organizing together, but because
the work can be very demanding and isolating. Having other like-minded
people around to help keep you grounded and to keep you focused
on what you’re doing is essential when you are up against not
only your employer, but often times your own union.” This is
a new project, just about two years old, and already they have clusters
in New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, and Knoxville, with more forming
in Seattle, San Jose, and the Bay Area. 


Young workers that have already established themselves in the workplace
are taking leadership roles within their unions. Joe Sexauer is
currently running for steward in his local and is working with members
of his union to investigate the corruption of the local president
who is accused of rigging the election in Teamsters Local 743. Anderson
is taking part in an undercover union organizing campaign at the
hotel where she works, a practice known as salting. “I’m
trying to build relationships with co-workers and find out what
their needs and issues are. Trying to figure out who the leaders
would be at the time when the union would come in.” Students
are also committing themselves to the labor movement. Groups like
the Living Wage Action Campaign, the Student Farmworker Alliance,
United Students Against Sweatshops, and others are bringing labor
organizing to college campuses all over the world, and getting students
involved in solidarity campaigns, both locally and internationally.
One project that has really taken off in the past year has been
the Killer Coke campaign, working to end the murder and harassment
of union leaders in Colombia, human rights and environmental abuses
in India, and the rest of a long laundry list of crimes that Coca-Cola
has committed. 


It is this diversity of tactics that will reinvigorate the labor
movement and bring it forward into our globalized world. “When
unions have grown in this country, it has never been incrementally,”
says Kutalik. “Take 1926 for instance, unions had less density
than they do now, but by the end of the late 1930s, they had grown
almost fourfold. The same thing happened in the 1890s. These explosions
happen when labor enters into dynamic movement phases.” Kutalik
believes that we are on the verge of this now and that this generation
will play an important role. Intergenerational dialogue is key in
bringing us into this movement phase. The knowledge and experience
of the older generation combined with the creativity, energy, and
fresh political analysis of youth has the potential to be a dynamic
force for change.


 






Rachel
Parsons works in the labor movement and is a member of the



Critical
Moment



editorial collective in Detroit, Michigan. Thanks
to the interviewees and the work of thousands of activists, young
and old, across the country.