Unions Must Tap Young Workers


When the AFL-CIO
held its national convention at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas this month, they
had only to look at the men and women who were cleaning the tables, serving
food, or doing security to get a good picture of today’s American work force:
young, brown, and knows very little about unions.

The working
person the U.S. labor movement is trying to engage is not the white, middle-aged
union man of yesterday. Today, the fastest growing employers of the new
economy—the service sector and temporary agencies—have low or no union density,
and are hiring people under the age of 25.

It was for this
reason that the International Labor Communicators Association started the
convention off with the question, “How do unions communicate with this new
workforce?” In fact, the conversation is so critical to the survival of unions
that for the first time in 40 years, the AFL- CIO president participated in the
forum. The attendance of union leadership marks their understanding that the
future of the U.S. labor movement is not just about signing on new members, it’s
about communicating with them.

Since John
Sweeney took charge of the AFL-CIO six years ago, the union has been actively
organizing to stop 50 years of declining membership and to show itself as a
much-needed institution for equity in the modern economy. Consequently, unions
have built surprising new bonds with young, idealistic college students. The
relationship has helped ignite an anti-sweatshop movement on most major
campuses, and has enlisted hundreds from the university to become union
organizers through a program called “Union Summer.”

But ironically,
the AFL-CIO has been less successful with communicating to young working people.

The difficulty
the labor movement now faces when trying to reach young workers is that many
people these days do not feel their job is part of their identity.

When I worked for
the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents grocery store workers,
I saw how different the union looked based on the generational lens one looked
through. My job was to talk to union members and ask them to come out to
important pickets against non-union stores. When speaking to an older member, I
would hear how his work and the union were woven into his identity. He would
give me his name, tell me what he did for a living, and mention how long he had
been part of the union.

“Butcher. Been
part of my Local for 15 years.”

Those were the
people who would come out to the picket.

Things were very
different when I spoke to members in their early 20s—a growing population of
grocery store workers. I would get a name, and what they did—not their job, but
what excited them in life outside of work. “I make beats in my garage,” or “I do
art, murals and stuff,” or “I go to school, and I skate.” Sure, they worked 40
hours a week, but that was not how they defined themselves. These were the
people who didn’t come to the pickets.

The fact that
many younger working people do not see themselves primarily as “workers” puts
the strategy of labor organizing in a bind. Historically, union organizers have
involved workers in labor campaigns based on “craft consciousness”—a person’s
connection to their work. If people don’t identify with their labor, how do you
talk to them about the benefits of a union?

Even bread and
butter issues such as wages and benefits are not that likely to inspire unionism
among young workers, because few see themselves staying at the same job or
industry for long. The working world young people enter after high school is one
of constant turnover. Over 40 percent of all contingent (temporary and short
time) workers are under the age of 25. One in every six young workers will find
employment through a temporary agency by the time they are thirty.

The reason “the
union newsletter goes from the mailbox to the trash can,” as one ILCA
conventioneer put it, is because young workers don’t want to simply hear the
union line—they want to create it. The younger generation does not like to
receive messages passively. Just look at the explosion of youth-created media in
recent years. Poetry slams, zines, homemade websites, and guerilla radio are all
ways that young people explain and relate to the world. Graffiti, for example,
is an undeniable way to confirm that you are part of this society, even if no
one gave you permission to belong. Spray-painting your icon onto the most public
places—freeway overpasses, downtown buildings, railroad cars that will travel
across the country—is way to transmit an uncensored message to a broad audience.

Right now in
lunchrooms and parking lots at workplaces across the country, young people are
debating the fate of the American Taliban and talking about the war on
terrorism, which they may end up fighting firsthand. These are issues the
AFL-CIO has been silent on. The labor movement can only relate to young people
if it can engage in conversations that are happening.

Young working
people are already organizing against the prison-industrial complex,
environmental racism, and racial profiling and hate crimes. These movements may
have little to do with workplace issues, but they have everything to do with the
labor movement. Regardless of the struggle, they are giving young people an
experiential point of reference that confirms that collective action is a way to
change oppressive realities. This is fundamentally what unionism is about.

The vibrancy the
U.S. labor movement so desperately needs already exists among today’s youthful
work force. The AFL-CIO just needs to listen.                     Z

Raj Jayadev
is editor of www.siliconvalleydebug.com, the voice of young workers, writers and
artists in Silicon Valley.