Disengaged? Young Unionists Say, 'I Don't Think So'

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Hundreds of young workers who are "Next Up" to lead the labor movement convened in Washington, D.C., June 10-13 for a first-ever youth summit: a massive brainstorming session with the AFL-CIO's three top officers on how best to reach working people under 35.

Using a combination of live polling, small work groups and open microphones, participants started a conversation on what they've seen and how they'd like to move forward. One worker in the airline industry said many young employees have never heard of unions.

Several young unionists said they need to pull the wool from their friends' eyes. "We have to run our mouths about how awesome unions are," said Michelle Carter of United University Professions/NYSUT. "I have a pension and I'm 27. Nobody who's 27 has a pension. I pay $150 a year for healthcare. Young people don't know how good people in unions have it. So talk it up. Run your mouth. Tell your friends to join a union. Unions are awesome."

An electrical worker from Pittsburgh said young union members need tools and training to become more effective advocates for workers. "We're fighting the fight of our lives, and we're getting beat up pretty good," he said. "A lot of it has to do with education—education on the job, at the grass-roots level." Another said young unionists like himself need to learn the art of debating and Robert's Rules of Order so they can communicate with legislators.

To that end, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told attendees that the National Labor College is about to launch the largest online education program in the history of the labor movement. As the program begins rolling out this fall, he said, "we'll be able to convert every union hall in the country into a classroom."

Several young people talked about engaging their communities in the fight to save jobs. Alisha Valdez-Jackson, a school secretary from California, said parents and church groups are particularly helpful and easy to reach in schools' front offices and cafeterias.

Working people didn't create our economic mess, Trumka noted. "I know that even the people in this room can't bring change" on their own, he said, calling on them to help enlarge the labor movement and regain power for American workers.

In smaller breakout sessions, summit attendees developed long-term strategies such as early mentoring programs and new member orientation, so that brand new hires don't get their first information about the union from their managers.

David Rodgers, a 29-year-old transportation planner and member of the AFT-affiliated Maryland Professional Employees Council, echoed attendees' opinions in a live poll that social media alone won't bring young people onboard. They want one-to-one contact, too. Rodgers said he was starting to formulate a plan for small meetings followed by individual conversations to persuade his young colleagues to join the AFT. "I just want to do a small part in my corner of the world to start a movement," he said.

Veronica Thibideaux and Phyllis Ruffin of Alief AFT in Houston came to the summit in hopes of gaining a better understanding of what younger people are looking for from their labor leaders. After the first day's sessions, they already had some good ideas, Ruffin said, adding, "It's going to be their world in a little while, you know?" [Annette Licitra]

June 14, 2010