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Minnesota: Young Workers Showing New Ways to Lead

Minnesota AFL-CIO Young Workers Convention was held last Sunday.

This is a cross-post from Workday Minnesota. 

No one would blame Nicholas Perez and Cheri Stewart if they decided the problems facing their generation are just too big to tackle.  

After all, unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds stands at more than 17% and is even higher for young people of color. Many college graduates are burdened with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Older workers often stereotype the millennial generation as self-absorbed and “lacking a work ethic.”

Perez, Mitchell and some 20 other young workers who participated in the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s Young Workers Convention on Sunday have experienced it. They’re not throwing up their hands, however—they’re organizing. Many are finding new ways to lead within their unions.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler spoke at the event:

We’ve got to broaden our outreach to young workers and hear and engage them in new ways. That’s our future. Our inspiration….We can’t let joblessness and crippling college debt be the trends that mark this next generation. We can do better. And we have to.

Perez, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 264 in St. Paul, became a trustee of his local last year. He and his good friend, Isaiah Smock, are mobilizing other young workers in the union and at their workplace, Americraft Carton.

“We’re not here to push anybody out,” Perez said, about taking leadership in his union. “But we’re going to have to start changing things. If we don’t freshen up, we’ll be surpassed by everyone else.”


Steelworkers Nicholas Perez and Isaiah Smock (above) took part in an election phone bank during the AFL-CIO Convention in Rochester. Earlier in the day, young workers held roundtable discussions at the Young Workers Convention.

Before going to work on second shift, Perez and Smock have been volunteering in their former elementary school, helping students with basic reading, writing and math. It’s also an opportunity to get youngsters thinking about their future role as workers and the need for rights on the job, Perez said.

“We’re not all going to be lawyers and doctors,” he said, smiling.

Stewart was a rank-and-file member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 31 in Duluth before becoming a union representative for the local in January. She is one of several young people on the Executive Board. 

Stewart praised her local as being open to new leadership and providing opportunities for younger workers to improve their skills. 

She and fellow member Will Keyes organized a young worker group that meets monthly to discuss a variety of concerns and topics. Local 31 bargains 20 contracts with utilities in northeastern Minnesota and one of her goals is to have at least one young member involved from every workplace.

“The biggest fear that I see among younger workers is that things are going backwards,” Stewart said. “Our group has focused on how to get our fellow workers to see how important our union is.”

At the state level, Minnesota AFL-CIO Field Director Jessica Hayssen coordinates efforts to organize young workers. She also serves on the national AFL-CIO’s Young Workers Advisory Council.

Nationally, the AFL-CIO has more than 30 active young worker groups, in addition to many organizations formed by individual unions, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler said.

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