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Union Summer Over for Now, but Journey for Social Justice Is Just Getting Started

Union Summer activists protest outside a Gap.

The union days of summer are over for the young participants of this year’s AFL-CIO Union Summer internship. But for some, their journey on the long road to social justice continues.

After nine weeks in their assigned cities, the 40 activists, who were mostly women and people of color, ages 19 to 35, reconvened at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., late last week, ready to share what they learned and ponder their next steps on and off the union path.

Participants spent most of their time in one of six cities where the educational paid internship, now on its 15th year, was offered this year: Portland, Ore.; Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; Mobile, Ala.; Atlanta; and Washington, D.C. They participated in direct actions such as marches and picket lines but also engaged in activities like one-on-one conversations with workers, phone banking and strategic corporate research. Some had previous experience with the labor movement but the vast majority of them did not.

Twenty-three-year-old Sheridan Farnell was one of the latter. Assigned to her native Mobile, Farnell came with a history of campus activism around women’s health and empowerment at Huntingdon College, a small liberal arts college in Montgomery affiliated with the United Methodist Church. She began Union Summer shortly after graduating with a degree in English and creative writing.

Together with five other interns, she helped the workers who were organizing with the Metal Trades Council at a foreign-owned shipyard company through low- and high-tech outreach such as phone calls and, in the case of the large number of young shipyard workers, Facebook and YouTube.

“There is so much fear with the workers [of being associated with the union],” she says. “We would tell them, ‘We have a Facebook page. You don’t necessarily have to go "like" it, but it’s there for you.’”

A recent post on the group’s Facebook page reads: “Keep voicing your concerns, […] employees! Keep your heads held high and remember that you do not have to suffer through an unfair working environment!”

After the internship in Mobile, where her group worked out of a local labor law firm, Farnell is now torn between a career in organizing and law school, which she says has been on her mind for the past couple of years.

Like her, 19-year-old Alenis León from Houston is also considering a career in labor law, more so after her Union Summer experience. She was assigned to the Austin office of the Workers Defense Project (WDP), a rising star among worker centers nationwide.

She had always wanted to be a lawyer but, until recently, she didn’t know what to specialize in. That changed after a semester-long internship at the nonprofit law firm Equal Justice Center (EJC) that exposed her to committed lawyers and wronged low-wage workers. A couple of weeks into the internship, she knew she wanted to be one of those attorneys.

“I want to help people that haven’t been paid, the people that perhaps are thought of as being at the lowest level of society just because of their immigration status or because of the skills they may or may not have,” says the rising junior at the University of Texas at Austin, where she majors in economics and classics.

After speaking with an AFL-CIO organizer at a campus career fair about the need to organize low-wage workers, in addition to providing them with legal aid, León says she knew Union Summer would be a good fit for her.

“It’s not enough to just do that [help low-wage workers win back stolen wages],” she now realizes. “You also have to organize people because otherwise you’re just treating the symptoms not the [root] problems.”

At WDP, she called members through the phone bank, did research, lobbied city council members and participated in a march outside city hall to pressure a hotel developer to abide by its agreement with the city of Austin to pay construction workers what they promised to pay them. (In an Aug. 9 meeting, the city council upheld its agreement to waive $3.8 million in fees provided the developer, White Lodging, pay workers $12 an hour.)

Her yearlong involvement with EJC and now her summer experience at WDP have made her fully aware of the abuses low-wage immigrant workers face and have moved her to remain committed to social justice for the years to come.

“Low-wage workers, immigrant workers are taken advantage of so much, but a lot of people don’t see that,” says the daughter of Honduran immigrants. “I was oblivious to it, and I saw it. I want to help these people because I could have easily been one of them.”

As a three-years-and-counting shop steward at a unionized grocery store in central western Oregon, 23-year-old Devon Woznack knows a thing or two about commitment as well.

After Union Summer, the Oregon State University senior, who graduates by year’s end, plans to participate in the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute and pursue a career in organizing. And as a history major with a focus on Africa, she’s particularly interested in solidarity efforts with workers in that continent.

As a Portland intern, she did research for several campaigns, among them one by the AFT involving for-profit colleges. She made house calls and located workers; participated in a Jobs with Justice rally against Bank of America; delivered a letter to a local Gap store requesting that the company sign on to a fire and safety accord in Bangladesh; and, with the Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), assisted workers in their organizing efforts at Portland’s Rose Garden arena, recently renamed Moda Center.

Although the workers didn't form a union during the summer while Wosnack was there, the Moda Center campaign is still in motion. 

“I think that that was actually a really important experience for me to have,” she said. “It inspired me to keep [organizing], because we need to. Just keep going. Keep organizing.”

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