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Not Your Daddy’s Labor Movement

Not Your Daddy’s Labor Movement
By Jennifer Wright Dorr

Leave behind what you know about Roberts Rules of Order and structured union meetings. A new generation of emerging labor leaders across the country is bringing young workers together in paintball games, music festivals, trivia nights and pub crawls—all with an activist edge.

It’s fun—but with a serious side.

And of course there are also rallies and actions, labor history and trainings and, yes, phone banking.

Traditionally, phone bankers are lured by free pizza or t-shirts, but the Washington Young Emerging Labor Leaders (WA YELL) took it a step further with its Halloween Costume Party Phone Bank and its Ladies Night Phone Bank Mixer with the Fire Fighters union. 

Kamaria Hightower of WA YELL has no shortage of ideas, thanks to social event sites like Living Social and Groupon, which regularly provide her with inspiration for the next big event.

“It’s about the team-building. A lot of us come from different trades, different areas of activism. At these events, we get to know each other, build each other up and refresh for the battles we have coming,” says Hightower, who helped start the young emerging labor leaders group in her state one year ago after attending the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center's first Emerging Leaders Conference in May 2011.

To thank the businesses that supported the Paid Sick Day legislation that passed last September in Seattle, the group organized a pub crawl. They also hosted a “Shadow a Lobbyist Program,” in which eight members of WA YELL went to the state capitol and spent a day getting a taste of what it’s like to be member of Washington state’s United Labor Lobbying team.

“Adding younger workers gives us an amplified voice, hence the name ‘YELL,’” explains Hightower. “The more people who are involved, the more issues we can bring to light.”

June 7s “Sunset Cocktails on the Sound” was a social and fundraising event to benefit the WA YELL at the historic Edgewater Hotel in Seattle. Hosted by the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), IFPTE Local 2001, the event featured a visit from AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Shuler, who is leading the union movement’s outreach to young workers. As she told the 300 young people at the gathering:

Even when you’re having fun, you don’t have the option to lose sight of your responsibility….You are part of the largest generation to come down the pipeline since the Baby Boomers, and the most diverse and best educated—and you’ll reshape our world as much as the Boomers did. You’re going to do it because you have the imagination, the energy, the organization and, to be perfectly honest, the need….

The future of this labor movement—which will shape the future of the 99%--is on your shoulders. It’s on you.

WA YELL raised funds at the event to support three young worker-focused campaigns on organizing, representational equality and engagement at the local level. The funds will also support a training program slotted for later this year.

Young union members, usually with the support of state labor federations or central labor councils, have created at least two dozen state- and locally based young workers groups from Washington to Massachusetts. They’re all different, but organizers say creative events are the key to bringing new young people into the group, giving them a place to learn and talk in a setting that’s comfortable for them.

Senior union leaders agree with Shuler that the future of the labor movement depends largely on educating, engaging and preparing younger workers to take the leadership reins. However, many young workers are turned off by what feels like their parents’ and grandparents’ unions.

Between cliques, union-specific jargon and Roberts Rules, union meetings are not the greatest fit for young workers, says Allison Doherty of the Greater Boston Labor Council’s (GBLC) Future Committee, Boston’s young workers group, and the AFL-CIO’s national Young Workers Advisory Council. “The issue with the labor movement is that if you aren’t already in the know, you feel like you’re cast out,” explains Doherty. 

“When you go to a meeting and they’re talking about PLAs (Project Labor Agreements), you might say, ‘I’m a teacher, what’s a PLA? I’m out of here because I don’t know what they’re talking about.’”

Doherty is a special education teacher and executive board member of the Future’s group in Boston. Through its events, Doherty’s group tries to “create a space” for people who don’t know the ins and outs of labor. “We welcome them in and then train people what certain things mean and why they’re important.”

Doherty is from the same group of young labor leaders who staged the “Drop Kick Verizon” action, which came out of a flash mob training as part of the 2nd Annual Organizing Our Future Conference  hosted by the Greater Boston Labor Council. The action was in support of the 45,000 union-represented Verizon workers who have been negotiating for good jobs and a fair contract for nearly a year.

The Boston group has been back at it—engaging young workers and enveloping them deeper into the fold of the labor movement. This time, it was a June 16 Trolley Tour of Boston, a fundraiser for the GBLC Futures Committee.

“Younger workers don’t know why the union is important. They just hear they protect labor workers—it’s important to educate them that the middle class and the working class need to work hand in hand because they’re the only voice for workers,” says Doherty.

The teacher points to the statistics that show the correlation between a thriving union movement and a large middle class.

The experience and exposure she’s gained while working on the GBLC Futures Committee have made her consider running for union office—something her parents, who were also teachers, support. 

In fact, both of her parents are elated that she’s involved in her union. For many of the 20 years that her father was the president of the Boston Teachers Union (BTU), Doherty heard the same thing over and over—young people just don’t understand. Doherty’s thoughts on that: “Then teach me; don’t yell at me! If I wasn’t invested already in the union, I might not have stayed.”

Most young workers programs are aimed at those around 35 and younger.

Why the age cap on the young worker groups? Thirty-three year old Nick Gaitaud of Oregon YELL and also an AFL-CIO Young Workers Advisory Council member, says he’s already starting to feel a disconnect with those in their early twenties. He says it’s easy to get out of touch with the needs of different generations.

But whether they’re in their 20s or 30s, there are some issues all young workers share. Saddled with student loans, young workers are struggling to find stable jobs, often taking part-time or freelance ”gigs” with no benefits and low wages. They are faced with the nation’s highest unemployment rate—currently about twice the national average.

According to Gaitaud: “Young workers have the worst hours and shifts and no benefits or seniority. New policies grandfather the old workers in but they hurt the young workers.”

Gaitaud works as a millwright at a titanium mill in Oregon. At his local, Gaitaud says there’s sometimes an inconsistency with what the union leadership thinks is happening at his local and what’s actually going on.

Gaitaud attributes this to young workers not being represented at the higher levels of union leadership, leaving young workers out of important meetings and unable to voice their concerns.

Young worker programs give this typically under-represented segment of the membership an avenue to reach out and up.

“The job of the young worker is to get educated, network and bring it back home to explain it to your fellow members,” says Gaitaud, who spent the last few days of May hosting 550 young workers at the Steelworkers Next Generation Conference in Cleveland, Ohio.

In a labor movement that’s looking more diverse, but more grey-haired, these young leaders have developed solidarity their own way. They’ll rise up thanks to their energy, creative ideas and the support of the movement behind them.

Young workers who are interested in starting or who have already started a young workers group can contact the AFL-CIO’s young worker program coordinator Kurston Cook at

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