Building a New Labor Movement for a New Generation

Let’s be frank: The labor movement is changing fast. In the next 5-10 years, almost half of all union members — roughly 5-7 million workers — will retire. And who is stepping in to keep the movement going? What does the future of Labor look like?

Those are the questions that the AFL-CIO posed at last year’s landmark Next Up Young Workers Summit – the brainchild of AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, the youngest person to ever serve in that executive position. She recognized the need for renewed focus on young workers, soon-to-be activists and aspiring leaders as pivotal to the long-term viability of our movement.

And young people need unions now more than ever before. They’ve been disproportionally hard-hit by the recession. They’re underpaid, underemployed or out of work altogether. They’re drowning in student debt. They’re losing their homes and are being forced to move back in with their parents. For countless young people struggling in this economy, unions are one of the most reliable pathways to economic stability — and yet workers under 35 comprise just 25% of all union members.

After decades of aggressive anti-union tactics by employers small and large and few signs of reprieve, young workers face serious barriers to unionization, and the future of the movement is anything but certain. If we want our movement to still be around in 10 or 20 or 50 years, we need to broaden our reach to young people, and we need to start training the leaders of tomorrow today.

That was the primary focus of last weekend’s Young Worker Leadership Institute (YWLI), a follow-up to last year’s Next Up Summit. The three-day workshop was organized by the AFL-CIO’s new Young Worker Advisory Council, and brought together young worker activists and aspiring leaders from Alaska to Florida to communicate, collaborate, inspire one another and hash out a strategic plan that will put us on the path to a stronger labor movement for the next generation.

AFL-CIO Young Worker Program Coordinator Kurston Cook:

[When he opened up the YWLI conference], AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka said it best – 'The labor movement doesn’t want young people; they need young people.' If the labor movement is going to meet the challenges of 21st century economy and global workforce, we need the innovation, the creativity and the energy coming from our young workers. They’re not only the leaders of the future, they’re the leaders of right now. We’ve just got to provide a space for it.

One of six conference attendees from California, Daniella Castro isn’t actually union member – she’s an engineer, and an activist with Next Generation Bay Area, a community-based young worker group formed in partnership with the South Bay Labor Council. The YWLI was her first intensive experience with the labor movement. She left the action-packed weekend in Washington, DC with a renewed sense of respect for the dedication and hard work of the other young people around the country who are building a brighter future for all workers – union and non-union.

The young workers at the YWLI were really inspiring. Somehow these young men and women manage to work hard, play hard, and still find time to raise a family. I believe this group of young people has the potential to rock this labor movement… and I learned that the people up top at the AFL-CIO want this change, and they will support us in working towards it. It's nice to know we've got some fans.

Indeed we do, at both the national and state levels. Just last month, California Labor Federation delegates voted unanimously in favor of a resolution in support of young workers, which includes the formation of an official Young Workers Council. The Federation also recognized NextUp California (our statewide young workers group), as well as IBEW 1245’s Youth Engaged in Solidarity and NextGen Bay Area, at the Biennial Convention awards dinner.

Accolades are nice, but now it’s time to get down to brass tacks, and our work has only just begun. Thanks to the skills and direction we acquired at YWLI, we are on our way to developing a comprehensive statewide program to attract, retain and promote new activists and leaders, to involve our unions in outreach to current young members, to organize more young workers and activists, and to make those activists into leaders. It certainly won’t be easy, but it was the steadfast commitment of young workers that launched the labor movement, and it will be that same energy and enthusiasm we’re brimming with now that will ensure that unions will still be around for generations to come.

We’re building something truly historic, and we want you to be a part of Labor’s revitalization. There’s no age limit to join – if you’re young or young-at-heart, you’re welcome to join our group and help us build a Young Workers Council from the ground up. 

There are a bunch of ways to join our young worker movement. Like us on Facebook. Join our Google Group. Take a leadership role with the Steering Committee. Or just shoot me an email. and let me know how you'd like to be involved.