Ask Me About the Future! Young Workers Speak Up at AFL-CIO Convention

Ask Me About the Future! Young Workers Speak Up at AFL-CIO Convention

by Rebecca Band, California Labor Federation

What turns young people into labor activists? How do we use their ideas and energy to transform our work? Why is it important to develop young leaders? What are the dos and don’ts when engaging young workers in organizing and political action? And how do we adapt our strategies, partnerships and attitudes to meet young people where they’re at?

Those were the questions posed at today’s “Young Workers Speak Up” action session at the AFL-CIO 2013 Convention. Sponsored by the AFL-CIO Young Workers Advisory Council and the Next UP Young Workers Program, this energetic session gave convention attendees of all ages a chance to hear from young activists and up-and-coming leaders who are brimming with success stories and ideas to engage more young people in and around the labor movement.

Jennifer Gray is one of those rising stars. An IBEW Local 1245 member and customer service rep at Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (the main utility company in Northern California), Gray shared the story of how her union’s commitment to engaging more young workers afforded her the opportunity to learn about her union, get involved, hone leadership skills and eventually take on a full-time organizing position on staff at her local.

She detailed which tactics have been most effective when it comes to getting other young workers involved:

The biggest thing we’ve found to spark that fire…is getting our young folks working on the 'fight back' campaigns [to defend workers’ rights]. Labor is under attack across the country, and that’s a real wake-up call for us. We’ve invested, sending our young people away for weeks at a time to work on labor campaigns in other states, as well as the Walmart campaign here in California…that’s really hands on experience our folks are getting, and I think that’s what really sparks that interest. It hits home. It’s personal. Once you have a stake in something, you want to take it on.

Professional dancer and choreographer Galen Hooks is another trailblazer for young workers. Under her leadership, music video dancers (who are almost all younger workers) finally secured a union contract after 30 years without that protection. She now leads the Dancers' Alliance and sits on the board of SAG-AFTRA, and at the action session, she explained how she worked to change the way her younger workers viewed and connected with the fight for workers’ rights.

We realized that we had to make the union and the labor movement cool. So we had events at nightclubs, theaters and dance studios, and we make it an exciting, fun experience. Once they’re there and invested in what we’re doing, we can break it down, talk about the important issues and make it about the union. We also made YouTube videos featuring the most influential people in the industry, using their popularity and name recognition to grow support among the dancers. When we got a union contract last year, that was the perfect example of us energizing and igniting a young community of people to make change.

Other panelists included Rosa Blumenfeld of the Greater Boston Labor Council who shared how her central labor council (CLC) is bringing young people in on every level, including giving them a voice on the Executive Board (the AFL-CIO just established a similar program at the national level with the passage of the young workers resolution and constitutional amendment at the convention). Carmen Berkley, formerly of the Generational Alliance and now the director of Civil and Human Rights Department at the AFL-CIO, explained how important it is to bring young workers and labor together on all of the issues that matter most to us, instead of segmenting, carving out and dividing us issue by issue.

The session concluded with a breakout, where participants split up into groups to discuss how young worker organizations, community groups, state federations, CLCs and unions can work to bridge the generation gap, create dynamic programming and develop young leaders. This blogger (who happens to be the president ofYoung Workers of California) was thrilled to see so much excitement around the young worker movement from participants of all ages and is more motivated than ever to help grow and evolve labor unions for our generation and generations to come.

For more highlights from the action sessions and convention, follow #aflcio13 on Twitter or visit http://www.aflcio.org/blog