Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to join with other young AFGE members to represent our union at the 2011 AFL-CIO Next Up Young Workers Summit in Minneapolis. The conference brought together young union members, youth activists and student groups from around the country to participate in a forum addressing the challenges facing young workers today.
If there was one message that I walked away with, it was that young people have had enough and are ready to fight back. Young people are sick of skyrocketing youth unemployment and out-of-control college tuition. They are sick of being told that America’s best days are in the past; that they will be doomed to a lower quality of life than their parents enjoyed.
The conference was not only a forum to share frustration, but mainly an opportunity to brainstorm ideas on how to reverse these trends. Leaders discussed how young people could stand together to fight the economic injustice plaguing the country, unveiling new strategies aimed at reaching previously inaccessible groups.
The preeminent theme was that labor will now expand its reach beyond traditional employees to part-time workers, freelancers and even the unemployed. Forums focused on the importance of organizing the increasing numbers of young people (and Americans overall) who are stuck working short-term “gigs” instead of full-time jobs. I heard success stories from attendees who effectively organized freelancers and part-timers into bona fide bargaining units, negotiating better wages and job opportunities. Others discussed efforts to coalesce the “99ers,” or jobless Americans who have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, into a formidable movement capable of influencing public policy. The sentiment was echoed by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who in a fiery address to attendees asserted the need for labor to embody a strong, independent workers’ movement, rather than simply an institution aimed at supporting political candidates. Trumka and others proclaimed that labor will seek to be a voice not only for its own members, but also for the millions of Americans who have been devastated by the current economy and its growing income inequality.
I first discovered the Summit opportunity by reading a post on AFGE’s Facebook page seeking AFGE members under the age of 35 to attend the conference. One person responded to the Facebook post by asking if any young AFGE members existed at all. I was glad to discover that young AFGE members did exist, and that they are passionately involved in the union in multiple agencies, with many serving as stewards.
As a member of AFGE, an even more encouraging sign for me was that younger workers outside AFGE have soundly rejected the concocted public vs. private employee conflict. Attendees realized the importance of working people sticking together rather than falling for schemes aimed at dividing them along industry lines or other differences. Leaders proclaimed that working Americans should be advocating full benefits and pensions for more American workers, rather than succumbing to jealousy and seeking to eliminate the few jobs that still offer traditional pensions. In addition to uniting workers in the public and private sectors, attendees expressed the importance of bridging other gaps, including reaching out to women, racial and ethnic minorities, disabled and LGBT workers.
The conference took place just at the onset of the Occupy Wall Street movement, resonating with a nationwide sentiment of young people fighting to preserve a more promising future. Judging from the spirit and enthusiasm of the attendees, it is highly likely that a youth movement for workers will continue strongly into the future.
Matt Albucher, AFGE Local 3504 Member