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Young workers’ movement continues to gain momentum


At last year’s “Next Up” Young Workers Summit in Minneapolis, Allison Doherty of the Greater Boston Labor Council Futures Committee said young worker attendees were “really focused… we have an idea of what we need to do to have all of us go back to our states and really get this thing started.”

How have young union leaders progressed since then? In the busy life of an activist, it’s easy to forget to take stock. But in August, the Young Workers Leadership Institute provided a snapshot of dedicated young leaders gathering to form alliances, strengthen the movement, and make change.

As a results-focused alternative to the full-scale Next Up Young Workers Summit, the AFL-CIO chose to host the more intimate Young Workers Leadership Institute (YWLI). Sixty-eight workers representing regions from Alaska to Alabama, public and private-sector unions, and myriad vibrant young worker groups gathered for four days of intensive discussion, learning, and growth.

The message from these workers was clear: One year later, this movement is gaining momentum.

Participants at the 2012 Young Workers Leadership Institute join together in a solidarity chant.

The YWLI hosted frank discussions of the role of young workers in their unions today, workshopping the challenges they face in advocating for themselves. These challenges shaped the discussions of this year’s national young worker gathering, and that’s typical of young workers’ open, pragmatic organizing style: see a need, analyze that need, organize, and respond.

Younger activists are on the front lines of the labor movement everywhere, responding to attacks on workers, apathy amongst membership, negative public sentiment, and a disconnection from labor history. Fresh perspective and fresh commitment invigorate the ranks of unions everywhere, but young workers must fight to make themselves heard. Workshops at the YWLI included “Generational Communication Styles,” “Institution vs. Movement,” and “Affiliation Plan: One-on-One Organizing,” designed to lend support and method to the struggle for space within Labor.

There was time for celebration, too.

Participants from young worker groups with diverse memberships, goals, and levels of establishment shared their innovative accomplishments. Community service projects from house-painting to toy drives; solidarity actions such as the Boston Young Workers’ flash mob in support of Verizon workers, delivered with a Bostonian St. Patrick’s Day flair; campaigning for initiatives and candidates to champion working people’s causes such as Next Generation Bay Area’s role in the campaign to raise the minimum wage in San Jose — stories of all these and more were brought to the table at the YWLI. The young activists’ willingness to support their peers, unions, and communities was striking.

Fortunately for working people across the United States, the energy and work of younger union activists is gaining affirmation within the labor movement.

The AFL-CIO’s Young Worker Initiative, a commitment to guide and support young worker groups’ development, is gaining shape and direction as it studies young worker groups’ genesis, structure, and projects. And though laying the groundwork takes time, YWLI participants are determined to lobby their Central Labor Councils and union leadership for backing.

This progress is just as important as the political wins that have been supported by the efforts of young organizers, the strikes that have been bolstered by their solidarity, and the collaboration with broader non-labor organizations. The gaining of an executive board seat or the allotment of modest funds to support a group’s growth show a significant shift in our movement: a recognition of the power, work ethic, and engagement of young workers. The voices and hands of this dedicated generation fortify and sustain the labor movement to benefit us all.

Justine Winnie of OPEIU Local 8 is the Recording Secretary for Washington Young Emerging Labor Leaders (WA YELL). For more information about WA YELL, visit their Facebook page.

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