Next Up: ‘Leaders of tomorrow’ are already leading today


(March 27, 2015) — It can be exciting for a young worker to sit in an audience and listen to Richard Trumka or Liz Shuler or other labor dignitaries discuss the importance of youth, energy, and diversity in the movement. But at the AFL CIO’s Next Up conference in Chicago last week, the most exciting speakers were our peers.

Listening to 1,200 young, vibrant activists exchange strategies for organizing, relationship building, anti-oppression training, mentorship, and so much more, I experienced awe, inspiration, and hope. The collective knowledge and commitment we possess is changing movements, communities, and history.

Thanks to the tireless young worker organizing of the national AFL CIO and the grassroots uprising of young workers in our home states, we are seeing an unprecedented number of young worker groups and officers in local unions. Young women and young men stood up in workshops to ask, “I’ve just been elected as president of my local. How can I…?”

The conversation has shifted from discussing the leaders of tomorrow to acknowledging the leaders of today. We’ve fought in local halls, at central labor councils, and at state federations to gain legitimacy and recognition — and we have won. That’s a victory for all labor activists everywhere, because young workers are stepping up in a big way to fight for working folks.

It is this generation that brings intersectionality, or exploration of where the issues of all oppressed people intersect, to the table. Working from this perspective, we’re bringing newly honest and reciprocal community relationships to the House of Labor. Our name badges listed our preferred pronouns, a practice popularized by the LGBTQ community to acknowledge transgendered brothers and sisters — or siblings, as I heard a few people say at Next Up — and the diversity of gender.

Group discussions commenced with acknowledgments of privilege, heritage, differing viewpoints, and how to responsibly manage these together. And the organizers of Next Up 2015 announced proudly, “This may be the most diverse Labor gathering in history.”

Our humanity depends on everyone’s humanity. This is the evolution of “An injury to one is an injury to all.” This truth was a current running through our days together in Chicago. A respect and an interest in everyone, no matter their gender or level of experience or race or hometown or industry: that’s the openness that allows us to come together and be truly powerful.

At the Saturday morning actions, police were baffled by the young people pouring out of buses in droves to stand with local workers fighting for a $15 minimum wage. A friend told me later, “I heard a cop saying into his walkie talkie, ‘Backup! We need backup!’”

And it’s true. The right-wing politicians, the corporations, the social conservatives of this country are not ready for the tsunami welling up across the nation. We are tearing down the walls that have too often separated Labor from everyone else in this country who shares our fate, and we are moving forward together.

Justine Winnie is Special Projects Assistant for the Washington State Labor Council, past President of Washington Young Emerging Labor Leaders (WA YELL), and a member of OPEIU Local 8.


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