By KELLY COOGAN-GEHR
For The Stand
(Nov. 15, 2016) — Labor’s story has as many examples of triumphant solidarity, as it does of internal antagonism, discord, and strife. Mirroring some of society’s most stubborn hierarchies, labor is not exempt from racism, sexism, and even its own sneaky forms of classism (e.g. skilled versus unskilled workers).
The demographics of the 21st century workforce and the unions that represent workers are dramatically different compared to even just a few decades ago. The rate of public-sector union membership is 32.5 percent, five times greater than for private sector workers at 6.7 percent. Service sector workers have the highest unionization rate at 71.8 percent. Both the public sector and the service sector employ the highest percentages of women and people of color. Women and men are now union members at almost equal rates: 10.6 percent and 11.5 percent, respectively. African American workers are more likely to be union members than any other race or ethnicity.
Knowing who makes up the 21st century labor movement is key to understanding the issues that will inspire and galvanize represented workers to fight for their rights, dignity, and humanity. This knowledge is absolutely core for present and future union leadership as they continue build and grow the labor movement. History shows us that unions get stronger when the labor movement is more inclusive and when issues unions take on are the issues their members face on the shop floor and in their communities.
This year’s Emerging Leaders Conference, co-sponsored by the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center (WA LERC) and the Washington Young Emerging Labor Leaders (WA YELL), assesses the new face of the labor movement and the issues that activate and unite the next generation of labor leaders. The theme is “The Different Meanings of Solidarity: Labor Leadership at the Intersections of Race, Gender, and Community.”The conference will be held Dec. 9-11 at the Georgetown Campus of South Seattle College. Click here and click on “Emerging Leaders Conference for 2016” for more details, the agenda, or click here to register.
This conference offers workshops taught by union and community leaders on basic leadership skills for the shop floor and the broader community, such as organizing, public speaking, social media outreach and communication, as well as breakout sessions related to the conference theme.
One of the labor movement’s hallmarks has been how seriously it takes the need to create and institutionalize organizations. Organizations, such as unions, sustain social movements as they grow, change, fracture, and recoalesce over time. They must reproduce themselves repeatedly, generation after generation, in order to live and flourish. As the boomers reach retirement age, a new generation of labor leaders must be prepared to take the helm. No matter their job or union, the next generation of labor leaders faces astonishing challenges, for which we all need to be prepared if we are to win.
At 11 percent nationally, union density is at an all-time low and dropping. Wages for working people are stagnant, even though economic growth and productivity are at all-time highs. Trade agreements, like NAFTA and the TPP, liberalize industry, as middle-class jobs are downgraded, deskilled, or displaced and outsourced altogether. The deregulation of the finance sector creates a context in which big finance now profits off of our dwindling pensions and other worker benefits. The privatization of public enterprises not only weakens our social safety net, but it also undermines public sector bargaining power.
Undeniably, these issues impact every single worker and union member, as well as their families and communities, in Washington state. These issues trickle all the way down to the nitty gritty of the shop floor and constrain worker power and the realm of possibilities at the bargaining table. Reliance solely on tactics and strategies that fail to connect the interests of workers with those of their communities will guarantee failure.
The Emerging Leaders Conference’s keynote address by labor historian Bob Bussel on Total Person Unionism will explore very specific ways union members have helped their communities and have, in turn, created a space for their communities to stand with them in solidarity at the bargaining table and on picket and strike lines.
A primary objective of the WA LERC is to develop educational opportunities that build the labor movement. By necessity, this type of education moves union members beyond the agenda of their individual union and asks them to think critically and collectively — in solidarity with their sisters and brothers — about some of the biggest issues facing the labor movement. The Emerging Leaders Conference is a primary venue in which this type of labor education occurs.
The conference originated from the visionary work of Sarah Laslett, previous Director of WA LERC, and Cheryl Coney, a previous Labor Educator with WA LERC, in an effort to help prepare the next generation of labor leaders in Washington state to take the helm. Previous participants are now leaders in their Central Labor Councils; Presidents, Political Directors, and rank and file leaders of their unions; and in high-level local government and union staff positions.
To kick off this year’s conference, we are hosting a panel celebration event Strategies for Sustainability at the Intersection of Labor and Community on Friday, Dec. 9 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. This event is open to anyone who wants to attend and is free of charge. Click here to RSVP.
Please come hear moving testimony from esteemed labor leaders and community activists about their vision for a more inclusive labor movement; their survival tactics and strategies for staying the course amidst setbacks, discrimination, and structural inequalities; and the powerful ways in which they build solidarity in their everyday lives. To culminate the event, Sarah Laslett and Cheryl Coney will be honored for their foundational work with the Emerging Leaders Conference and the Washington Young Emerging Labor Leaders. Appetizers and refreshments will be served. RSVP is required. Everyone is welcome!
Please encourage your next generation of leaders to attend the 2016 Emerging Leaders Conference and enjoy a rare multi-union educational setting in which their sisters and brothers across industries and sectors share their knowledge, stories, and experiences on the shop floor, realizing solidarity and building lasting community and relationships in the process.
Kelly Coogan-Gehr is the Executive Director of the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center at South Seattle College.