By Alana Levinson
At a noontime rally on September 22, the newly elected leadership of the AFL-CIO gathered on Wall Street to confront the briefcase-and-blackberry set with promises to "demand more accountability from our financial system." Richard Trumka, who was chosen to replace John Sweeney as president of the labor union federation at its recent convention in Pittsburgh, was joined on stage by new top officers Liz Shuler and Arlene Holt Baker, where they let the corporate elite know that Main Street no longer works for Wall Street.
The rally was part of whistle stop tour that also brought the new AFL-CIO leadership to Ohio, Georgia and Pennsylvania and marked the beginning of a fight to rebuild the economy amidst the current recession. But perhaps another motive in these rallies, in addition to invigorating the existing base, is to draw others, especially young people, out to support the labor union’s cause. As shown during the last election, mobilizing a younger base can be extremely effective, and in the case of the AFL-CIO, it might be what they need in order maintain relevancy to coming generations.
Of the AFL-CIO’s 11.5 million members, only one-quarter is under 47 years old. This means that many young people are putting in hours without the much-needed benefits that a union promises. The AFL-CIO acknowledges the sagging wages and moral of the young worker, having recently released a 44-page report entitled, "Young Workers: A Lost Decade" on just that. When the numbers in this study are compared to that of the same one done in 1999, the results are even more shocking. Currently, only 31% say that they can afford to pay their bills (down 22 percent from ’99) and 31 percent are uninsured (7 percent more than ’99). Even more disheartening, is that only 53 percent of young workers say they are optimistic about their economic future (a 22 point drop from the ’99 statistic). This should be of concern not just to young workers like me, but to the entire country, which has always depended on both the mind-power and physical strength of its youth to fuel the economy.
Liz Shuler, the youngest AFL-CIO vice-president to ever be elected, showed her support for young workers despite their some-what lacking presence at the rally."The younger generation is supposed to be doing better than their parents, we owe that to them!" she shouted to the crowd. The next step will be continuing an even greater conversation with young Americans themselves, even if that means re-branding what being a "union worker" means. In an interview with the Associated Press, Shuler noted, in a hark back to Obama during the campaign, that one of the main things blocking the AFL-CIO from reaching a younger base is a barrier in communication:
They speak a different language and I think the labor movement has been a bit behind in how they communicate with those young workers. Even the term "worker" may be something that younger people may not identify with as much.
But everyone, especially young people with student loans looming overhead, can identify with the need for, in Trumka’s words, "an America that rewards work as well as investment." If educated on how being part of a labor union would benefit them, I’m sure the youth would be quick to wildly support Trumka’s proposed plans of action: a small global tax on stock transactions to curb reckless trading, increased financial regulations at both the state and federal level, and the public option. I hope that in addition to these goals, Shuler and the other top officers reach out to young Americans in the workforce whether they be coal miners or freelance writers. This will ease the pockets and minds of stressed young workers, diversify the scope of the labor union, and finally, help restore the economy’s health.