Eight hundred young workers and activists are gathering tomorrow in Minneapolis for the AFL-CIO’s second annual Next Up Young Worker Summit. On Friday, they’ll march through downtown Minneapolis with signs that say “I Want a Job.” The conference is spearheaded by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, 41, the youngest person ever to hold the Number Two spot at the nation’s largest labor federation. This week I spoke with Shuler about the challenges and opportunities facing young workers and the labor movement. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript.
Last year you wrote in The Nation that young people are in “jeopardy of permanent economic scarring.” How so?
Youth unemployment is double the average. Youth face an abyss now: coming out of college, not being able to find a job, carrying extraordinary debt, delaying adulthood. More people are living with their parents than anytime since World War II. Even if you find a job, it’s at a lower wage rate than before the recession. So you’re starting behind and you never end up catching up. You’re competing with older unemployed workers, including people coming out of retirement because they lost their pension.
Is youth organizing a new focus for the AFL-CIO?
It has been since we were elected in 2009. When Rich Trumka and Arlene Holt-Baker and I came in, we recognized that we weren’t doing a great job in the labor movement of reaching out to young people. We did a listening tour, and there was a real hunger to build coalitions. Since then we’ve been reaching out to young progressive organizations. There was so much to be learned from these organizations on how to make the labor movement relevant not just to young union members, but to young workers in general. In Wisconsin you saw young people leading the charge. The labor movement thought it was a natural voice for young people out there who feel disenfranchised, and we also need young workers to ensure our own future, so it was a natural pairing. We started building infrastructure that led up to our first summit last year with 400 young people who want to mobilize and educate and agitate. It’s been growing exponentially since then.
What’s the purpose of this week’s summit?
It’s for young workers to have a space to network and exchange ideas. It’s an education platform to talk about the issues facing young workers. It’s also to provide leadership development, because we need it in the labor movement, where we have very few opportunities for young people to ascend to leadership positions. Last year we tried to plan everything at headquarters, but we learned that the young workers really wanted to be an integral part of planning the summit, and so this year we were able to decentralize the planning.
There’s a long history of tension in the labor movement between exclusivity and inclusion, including over race, gender, and immigration. How do you see that dynamic play out in organizing young workers?
We are doing everything we can to shed those old stereotypes. Reaching out to young people is our first and probably only hope. For whatever reason people have in their heads that we’re an island of privilege or exclusivity. And the new labor movement is actually reaching out beyond its membership like never before, and young people are part of that. We’re alive and well and we want to help improve their economic circumstances, fight for social justice, and work on issues that we have in common. One of the goals is intergenerational alliances. When you have a system that’s based on seniority, a lot of more seasoned leaders are older and so it takes a lot to be able to bring different generations together to understand each other. We’re really proud of our success at getting our individual affiliate unions to start their own young worker programs.