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.
Do you think young people are confronting different issues on the job than other workers?
Yes and no. For the most part young workers are concerned about pay and benefits like the next person. But there are also quality of life issues that tend to be a greater focus for this next generation, including equity in terms of job-sharing and flexible schedules. The workforce is changing and encompassing more freelance, part-time, and contract workers. These are the types of work that we haven’t necessarily been familiar with in the labor movement, so the goal is to find ways to make it fair while preserving the integrity of the job. We need to modify our ways of doing business to fit with the changing workplace.
Does it make it harder to engage young workers when unions agree to “two tier” contracts that protect certain benefits for current workers but not for new ones?
Every situation is different. The bargaining unit elects the people that represent them at the table, and you would hope that all of these systems are negotiated with all of the members in mind, and are the fairest proposals that could be on the table.
One summit panel is about state-level political threats. Do you see the attack on public workers as a consequence of the decline in private sector unionization?
Definitely. The density question is the biggest and most important challenge we have in front of us. How do we grow? And we’re basically in a defensive posture in every state. It’s not only attacks on the public sector and collective bargaining – it’s prevailing wage laws, it’s voting rights, it’s everything you can think of being thrown at us.
The current generation is much less likely to grow up with family members or neighbors who are in a union. How does that affect youth organizing and youth culture?
It’s definitely had an impact. It used to be that everyone had a cousin or parent or grandparent in a union, and that connection has become so distant that young people don’t see unions as relevant to them. So our job is to step back and find ways to make that connection. A lot of people think it’s by continuing to preach and tell people, “Well you’re going to make more money if you join a union,” or “You’re going to have access to healthcare,” and those are obviously very important substantive reasons, but we also need to connect on values, connect with people emotionally based on dignity in work and how work needs to be respected. Everybody can relate to that. The goal is to figure out what drives a young person to reconsider us.