Beginning with the May issue of The Electrical Worker, we sharpen our focus on young workers inside and outside the IBEW.
We will feature the stories and voices of young workers themselves. We will examine the experience of other labor organizations and our advocates. Our goal is simple—to be a resource in helping local unions reach out to organize new members and prepare current unionists for leadership—to revitalize our labor movement.
Research Encourages Young Worker Movement
May 7, 2013
Effectively bridging the different perspectives and experiences of three and, sometimes, four generations in the same workplaces can be a daunting challenge for seasoned leaders and emerging activists alike.
Within the IBEW and the AFL-CIO, young worker activists and their mentors are aided by a growing body of research into how to rejuvenate today’s labor movement.
A PowerPoint presentation produced by Cornell University’s Institute for Labor Relations describes four common stages in veteran union leaders’ efforts to engage younger members in their locals:
First, more experienced unionists ask, “Why don’t these kids appreciate our past struggles?”
Second, they ask, “If we tweet [approach young workers through social media], will they come?”
Third, after technology alone doesn’t engage young members, they ask “What is important to you?”
Finally, veteran unionists get around to the fundamental question: “How can we fully incorporate everyone in the union?”
Two research papers, based upon extensive interviews, have expanded the knowledge base of unionists who are working to tap the initiative of young workers and fully incorporate everyone in the union?
Confronting Challenges, Sharing Best Practices
“Youth and Unions,” written in 2010 by Ken Margolies, a Cornell senior associate, and Marlena Fontes, a student, is based upon extensive interviews with workers, both union and nonunion.
Fontes, now an organizer with Local 32 BJ of the Service Employees International Union, collaborated on the paper at age 20. She says:
When I was writing the paper, there wasn’t a lot of information on organizing young workers. It wasn’t a focus until recently. I thought it was important to find out what was working and what wasn’t and share best practices.
Some more senior workers assume that young workers don’t really need the money or are “working just to buy iPhones,” says Fontes. The reality is that most are trying to make a living, many to support families. And when unions do research about them, “it shows a lot of respect for the work force.”
In a section entitled “Challenges of Organizing Young Workers,” Margolies and Fontes trace the decline of the union movement during the lifetime of today’s young workers. They write, “Lack of coverage in the mainstream media about unions and a culture that more and more promotes individual solutions to societal ills has chipped away at the working class identity that many young people now lack.”
The paper describes how young workers have been brought into activity by leaders who have helped them define “their issues,” build community, learn about their local unions and all of the labor movement, and become involved in campaigns that can help them begin to see themselves as “young workers” and actors of change.
Delivering Value to the Labor Movement
The AFL-CIO’s “Young Worker Groups Research Project,” published in 2012, studies eight young worker groups in Baltimore, Denver, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rochester, N.Y., and San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.
The authors of the report say young worker groups “deliver value” to the labor movement in three “distinct and important ways,” say the researchers. First, they create a “space to cultivate dynamic, diverse and effective leaders. Second, they function as “laboratories” where aspiring leaders can experiment with new ways to engage and mobilize workers—union and nonunion alike—as the engine of a movement for social justice and economic fairness.
Finally, young worker groups help build bridges between established labor organizations and other social and political forces that are potential or actual allies of the union movement.
After outlining the strategic challenges facing young worker groups, the paper makes recommendations to the AFL-CIO for meeting them.
In its conclusion, the team says:
We were heartened by what we observed … These emerging organizations, along with parallel formations within union affiliates, represent a hopeful and potentially significant development. With more support and resources, additional guidance and leadership, and greater strategic coherence, these and other young worker groups may be well positioned to contribute in meaningful ways to the revitalization of a more inclusive, dynamic and effective labor movement in the United States.
The 34-page paper was co-commissioned by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, formerly special executive assistant to IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill.
The research team included Jeff Grabelsky, an IBEW journeyman inside wireman and longtime faculty member at Cornell.
The group interviewed key central labor body leaders as well as young activists.
Included in the interviews was Cory McCray, a member of Baltimore Local 24 and a lead organizer, who was appointed by Ernie Grecco, now president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions, to help revive the Baltimore Young Trade Unionists. Grecco belonged to the group in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Look for more coverage of young worker activism in the June issue of The Electrical Worker, on www.ibew.org and on IBEW’s Facebook page.