GETTING INVOLVED/GAINING ACCESS – A GUIDE FOR YOUNGER MEMBERS
New research shows that young workers in the US earn $10,000 less than people their age did 30 years ago, and have half as much wealth – and the numbers are worse for workers of color. (Canadians do not face this problem.) Given the attacks on, and decline in, unions, this number is neither a surprise nor a coincidence. The US labor movement, already less than 12% of the workforce nationwide (and below 7% in the private sector), is also getting older – with 25% of members (and a much greater percentage of leaders and stewards) older than 55.
Changing this downward trajectory for younger workers and for the labor movement will take work and leadership from all of us. In the words of a 2011 convention resolution from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), “the continued strength and vitality of the labor movement depends heavily on the ability of younger union members to develop into strong and effective labor leaders…and our union’s ability to attract new members and nurture effective new leadership.”
In the December, this publication focused on advice for stewards over 35 on engaging and supporting younger members (find it at www.unionist.com). This time, we speak directly to younger members and stewards: Getting involved in your union can help change your workplace, the labor movement, and conditions for young workers everywhere. Here are some pointers for getting started.
Learn the backstory
Your union has a history—and you should learn about it! Whichever industry you work in, it is important to find out about your predecessors’ fights. What was the industry like before unions got involved? How has your union, and the broader labor movement, changed the nature of work in your industry and the country? What were your union’s foundational struggles? Was there a major strike or campaign that helped form your union? To understand and organize with the older membership, it is important to understand the battles they fought and inherited.
Be on the same side
The boss and the media are good enough at dividing workers without our help. “It's easy to blame older members and leadership for what you may see as failures and mistakes. But remember that you're on the same side of the bargaining table and who the real enemy is,” suggests Brittany Anderson, national AFL-CIO Young Worker Advisory Committee member from the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). “When you approach from the perspective that you both care deeply about the union and want to grow and strengthen the labor movement, they're more likely to listen to and support your ideas and opinions.”
Understand the nuts and bolts of your union
If you want to get involved or to make change, you must understand how your union operates. Every union has a constitution and bylaws, including the process for meetings, elections, contract votes, and selection of shop stewards. They also may detail how to create a formal young worker committee, for instance.
In addition to formal structures, unions also have informal structures and cultures. When Actors’ Equity (AEA) members wanted to form a Young Workers Committee, they needed to understand both the official steps as well as the union’s culture and power dynamics. According to Kate O’Phalen, AEA National Councillor and Chair of the Young Workers Committee, “Getting this committee approved required a lot of groundwork before [we] ever brought the motion, officially, to the National Council. We unofficially organized some big successes to serve as proof of concept, and put a lot of time into having personal conversations with other board members to allay some of their individual concerns.”
No need to reinvent the wheel! Here are a few suggestions:
- Find a guide! Options include an older member from your local, a young leader from another union, or a rep from your Labor Council or the AFL-CIO Young Workers, among others.
- Take your time as you build relationships. There are no shortcuts to building relationships with fellow young workers or older leaders within your union. Take time to talk with people and really listen to them.
- Take action! By fighting together toward common interests—and against common enemies—you work to build power and trust.
- Be persistent. Making change, building relationships and power, takes time. Keep working and you will find and create the space for involvement and leadership.