Wages are flat or falling. Wealth is ending up in the hands of fewer and fewer people. The concept of such benefits as pensions is becoming a thing of the past. Unemployment is high.
It would seem a time ripe for growth of unions in the country.
But, of course, the opposite is occurring. In 1945, nearly 36 percent of the workforce was unionized. Today, that number has fallen to about 7.2 percent in the private sector and about 12 percent when public employees are factored in.
This weekend, the AFL-CIO is staging the Young Workers Summit in Minneapolis. The event has attracted about 800 delegates from across the country and such speakers as U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
The underlying theme in all the conference sessions is how the young can rekindle a union fire that seems to have nearly burned out.
Tough task ahead
It will not be an easy task.
Even among their friends outside the workplace, summit delegates say that there is little appreciation for unions.
“I have friends who consider themselves good Democrats,” said New Yorker Jeremy Redleaf, “but Republicans have done such a good job of framing the [anti-union] story that my friends have begun to believe it.”
Redleaf is a member of the American Federation of Television Artists and the Young Worker Advisory Council. (By the way, he’s also the voice of “Sesame Street” character Gonnigan, as well as creator of a website comedy series, “Odd Job Nation.”)
“Republicans have done such a great job of vilifying the teachers union that it has seeped into public consciousness through news bites and in news stories,” Redleaf said. “That vilification is now seen as ‘truth.’ ”
So clearly, Redleaf says, misinformation about the union movement is one problem.
But there are so many others.
Mike Corbett, a New York City Teamster and the son and grandson of Teamsters, said in so many cases the generation of baby boomer parents stopped teaching the lessons of the need for unions.
“My father’s generation learned from his father’s generation,” said Corbett, “but I think people in my father’s generation didn’t teach the importance of unions as much. They thought their kids would go off to college and do better than they did. They’d go to college, and they wouldn’t need unions. That hasn’t worked out so well.”
Now, the economic status for so many young people is so dire they don’t have the luxury of thinking about unions.
Redleaf cites the “hierarchy of needs” pyramid created by psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943. At the base of the pyramid are the fundamental needs of survival: food, water and shelter. Next up, the niceties, such as a job. It’s not until you get further up the pyramid that you come to such luxuries as “self-actualization,” which is where unions come into play.
“If you don’t have a job, that’s all you can think about,” Redleaf said.
Jessica Hayssen is a field director for the Minnesota AFL-CIO and, like Redleaf, a member of the national youth coordinating council.
Changing workplace, workforce
The union movement must change with the changing workplace and workforce, she said.
Among other things, that means unions are going to have to do a better job making their meetings more meaningful to young workers.
“People are coming into the workplace with a variety of life experiences,” she said. “How can we make our meetings more inviting? Maybe we need to get those meetings done with in less than an hour. Maybe we need to offer child care.”
Additionally, she said, the union movement especially must go where the young are finding jobs. Domestic workers and retail workers, for example, share erratic hours, low pay and few benefits.
Hayssen talks in terms of a triangle of anger, hope and action.
There should be anger, she said.
“Look at Wisconsin and the coordinated attacks on worker rights,” she said. “If you’re not angry about that, you’re not paying attention.”
So, where’s the hope coming from?
“We have more than 800 people here,” she said. “We hope to educate, empower and mobilize.”
It’s that mobilization part that’s tricky among the young, who rely so heavily on social media.
“A paradox,” she said of a generation that communicates through texts and tweets. “We think, ‘I’m trying to connect with others.’ But, in reality, we’re all alone.”
Redleaf pointed to the revolutions in the Middle East. Early on, many were trying to attribute those movements to the powers of technology.
“But as we moved on, there were articles about how ‘the revolution will not be tweeted,’ ” he said. “Showing up is vital. But getting people to show up is the step that’s so hard.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.