Young Workers Summit trying to rekindle nation’s union movement

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.

Jessica Hayssen
Jessica Hayssen

“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.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/30/2011 - 09:47 am.

    It was nice of us to pay for Dept of Labor Sec. Hilda Solis to come and address this conference of the Young Pioneers yesterday.

    Pity she couldn’t spare a moment to speak with the Hoi polloi.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/30/2011 - 12:28 pm.

    “Workers” is such a Marxist term. Maybe the unions should stop using it. Oh wait …

  3. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 09/30/2011 - 03:20 pm.

    The term sounds “Marxist” to you because you and many others have been brainwashed into thinking that it sounds like a dirty word. But I don’t buy even that. I think big corporations and others have tried to make “unions” into a dirty word–usually accompanied by “socialist-communist.” Are you a worker? 98% of us are. what would you call yourself?
    As for us paying for Hilda Solis to come here and talk to union members and many other people–she is doing her job. That is what she is paid to do. She is working, wherever she goes, to try to find ways to find ways to provide the ground needed to create more jobs, to help people find jobs, and probably to see if the govt. can help in some way.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/30/2011 - 03:56 pm.

    Really thoughtful comments, Thomas and Dennis. (Not.)

    America and the world have much to thank unions for. Unionized workers fought and died for the eight-hour day, decent wages, and safe working conditions for all workers — and in modern America are having to fight for again because of the anti-union/anti-worker propaganda of the Right Wing.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/30/2011 - 04:33 pm.

    “Are you a worker? 98% of us are. what would you call yourself?”

    Most non-marxists use “employee.”

  6. Submitted by Sharon LeMay on 10/01/2011 - 07:12 am.

    It’s time to get over the stigma of being called a worker and being a member of the working class. We should be wearing those labels with pride instead of shame.

    It has been said that the main reason America has one of the greatest divides between rich and poor is because workers refuse to see themselves as workers and instead view themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires–meaning they self identify with the very class that oppresses them versus fellow workers who could fight together to demand an equal distribution of wealth.

    My feeling is unions are afraid to speak in Marxist terms and they need to start looking back at history and getting a clue. They need to start radicalizing the membership. Obviously what they have been doing for the last few decades has proven to be the wrong tactics as union membership falls and union leadership pushes concessions on workers because they no longer have the will to fight.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/01/2011 - 07:54 pm.

    Sharon: If I earned a loaf of bread, and you didn’t, do you deserve half?

  8. Submitted by Sharon LeMay on 10/03/2011 - 04:46 pm.


    I fail to see what your loaf of bread has to do with my comment, or this article. Are you implying that union labor contributes no value?

    I believe union labor, and Marx, support workers getting the full wealth out of what they create. The problem we have now is that the owning class cheats the working class out of their share of the wealth. So if you create that loaf of bread, then yes it is yours to keep. But if anyone else helped be it growing the wheat, supply the power to heat the oven, stocking store shelves, etc…then your 100% right to eat the entire loaf does start to come into question.

  9. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 10/03/2011 - 07:30 pm.

    Can someone give me a few rational reasons why unions are not a good idea.

  10. Submitted by Carter Anderson on 10/11/2011 - 01:57 pm.

    Ginny: I can give you a bunch of reasons. First and foremost, because it is 2011. If you still need your union to negoiate your salary than you have more problems than there is time for. Consider the young teacher: Motivated, highly educated, energized… Her union has guaranteed that she is first to be cut when budgets tighten. Her 2 years of fabulous work performance means Zero because the old cruddy teacher that doesnt yet even own a computer is kept because of tenure. The crusty teach has zero reason to improve because she knows that short of killing a student, she cant be fired. How about the machinist union at Northwest Airlines. They put all the mechanics on strike only to see them all lose their job as the airline easily replaced them with non-union workers. Think about it. A union worker making $40K but paying union dues versus a non-union worker making $40k and NOT having to pay union dues. What does your union give you that, assuming you’re a good employee, you couldnt get for yourself? Unions fight to keep the crappy employee working. Unless you are a crappy employee, you dont need them. Put yourself in management’s shoes. If your job as a manager is to keep production up and running smoothly, you do whatever you can do, to keep those that perform. If you are concerned you wouldnt be kept at your company without your union, maybe you should buy yourself a mirror instead of telling the rest of the country how wrong we are.

  11. Submitted by Carter Anderson on 10/11/2011 - 01:59 pm.

    “It would seem a time ripe for growth of unions in the country.”


    Had the Star Tribune NOT been unionized, you could still be employed there today.

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