Young workers key to a resurgent labor movement

New union activism comes with a progressive flavor

A DECADE THAT started with the worst recession in 75 years ended with a booming economy and record low unemployment rate. The “too big to fail” era also ushered in a new generation of workers far more progressive and activist than in the past. That’s a great thing for the labor movement.

Certainly young workers are concerned with the same issues that were the focus of those who came before them — fair wages for fair work, access to quality health care, and a stable pension that will enable a dignified retirement.

But we are also more expansive in our approach fighting for workplace protections against harassment and discrimination, demanding LGBTQ+ rights, advocating for clean building practices and green investments that protect our environment and address climate change; and ensuring a healthy work-life balance for all employees.

Here in Massachusetts, the AFL-CIO’s Young Worker Movement successfully and unanimously ushered through a resolution at this year’s AFL-CIO convention which, among other issues, urges each local in Massachusetts to form their own Futures Committee and to foster a community of young, engaged members at every union.

“[H]igher rates of membership participation from young members and increased public support from young people will increase each of our union’s ability to win substantial victories for workers through workplace actions, strikes, legislation, and political influence,” the resolution read.

This is a crucial step forward as millions of union members near retirement age. Since the number of Americans belonging to a labor union peaked 40 years ago, there has been a steady decrease in enrollment and an equal increase in average age. According to a 2019 report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than a quarter of all union members are 45 or older. Unions need new blood.

That vibrancy is now taking hold. A 2018 Gallup poll revealed 65 percent of millennials support labor unions, the highest of any demographic. And the Center for Economic Policy and Research last year reported that three-quarters of new union members across the US are under 35 years old.

A majority of them came of age in the midst of the Great Recession, and many may have seen their parents lose jobs and retirement income. Add to that calculus the surprise election of Donald Trump in 2016. With his policies backing a “trickle-down” system that has never worked, it’s no surprise that young people are turning to unions for economic justice.

The product of young workers’ activism is everywhere. Young people are rightly credited with calling attention to the deplorable working conditions at Amazon warehouses and the effort to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers in New York City. Their political organization has been instrumental in bringing in new, progressive voices to the national political dialogue.

Nationally, the AFL-CIO runs the Next Up Young Worker Program, which provides those entering the workforce the opportunity to meet, join, and organize with people who share similar goals and values for social and economic justice. Brian Dunn, who runs the Massachusetts Young Worker Movement, a statewide committee for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, reported that each meeting features dozens of young workers from unions across the labor movement ready to advocate and mobilize on behalf of a number of issues important to them.

Likewise, Al Vega, who works with the Greater Boston Labor Council’s Futures Committee, said his constituents focus not just on bread-and-butter labor issues, but also more global concerns like the makeup of the US Supreme Court and corporate greed in order to arm members with knowledge of the larger national struggle for labor rights.

Meet the Author
These workers have learned that the labor movement not only built modern America, but also empowered the working class to demand a better, more equitable society. They know from studying recent history that unions are the most surefire way to weather the next recession and ensure we emerge from it stronger and more equitable than ever before.

Dan McNulty is a staff member the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, and the organizer of the Massachusetts Building Trades Futures Committee.