WASHINGTON (PAI) – The AFL-CIO’s new young workers advisory council is taking charge of the movement to invigorate the labor movement – and make its leadership more youthful – says Liz Shuler, the federation’s secretary-treasurer.

One key step, she said, will be a second “Next Up” summit for young workers and activists, to be held in Minneapolis-St. Paul from Sept. 28-Oct. 2.

Shuler has led the effort to make labor’s leadership younger and look more like its members.  The first summit, in D.C. last year, drew approximately 300 delegates from around the country.  Shuler hopes for 800 this time.

Those 300 delegates went home and some have since organized local young workers’ councils, with the active encouragement and participation of their state or local federations in areas such as Baltimore, Rochester, N.Y., New York City and Florida.

Their own council – more diverse than the rest of the movement in terms of race, sex and the number of public and private unions represented – met in late January in D.C. to firm up its recommendations for the AFL-CIO Executive Council, and presented them March 2.

Besides a voice in labor’s councils, they pushed more education and outreach, more two-way communication, both within labor and with allied groups, and more organizing, using issues that appeal to younger workers, such as flexible work hours.

But young activists still face frustrations in their unions and in labor’s structure. Both reward people who toil in the trenches for years and work their way up, Shuler admits.  The younger activists “want a place at the table,” she declares.

“One of our biggest challenges will be harmonizing our seniority system with their useful exuberance,” she told reporters.  “We’re trying to figure out a way to give people opportunities” to move up more quickly “yet not be threatening” to older union leaders.

The young leaders are also tackling other challenges, many of them due to a lack of education both within the union movement and among the wider public.

One is how to keep momentum going after an initial burst of enthusiasm and unity. “I keep thinking back to Seattle” and the 1999 demonstrations uniting workers and environmentalists against the pro-business World Trade Organization, Shuler says. Everyone thought that alliance and enthusiasm would last, and then, she notes: “Pfft…”

“And it’s really scary that many young people grow up knowing nothing” about the labor movement, its achievements or its potential to help them on the job, she adds.

By contrast, Shuler notes “Wisconsin years ago passed” a mandate for labor education within its schools. “That’s why the students came with their teachers,” she said about the ongoing protests in Madison against right wing GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s moves to strip 200,000 state and local workers of collective bargaining rights.

“High school is too late” to educate students about unions and workers, says Shuler, the daughter of union parents in Oregon who joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as an activist and organizer after college. “We need to get into the elementary schools.” 



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.