Texas young workers summit shows the movement’s new militancy
Dylan Manshack / People's World

ROUND ROCK, Texas—Recent wins from young workers around the country have provided hope for the prospect of a renewed labor movement, and, in the wake of these successes, the Texas AFL-CIO held its 3rd Annual Young Active Labor Leaders (YALL) Summit here last month.

The keynote speaker of the summit was none other than Chris Smalls of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU).

The Texas YALL is an organization born out of the AFL-CIO’s young worker program. It is a collection of young workers, activists, and progressive allies that are working to change and shape the future of the Texas labor movement.

The statewide conference is organized by progressive-leaning staffers of the Texas AFL-CIO who volunteer their time to put on a three-day summit with the intention of bringing young militant workers into the fold of the largest federation of unions in the United States.

Several unions with affiliation to the national AFL-CIO unions were represented at the summit including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the United Auto Workers (UAW), the International Union of Operating Engineers (IOUE), the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Other non-affiliated unions like Starbucks United (SBU) had a presence among the panelists and the audience as well. Starbucks stores unionizing in Texas are affiliated with the Texas AFL-CIO through the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), but neither Starbucks United nor the Amazon Labor Union are affiliates of the AFL-CIO at the national level.

In an interview with People’s World, Angi DeFilippo, president of the Texas YALL, says that “We try to move past the barriers of traditional union organizing to get the state of Texas where it needs to go, to branch out and be as progressive as possible.”

The organization’s website notes that people born between the late 1970s and 2000 also make up the most diverse and technologically savvy generation in America’s history. “This generation of young workers is active, engaged and ready to reverse economic and social injustice. With students, civil and human rights advocates, LGBTQ activists and many others, young union members and nonunion workers are coming together in a powerful force.”

Conference speakers pointed out that in the last seven months, the workforces of some of the world’s largest and most profitable companies have begun to organize. Besides Amazon and Starbucks, unionization efforts from workers at Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, REI, Alamo, Drafthouse, and even Apple have been in the news.

Texas AFL-CIO President Ricky Levy emphasized to People’s World the importance of including young workers in the federation: “When workers are in motion anywhere, we have to be there. Unions have institutional power in a way that grassroots movements don’t. So, we must know how to bring them together to use the institutional power to enhance the power of the movement and have the movement power enhance the power of the institutions.”

Young workers also want an AFL-CIO that is responsive to their struggles. Starbucks worker and summit attendee Nikita Russell knows firsthand that organizing is exhausting work. “A lot of what is needed is things to meet our basic human needs. Donate to the GoFundMe’s for workers that have been fired, do food drives, do things that recognize our humanity,” she urged.

Russell also stressed when there is collective action, workers need support “showing up” to pressure Starbucks into coming to the bargaining table. For her, the fight to organize the Mockingbird Station Starbucks in Dallas would be especially terrifying without support from fellow workers through Starbucks United. “Having the support from each other is the thing that’s really going to give us staying power,” she said.

Commenting on the current wave of youth labor activism, veteran labor organizer of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), Chris Townsend, believes that “Major changes are possible, and we’re seeing this with the demographic shift.” Towsend told People’s World that progressives should “talk about the ‘trade union reasons’ why the mass center should ally with the left so we can run a more powerful union, bargain better contracts, and have a better political action program.”

At the summit, workers attended youth-geared workshops and panels that covered a variety of topics from organizing a union, to dismantling white supremacy and the role of labor unions in fighting for environmental justice.

Levy pointed out, “The movement has changed, leadership has aged, and I think everybody recognizes that we have to create pathways to leadership for young people. So, that’s what this summit is about— giving young people the tools to take their rightful place in our movement.”

DeFilippo further commented, “People get comfortable having titles … and it becomes a seniority thing,” but she believes that young workers today are “moving up into leadership, taking leadership, and that’s the change [we’re] seeing.”

Smalls warns of high stakes in 2024

Chris Smalls is an emerging leader of the young labor movement. Under his leadership, a collective of progressive Gen Z worker-organizers in Staten Island, N.Y., was successful in winning the first NLRB election at an Amazon warehouse earlier this year. The historic election sent shockwaves through the country and inspired workers across industries.

Smalls warned the YALL summit of the impact a right-wing government takeover in 2024 would have on current unionization efforts already struggling against corporate power. “These cases in front of the NLRB, these hearings—it’ll be a wrap. It’ll be over. We have to do something now.

There is no more time to wait. That’s why I’m here telling y’all—the youth.”

Smalls told People’s World that he feels “We’re at a point where we not only have to build and amplify this moment, but we also need to prepare for the future.” Smalls believes the working class “can’t only rely on the president or his bills” because “the power remains with the people.”

Smalls electrified the audience in his description of labor’s power: “We can win. We can change this right now. Yeah, I’m saying a general strike. Damn right. …. We literally have to stay home. Imagine if all the unions around the country strike, we’ll have them at the bargaining table within a day. These billionaires don’t care about us. They care about the money in their pocket. And, if that money stops…” Smalls trailed off as the audience erupted into applause. When Smalls ended his speech, every worker in the room was standing proud and energized. With one fist in the air, he led the young militants in chanting “If we don’t get it, shut it down!”


Dylan Manshack
Dylan Manshack

Dylan Manshack is a multimedia journalist writing from Texas.