Union Summer turns focus to recruiting young people

Associate Editor

Horace Duffy, 21, a returning senior at Xavier University in New Orleans, spent two weeks in July roaming Portland streets looking for garbage cans.

He had help from UC Santa Cruz student Karen Gilliland, 22.

Where there are garbage cans, they reasoned, garbage haulers are on the way. And they wanted to talk with garbage haulers — about how joining Laborers Municipal Employees Local 483 could improve their lives.

Duffy and Gilliland were interns in Union Summer, and along with Lindsey Costello, 22, were the first assigned to work with Oregon unions since Union Summer began eight summers ago.

A project of the national AFL-CIO, Union Summer takes its inspiration from the Freedom Summer campaigns of the civil rights movement, which brought college students to the South to register black voters in the early 1960s. Just as Freedom Summer tapped students’ commitment to racial justice, Union Summer seeks to tap students’ commitment to economic justice by placing them in internships in local union campaigns.

Duffy and Gilliland worked closely with rank-and-file Laborers activist Richard Beetle, who took a week off from his job as a wastewater treatment operator to help the organizing campaign — and with Laborers’ organizer Ben Nelson, who had his own beginning in the labor movement as an intern for the Oregon AFL-CIO in 1998.

Costello, on the other hand, worked with Oregon AFL-CIO political campaign director Patrick Green, who kept her busy mapping out worksite mobilization plans for Labor 2004 — the federation’s upcoming election-year effort. Among other things, she helped build a detailed database that will list every union worksite in the state.

The three interns met in early July, at a week-long orientation in Chicago with 41 other interns who were sent to six other sites. Then for four weeks, the Portland interns shared dorms at Portland State University. And at the end, they returned to Chicago Aug. 10 for a two-day debriefing. Theirs was the second of two waves of interns this summer, in a much-scaled-back version of previous years’ Union Summer programs.

About 2,500 young people have taken part in Union Summer since it started in 1996, about 1,000 of them that first summer. When Union Summer began, it was conceived as an introduction to the labor movement, and the hoped-for result was that college students would go back to their campuses and communities and continue to be involved, whether as university anti-sweatshop activists or as supporters of campus unionizing campaigns. Participants had widely varying levels of experience and had three days of training before being sent out in groups of 12 to 20 for three-week campaigns in over 40 locations.

It was a logistical nightmare, recalls Union Summer program coordinator Chris Colovos, and many interns didn’t have enough work to do when they arrived.

Last December, Nancy Lenk, a former Association of Flight Attendants organizer, was hired to lead an overhaul of the program. Under her direction, the mission has shifted; Union Summer is now more directly targeted at recruiting new organizers.

To accomplish that, the program is more selective. Interns get more training, are assigned in much smaller groups, stay longer in their assignments, and work much more closely with local union mentors. Where nearly 1,000 applicants were accepted in 1996, this year the program admitted just over 100 out of over 500 applicants, and 95 attended the two trainings. And interns are older: They must now either have just graduated or be entering their senior year (or if they’re not students, be 20 or 21 years of age.) From one to four interns were assigned to each of about a dozen sites, overseen by a site coordinator.

Interns provide their own transportation to Chicago, but the AFL-CIO and affiliate unions take care of all transportation and expenses after that, and interns are paid a $300 a week stipend.

Working as much as 12 to 15 hours a day six days a week, any downtime the Portland interns had from their primary assignments was taken up in campaigns with other unions. They phone-banked to support a contract vote for Service Employees Local 49, made visits to the homes of workers on behalf of Sheet Metal Workers Local 16, attended rallies for Portland janitors, and took part in the Labor Education and Research Center summer camp.

Duffy and Gilliland spent the first two weeks working with Communications Workers of America Local 7901 on a corporate pressure campaign targeting Comcast — collecting signatures on a petition against Comcast’s privacy policy and descending on Comcast stores to complain.

If the Portland interns are any indication, the emphasis on recruitment may be bearing fruit. Duffy, who had wanted to be a teacher, now wants to be a union organizer. Costello is leaning that direction as well, and Gilliland said her experience this summer reinforced her interest in becoming a union organizer.

“These kinds of transformations are really exciting to watch and be a part of,” said January Hoskin, who oversaw the Portland interns as a Union Summer site coordinator. Hoskin underwent her own transformation when as an intern in Union Summer 2002, she fell in love with organizing while working with the Justice for Janitors campaign in Boston. Now she and her husband, a participant in Union Summer 1997, are looking for ways to rebuild union power in their home state of Oklahoma, which passed a right-to-work law in 2002.

Duffy, born and raised outside Houston, hopes to land a job organizing in the South, which he says needs the union movement more than anywhere else in the country. A year remains before he completes a double degree in history and sociology at Xavier. Soft-spoken, he talks with obvious pride about the school, a historically black Catholic university that has a strong emphasis on community service. Duffy has spent much of his time there as an activist with the NAACP and as a mentor, tutor and teacher to African-American boys in New Orleans middle schools. But having worked at Wal-Mart, Starbucks and Pizza Hut, Duffy said he also knows what it’s like to be treated terribly by an employer. He said he’s attracted to labor for its potential to raise workers up.

“The labor movement is a force for change in breaking society’s inequalities, between the haves and have-nots,” Duffy said. “Even if utopia isn’t achieved but I leave things better than when I started, I still will have done something.”

Prior to her internship with the Oregon AFL-CIO, Costello says she never had an interest in electoral politics. She graduated from Niagara University in May with degrees in communications and sports management, and in her last year of school she helped found a campus chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops and did a research project about the anti-sweatshop movement. But after four weeks of work in the political nerve center of Oregon’s labor movement, she says she now sees the impact of politics on the interests of workers. The internship has also brought her closer to her father, an assistant business manager of Electrical Workers Local 43 in Syracuse, New York. It was he who suggested Union Summer to her.

Gilliland found out about Union Summer from her University of California labor history professor, and from a friend who went through the program in 2002. For Gilliland, the Union Summer internship was the culmination of several years of pro-union campus activism as a member of Students For Labor Solidarity. She has one class to go to earn her degree in women’s studies, after which she hopes to find work as an organizer, perhaps in Portland.

The three left Portland Aug. 9 with shirts and pins to remind them of the unions they helped, assured that there’s a place for committed idealists in the labor movement.

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