September 18, 2009 Volume 110 Number 18

As rank-and-file ages, labor ponders how to bring in the young

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

This week in Pittsburgh, Oregon native Liz Shuler was confirmed as second-in-command of the national AFL-CIO; she’s 39 years old. Her ascension, on the slate of incoming AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, signals new attention to labor’s need to reach out to the young.

Young workers have fallen behind in the last 10 years, according to an AFL-CIO report released Sept. 1. Peter D. Hart Research Associates conducted a nationwide survey of 1,156 people for the AFL-CIO, and found that more than one in three workers under age 35 are living at home with their parents. Compared to workers over 35, young workers are less likely to be employed, less likely to have health insurance, and less likely to have a retirement savings plan. And that gap is wider than it was a decade ago when the AFL-CIO commissioned a similar survey. Long story short: Young people are in serious need of a union. But where are they?

Every now and then at a local union meeting, a member looks around, sees only older faces, and asks, “What is it about young people that keeps them from getting involved in the union?”

Bob Bussel, director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, says a more useful question may be, “What is it about our movement that is unattractive to young people?”

Interviews with nearly a dozen union leaders and activists generate a variety of answers.

For starters, the first introduction new members get to unions in some workplaces is a hefty initiation fee — and it’s managers who break that news to new hires, along with word that the union contract requires termination if they don’t pay union dues. New members may start at the bottom of the wage scale, work through a probationary period before getting full union rights and health benefits, and wait years before vesting in the pension.

Meanwhile, some of labor's biggest selling points — guaranteed pensions, full-family health coverage, seniority rights — have more appeal for older workers than young. The AFL-CIO survey found that young workers do care about health and pension coverage. But for older workers — who are closer to retirement, more likely to have dependents, and more likely to have chronic health conditions — pensions and health care matter more.

On top of that, union seniority rules mean that more senior workers get first pick at choice assignments, while younger workers are first to be laid off, sometimes even getting “bumped” when the positions of more senior workers are eliminated.

Young members might rather have a raise than a pension increase, but union bargaining priorities are more influenced by members who show up to meetings. And when curious young people do show up to meetings, they may be put off by what they see as arcane customs and traditions, or procedures they don’t understand.

That was the experience of Elvyss Argueta, 27-year-old employee of Transition Projects, when he attended a meeting of American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 88.

“I left after a few minutes,” Argueta said. “They were using Roberts Rules (of Order). I didn’t know Roberts Rules, and it wasn’t explained.”

Not every union contract gives the union a chance to orient new members, so it can take time before members learn on the job about the union. This can leave new members wondering why they pay union dues — at least until they have a problem at work and turn to a steward for protection.

There are exceptions. Shuler says building trades unions get deeper commitment from young members. Shuler was most recently executive assistant to International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) President Ed Hill.

“Most people think of the IBEW as a building trades union, but we represent seven industries, including utilities and telecom,” Shuler said. “We’re like a mini AFL-CIO.”

Shuler said she could see the difference — young members from her union’s building trades side were more likely to have a sense of union history and be aware of union benefits. In building trades unions, the union tends to become part of a new member’s identity. New members are trained at union-run training centers and work as apprentices alongside more experienced co-workers. Plus, building trades union members typically get work through the union hiring hall, and return there when the job ends. They know their long-term livelihood depends on their union maintaining market share in competition with employers that don’t pay the same generous wages and benefits.

As Bussel, 57, sees it, labor does have at least one selling point that appeals to the young: Young people are attracted to the union movement when it’s part of the cause of economic justice for workers.

In the last 15 years, two cause-oriented AFL-CIO programs brought young people into the union movement as staff and allies. Union Summer, modeled on the Freedom Summer of the civil rights era, exposed college student activists to the labor movement as summer-long interns. And the Organizing Institute — which trained and placed union organizers — recruited on college campuses as well as among rank-and-file union members. Both programs have been suspended for funding reasons. To the extent that the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate Working America employs large numbers of young door-to-door canvassers, it may have replaced those programs as a point of entry to the union movement for young workers attracted to the cause.

Trumka asked Shuler to take charge of a new youth outreach effort, starting with a workshop at the AFL-CIO’s Pittsburgh convention. But judging by the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, getting young people into and involved in unions could be a considerable challenge. Just 5 percent of workers age 16 to 24 belong to unions, compared to 16 percent of workers age 45 to 54. And the highest rates of union membership are among workers 55 to 64 —16.6 percent. One explanation may be that once workers get union jobs, they stay in them. But there are other reasons that unionization is lowest among the young.

One, Bussel says, is a cultural gap, fed by labor’s image.

“There’s a perception that it’s your grandfather’s union movement,” Bussel said, “that it’s a bunch of old white guys. These things are stereotypic, but also there’s truth in them.”

America is becoming more ethnically diverse, and young people coming out of high school are much more likely to be black, Latino, or Asian than the generation nearest to retirement. Yet union leaders tend to be older, whiter, and maler than the workforce as a whole.

Secondly, unions have historically been concentrated in heavy industry and manufacturing — sectors that have had shrinking employment thanks to productivity improvements … and competition with workers overseas. In industries with declining employment, there’s less need to hire new workers, so the workforce ages in place.

On the other hand, the sectors that are growing in employment — hospitality, service, retail — are almost entirely nonunion. Unions have not tried or have not succeeded in organizing some the biggest employers of young workers — fast food franchises and big box retail chains.

In his 2001 book Youth at Work, sociologist Stuart Tannock argued that these industries constitute a separate “stop-gap” economy in which young workers from many different socio-economic classes are sucked into a kind of “lost decade.” They may work 10 years at restaurants, coffee shops, or video stores without ever having health benefits or earning above $30,000 a year.

UNITE HERE Local 9 staffperson Eryn Slack, now 35, bounced around food service jobs for a decade and a half before landing her first union job in 2004 as a restaurant server at the Portland Hilton. The union, for her, meant health care and real job security.

“Seniority means a young worker knows that if they commit to a job they can make a career of it,” Slack said. “That’s a much more solid prospect than the idea that you’d be working at an employer and be no more secure in 10 years than you are now.”

One unionized industry that employs large numbers of young people is grocery, and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents grocery workers, may be organized labor’s youngest union: 34 percent of its nationwide membership is under 30. But young members are still much less likely to get involved. UFCW Local 555, headquartered in Tigard, offers new members $50 off their initiation fee if they attend an orientation session at the union hall. Communications representative Bill Pronovost said only a small percentage do so.

The ultimate in rejuvenation is to get young union members involved in their own workplace unions. Shuler points to one case where a union commitment to recruiting and nurturing young members appears to be paying off. It started in 2006, when three young members of Oregon AFSCME — Jaimie Sorenson, Matt Hilton, and Michael Hanna — attended their union’s national convention in Chicago.

At a “town hall” style session, delegates were asked their age. Shocked that less than 3 percent were under 35, the three Portlanders conceived the idea of a youth group for AFSCME members, dubbed “Next Wave.”

Sorenson, now 31, says they shopped the idea to local and national leaders, and found tremendous support. A grant from the national union enabled young AFSCME members to attend the statewide convention as observers. It worked, Sorenson recalls: Local meetings might elect experienced members as convention delegates, but as observers, newer members could get educated and catch union fever too. Next Wave has evolved into a combination informal social club, support group, and youth caucus. In Portland, members bond at bowling events and at monthly meet-ups called Thirsty Thursdays held at local pubs.

Oregon now has five Next Wave chapters, and a resolution at AFSCME’s 2008 convention took Next Wave national. In June 2009, a Next Wave conference in Chicago attracted 600 participants from AFSCME locals nationwide.

Argueta, the young worker who walked out of the union meeting the year before, was persuaded to attend a Next Wave event by a union steward. That was 18 months ago. Now he’s a steward, member of his workplace bargaining team, and Next Wave’s statewide facilitator.

“I started to see the importance of the union as a social justice organization, not just for themselves but for all working people. And that really appealed to me."

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