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Fwd: [sfa-organize] A New Generation of Labor Activists Emerges

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  • Kyle Weinberg
    http://criticalmoment.org/issue17/parsons All In a Day s Work A New Generation of Labor Activists Emerges by rachel parsons The labor movement? Don t you mean
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 26, 2006

      All In a Day's Work
      A New Generation of Labor Activists Emerges
      by rachel parsons

      "The labor movement? Don't you mean the labor stays-the-same?"

      This was an off hand comment from a San Franciscan friend of mine when
      I told him I was working for the labor movement in Detroit. I had been
      doing labor-solidarity and economic justice work while I was in
      college, so that made sense to him, but I also identified as a strong
      feminist and a queer person.

      So what the hell was I doing in the labor movement?

      What were any of us doing in the labor movement? Often times
      ambivalent or downright hostile to youth, the labor movement is viewed
      by many young people as too institutionalized and mainstream to make
      any real change. Yet there is a growing group of young activists who
      are choosing to make the U.S. labor movement their life's work.

      I attended the 13th Annual Labor Notes Conference, "Building
      Solidarity from Below," with 900 other labor activists this past May
      in Dearborn, and talked with many of the young people who attended.
      The numbers of youth involved are rising -- nearly 100 of the
      participants this year were under 30, the highest number that the
      organization has seen in the last 10 years. This is encouraging not
      only to the new generation getting involved, but also the more
      forward-thinking members of older generations, who realize that
      despite their iron wills and wealth of experience, they simply cannot
      live forever. This piece is written from the interviews of seven young
      labor activists from all over the country, ages 21-29, who have
      dedicated themselves to this movement and all the potential it holds.
      Thanks to them for inspiring my own work, and the work of thousands of
      other activists, young and old, across the country.

      The State of Things

      To many people both within and outside of labor politics, the U.S.
      labor movement is in crisis. But according to Chris Kutalik,
      co-director of the monthly rank-and-file worker magazine Labor Notes,
      it is at a crossroads: "Labor has really been on the losing end the
      last four years in their contracts and with concessions. People are
      getting pushed to the wall. But when people feel the wall behind them
      they start to move a little. There's a sense of urgency: now is the
      time. And I can't think of any other time that seems more critical
      than it has been in these last two years."

      These sentiments are shared by a growing number of young people in the
      U.S. Youth from all different backgrounds are choosing to work for
      this movement. Some are children of immigrants, farmworkers, and
      longshoremen. Some have come to the labor movement out of a greater
      commitment to social justice. And some just sort of found themselves
      there out of necessity, after entering the working world and realizing
      that without a union, their lives were a whole lot harder.

      For whatever reason they were brought to the movement, they are here
      and they are doing powerful work. They are working towards leadership
      positions, forming national and international networks with each
      other, creating community-labor alliances. They are carrying on the
      work of activists before them, while bringing their own perspective
      and organizing strategies to the struggle.

      This current generation has come of age in a very different world than
      those preceding them. While this can be said for all generations, the
      rapid rise of corporate, top-down globalization, a
      hostile-and-still-getting-worse administration, and a post-9/11 world
      bring new challenges to their work. Top that off with figuring out how
      to navigate the hierarchies that exist in their new workplace, the
      union, and the country, and you have a very tall order.

      Young people see the labor movement in steady decline, and wonder why
      anyone would even want to go there. For many, the union movement in
      this country is heaving its dying breath; rife with corruption and
      nepotism, many of today's unions worry more about serving big business
      than they do about their own members. The union is just a deduction
      off their paycheck -- it doesn't actually do anything for them. The
      same goes for a lot of young leftists. They see the labor movement as
      irrelevant -- a dinosaur that lacks the power to make any sort of
      significant change. Slow, irrelevant, reformist, small, unorganized,
      and -- worst of all -- mainstream.

      "What's wrong with the mainstream?" asks Tiffany Ten Eyck, 26, a staff
      writer at Labor Notes and a former organizer with the Student
      Farmworker Alliance. "The mainstream is where people are at. It's
      where you're going to effect the most change. You can't just live in a
      separatist, fringe culture your whole life and expect to create any
      real revolution." Ten Eyck worked with the Coalition of Immokalee
      Workers (CIW) during their successful campaign against Taco Bell, Inc.
      The CIW organized a four-year boycott of Taco Bell that forced the
      fast food chain's owner, Yum! Brands, Inc., to increase workers' wages
      and enforce a tough code of conduct on Florida tomato suppliers. They
      took on a corporate food giant and won. The Taco Bell campaign showed
      her how the labor movement was changing people's everyday lives, as
      well as introducing them to the power of solidarity and what can
      happen when people get organized.

      The Importance of the Workplace

      When you're talking about the labor movement, you're talking about all
      kinds of people. Joe Sexauer, 28, a member of Teamster Local 743 in
      Chicago, sees this as a strength: "The labor movement is important
      because it organizes everyone, not just people who think like you,
      into a movement where you can work to make people's lives better."
      Sexauer was struck by the importance of organizing in his workplace.
      "I had this epiphany type of moment, when someone said to me that if
      you don't organize around what you do for over 40 hours a week, the
      other stuff is incidental."

      The importance of the workplace resonated across the board with young
      people. Meredith Shaffer, 29, former member of the International
      Longshore and Warehouse Union and former organizer with AFSCME in
      Portland, Oregon, had this to say: "Organizing is all about where you
      can build a base -- and the workplace is where you do that. It is a
      really complex place where people spend most of their lives, and it
      can't be separated out from where people develop their ideas about
      society and their expectations. It's like the place. And people are
      often more influenced by their co-workers than anyone else in their
      lives, even if they don't acknowledge that. That's where political
      education should go on. And I'm not just talking about organizing and
      building labor unions."

      Building Across Borders

      Many of today's young activists understand the importance of creating
      coalitions across perceived movement boundaries. They view the labor
      movement as part of the larger global justice struggle, and recognize
      the value of joining forces to have a broader impact. For Melody
      Gonzalez, 22, with the Student Farmworker Alliance and Interfaith
      Action in Immokalee, Florida, this realization is what brought her in
      and led her to identify as a labor activist: "It has not been until
      recently that I realized that the labor movement is and should be
      about more than just unions. There are community organizations of
      workers like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that are revitalizing
      the labor movement with new ideas, structures, strategies, and hope."

      Sexauer goes on to speak of the power of coalitions that can be built
      when labor works with other groups, such as the Teamsters and Turtles
      coalition (made up of labor and environmental activists) that formed
      during the WTO mobilization in Seattle back in 1999: "The real threat
      of Seattle wasn't just the non-profits and the students, but the
      alliances built with labor. Teamsters and Turtles didn't just happen.
      It happened because of serious education in environmental movements
      about labor and in the labor movement about the environment. No one
      would have thought that labor and environmentalists would ever join
      forces, but they did. This speaks to the fact that these were not
      old-guard Teamsters, but honest and militant reformers and activists,
      open to new tactics and new ideas."

      Youth in the movement also recognize the need to organize across
      international boundaries. Emily Anderson (name changed to conceal
      identity), 23, salting with UNITE-HERE in the South, says: "I met with
      people in Nicaragua that were trying to organize unions in the
      maquilas. That's when it really hit me -- that there's no way that
      we're going to bring up labor standards if it's not done
      internationally." With the multitude of free trade acts that are being
      passed by the U.S., the race to the bottom is heating up with a
      ferocity that shows no sign of stopping. An international movement is
      the only way we will be able to stand up against transnational
      corporations and get our demands recognized.

      Our Current Tactics Have Only Taken Us This Far

      Today's young activists definitely see a need for new tactics and
      ideas. Many of the youth that I talked with saw labor as one of the
      main forces to change our society from capitalist to an alternative
      model, but do not currently see an outlet in the movement to do that:
      "There's this terrible legacy of labor being partnered with capital in
      so many ways and not being anti-capitalist," says Shafer, "but I think
      that the only way that youth are going to be engaged is to see the way
      that it's not just challenging the boss against concessions, but
      challenging a system of exploitation. And I think that that's why
      young people are excited about the labor movement." Diane Foglizzo,
      22, full-time staff for the Living Wage Action Coalition in Washington
      D.C., sees the labor movement as a place that not only exposes the
      economic exploitation of people, but other forms of oppression as
      well: "It's helped me see where a bunch of things intersect, like race
      and class and gender and sexuality and it makes sense. There are a lot
      of connections that can be made with the exploitation of workers'
      bodies in the capitalist system. In the context of labor and economic
      justice all these things come together and it's just right there."

      The labor movement has been a powerful force in shaping U.S. history,
      and has won many battles that people today take for granted, such as
      the eight-hour workday and the weekend. While acknowledging the gains
      of their predecessors, young activists are very aware of the erosion
      of workers rights, and see this as an indicator that it is time to
      change the tactics to fit with the changing times. "You know, people
      forget that the eight-hour day was once a radical demand, because now
      it is so common," says Sexauer, "but if more people don't get involved
      in the labor movement with new ideas and energy, it may become so
      again." Tommy Simon, 21, Midwest Organizer for United Students Against
      Sweatshops (USAS) and member of Students for Economic Justice in East
      Lansing, MI, sees the creativity and new ideas of youth as an asset to
      the movement: "Young people are not afraid to try new things. We use a
      wide range of tactics to get our message across, and work on
      incorporating a wide range of people in the movement. We need this,
      along with more radical politics, to be guiding the labor movement so
      that it doesn't continue to be a pushover to big politics and
      corporate interests."

      Converting Ideas into Action

      Young labor activists are doing things differently, and unfortunately
      in large part, they are doing it on their own, without direction from
      the older generations. According to Kutalik: "On the whole, [youth]
      are just not talked about. Now you have most unions dominated by the
      baby boomer generation, which is a generation that was fixated on age
      and age differences and the uniqueness of being young and wild in the
      streets. They pay lip service to that, so you have things like Union
      Summer that are bringing people in, but you're bringing them in for
      the most part at the mid-level, straight from college into organizing
      roles and staff roles." All the people interviewed did not view this
      as the most effective way of recruiting new activists. Foglizzo
      comments specifically about students, who "are moving away from
      graduating from college and joining unions and organizations on a
      staff level and becoming rank and file workers. Groups like the Rank
      and File Youth Project and Young Workers United are organizing around
      that. I think it's huge and it can change a lot." Unions that recruit
      people right out of college into staff roles are creating a larger
      rift between the members and the leadership.

      Young activists are organizing themselves with this understanding,
      embracing a bottom-up philosophy similar to that of groups such as
      Teamsters for a Democratic Union and Labor Notes. Emily Anderson talks
      about one group of activists named the Rank and File Youth Project,
      explaining, "[It] is a group of young adults, mostly high school and
      college age into their early thirties, who believe that the true power
      of the labor movement lives in the rank and file. We are getting jobs
      and doing union organizing in the workplace. We're working to build
      clusters in different cities in the U.S. not only because we will be
      more effective organizing together, but because the work can be very
      demanding and isolating. Having other like-minded people around to
      help keep you grounded and to keep you focused on what you're doing is
      essential when you are up against not only your employer, but often
      times your own union." This is a new project, just about two years
      old, and already they have clusters in New York City, Atlanta, Chicago
      and Knoxville, with more forming in Seattle, San Jose, and the Bay

      Young workers that have already established themselves in the
      workplace are taking leadership roles within their unions. Joe Sexauer
      is currently running for steward in his local, and is working with
      members of his union to investigate the corruption of his local
      president who is accused of rigging the election in Teamsters Local
      743. Anderson is taking part in an undercover union organizing
      campaign at the hotel she works at, a practice known as salting. "I'm
      trying to build relationships with co-workers and find out what their
      needs and their issues are. Trying to figure out who the leaders would
      be at the time when the union would come in."

      Students are also committing themselves to the labor movement. Groups
      like Living Wage Action Campaign, the Student Farmworker Alliance,
      United Students Against Sweatshops, and others are bringing labor
      organizing to college campuses all over the world, and getting
      students involved in solidarity campaigns, both locally and
      internationally. One campaign that has really taken off in the past
      year has been the Killer Coke campaign, working to end the murder and
      harassment of union leaders in Colombia, human rights and
      environmental abuses in India, and the rest of the long laundry list
      of crimes that Coca-Cola has committed. Some activists are using
      college campuses in other ways to strengthen the movement. Shafer has
      recently returned to graduate school to earn her Master of Business
      Administration. She wants to arm herself with knowledge of how
      business works to help unions find leverage points for negotiations.

      It is this diversity of tactics that will reinvigorate the labor
      movement and bring it forward into our globalized world. Though the
      number of workers currently organized into unions is low, history has
      shown that this does not mean that the labor movement is dying. "When
      unions have grown in this country, it has never been incrementally,"
      says Kutalik. "Take 1926 for instance, unions had less density than
      they do now, but by the end of the late 1930s, it had grown almost
      four fold. The same thing happened in the 1890s. These explosions
      happen when labor enters into dynamic movement phases." Kutalik
      believes that we are on the verge of this now, and this generation
      will play an important role in that. Intergenerational dialog is key
      in bringing us into this movement phase. The knowledge and experience
      of the older generation combined with the creativity, energy, and
      fresh political analysis of the youth, has the potential to be a
      dynamic force for change. A truly unified labor movement, across the
      boundaries of race, class, gender, age, and nation will be a key
      element to move us into the better world that we envision for
      ourselves and the generations that will come.

      To get more information about these youth and student organizations
      working in the labor movement:

      Living Wage Action Coalition:
      www.livingwageaction.org [1]
      1536 U St NW
      Washington, DC 20009
      Phone: (202) 339-9368

      Young Workers United:
      http://youngworkersunited.org [2]
      P.O. Box 15866
      San Francisco, CA 94115-5866
      Phone: (415) 621-4155

      Rank and File Youth Project:
      ranknfileyouth.project@... [3]

      Student Farmworker Alliance:
      www.sfalliance.org [4]
      PO Box 603
      Immokalee, FL 34143
      Phone: (239) 657-8311

      United Students Against Sweatshops:
      www.studentsagainstsweatshops.org [5]
      1150 17th Street NW, Suite 300
      Washington, DC 20036
      Phone: (202) NO SWEAT

      Author bio:

      rachel parsons is a member of the Critical Moment collective. She can
      be reached at racheleparsons@... [6].

      Source URL:

      [1] http://www.livingwageaction.org
      [2] http://youngworkersunited.org
      [3] http://gmail.com
      [4] http://www.sfalliance.org
      [5] http://www.studentsagainstsweatshops.org
      [6] http://criticalmoment.org/mailto:racheleparsons@...

      www.ciw-online.org | www.ezln.org.mx | www.sfalliance.org | www.leftturn.org

      "...Pues en el mundo lo que queremos es decirle a todos los que
      resisten y luchan con sus modos y en sus pa�ses, que no est�n solos,
      que nosotros los zapatistas, aunque somos muy peque�os, los apoyamos y
      vamos a ver el modo de ayudarlos en sus luchas y de hablar con ustedes
      para aprender, porque de por s� lo que hemos aprendido es a
      --Ej�rcito Zapatista de Liberaci�n Nacional, Sexta Declaraci�n de la
      Selva Lacandona
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