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Why a Growing Movement of Young People Could Ignite a Workers' Revolution

In this excerpt from the new book "Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America," Michelle Chen looks at young workers from Egypt to Wisconsin.

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These kids are alienated from the unions that have fixated on saving “mainstream” workers and keeping the blue-collar “middle class” from slipping down the income ladder. These communities may have advocacy groups, churches, and other organizations that will stand up for their interests, but labor, as both a movement and a civic institution, is losing a generation of youth who desperately need a platform of economic enfranchisement outside of the school and economic and government agencies that have failed them.

From Wisconsin To Kingsbridge

The showdown in Wisconsin offered a glimpse of what youth-labor solidarity could look like. But it’s not always easy to mesh old-school labor sensibilities with the pluralism of a more freewheeling activist scene that stresses spontaneity and regeneration.

In the North Bronx, a campaign for economic equity brought together labor struggles and youth issues in unprecedented ways, but also exposed uncomfortable fault lines. In 2009 and 2010, the working-class community surrounding the Kingsbridge Armory was divided over a development plan for the site—a massive landmark structure that real estate developers, city officials, and neighborhood groups had all hoped to turn into a commercial and recreational hub. Eventually, a plan to transform the citadel-like space into a shopping mall emerged, backed with promises of new jobs for the neighborhood. Grassroots activists wanted more than just jobs, though; they seized on the armory as a battleground for a living wage campaign, pressing council members and developers to move forward with development on the condition that it would enable local people to earn enough to support families and provide resources for enriching local youth.

The Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, under the guidance of progressive local leaders, the Retail Workers Union, and the watchdog group Good Jobs New York, gave voice to community groups who envisioned a space where labor rights and youth rights were mutually respected. Early on in the planning process, community advocates called for a development plan that incorporated spaces and facilities for local schools. This campaign then evolved under the leadership of community groups such as the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition into a broader agenda of an inclusive, democratic planning process. At the crux of their campaign was a call for decent wages and working conditions, rather than the deadend retail jobs that many low-income young people have to take to scrape by.

But the grassroots coalition was at odds with the local building trades union, which supported developers’ interests in rushing forward with the construction, hoping to generate short-term union jobs. The tension between these interests elucidated some of the fundamental rifts that thread through many low-income urban communities. The community’s long-term interest in the project was apparently not a priority for the leadership of the building trades, who could wield their union clout to bargain over working conditions outside of the community arena, and could rely on union-supported jobs as long as the ground was being broken. The battle over the armory continues. Although the initial plans fell through—prompting some criticism that the untenable demands of activists had left the community with no development at all—the neighborhood won a more enduring victory: the architecture of a new community alliance that drew from a broad cross section of the impacted area, from clergy to teachers, and even some progressive labor groups who pursued a more holistic, inclusive vision of economic development.

Kingsbridge To Cairo

When fresh pizzas arrived at the Wisconsin statehouse courtesy of Egypt, there was more than culinary diplomacy at work. On the other side of the planet, a parallel convergence of labor and youth had inspired the overthrow of a dictator. Providing a hot meal to kindred spirits in Madison was just another way of nourishing the solidarity that the Arab Spring had seeded.

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