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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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The protests in Wisconsin are not comparable to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions in scope or political valence. Still, the parallel images—protesters camped out in Tahrir Square and occupying the lobby of Midwest statehouse—are more than a cute diptych for your tumblr. They reflect a global youth crisis, as millions come of age in an unsustainable labor market.

Activists will argue for generations to come on whether or when capitalism is due for a complete collapse. But the fact is that the demographics of the global unemployment line are more troubling than ever today. Around the world, the International Labor Organization reported in 2010 that some 80 million youth were officially jobless— and the global youth unemployment rate the International Trade Union Confederation calls a “social time-bomb.” That statistic also obscures the rates of employment in marginal and “underground” industries such as domestic and agricultural labor or work in the sex industries. The trend has prompted labor organizations around the world—who typically push a more ambitious political agenda than U.S. unions dare to—to call on governments across the industrialized world to invest more in the social safety net, establish more progressive tax policies to reduce income inequality, and revamp workforce training and job development programs to link youth to meaningful work.

But the struggle doesn’t end with labor-friendly government policies. A robust independent labor movement is critical to the empowerment of the next generation of workers, who will be the chief negotiators of a more just social contract. Contrary to the arguments of corporate lobbyists, it is the low rates of unionization in the U.S. workforce that erodes labor conditions and puts American workers at a disadvantage in the global economic recovery.

While the economy globalizes, labor must follow suit. With more women and immigrants moving into the workforce, rendering it less white and male than ever, preserving the labor movement for future generations demands we recognize that it will never be the same. The good news is that countless young workers have grown up with this reality and can work within it to effect change, in the workplace, in the public square, even in the statehouse.

According to the Labor Project’s report, innovative ideas for organizing youth originate, not surprisingly, with youth themselves. Communications tools like social media may be key to the mass-scale and spontaneous organizing and “rebranding” of unions and worker centers. But more importantly, there are concrete investments to be made in young people as workers, future parents, and global citizens. During the New Deal and Great Society eras, the federal government established a network of work force development resources, f rom summer youth employment programs to public works jobs, in response to economic crisis. Public schools were once seen as the seedbed of innovation and intellectual progress, not a boondoggle that “wastes” taxpayer funds on the children of the poor.

This new movement does not come with an instruction manual. But perhaps the main concept to keep in mind is that those who seek to shape a new labor-youth alliance need to get used to being uncomfortable and, indeed, making themselves leave the comfort zones into which many had sunk as they grew accustomed to being permanently relegated to the political margins. Not that conflict is always a virtue: the past century of labor movements in America suggests that indulgent internal antagonism can be about as damaging as consensus for the sake of consensus. But if all sides are genuinely seeking common ground, then honest dialogue is a good place to begin choosing worthy battles. For the most part, there may be more battles on which we can agree than intractable conflict among us. We recognize social investments that can draw community-wide support: good public schools, 64 Labor rising fair opportunities for jobs and housing, and an environment we’re not afraid to let our children play in. And we recognize the need for both empathy and mutual respect between communities, acknowledging the integrity of differences without letting them turn into insurmountable barriers to solidarity.

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