Young Activists Re-Building AFL-CIO

Organized labor called them support groups, or constituency groups. In other arenas, they'd be branded special interests. They are the associations of young people, women, and trade unionists of color within the AFL-CIO. Representing a majority of union members, the groups saw none of their faces in top leadership, and a token few on the governing Executive Council. Small wonder organized labor was widely seen as a dinosaur, millennia apart from the late 20th century worker. There is good reason to believe that this distance is about to be bridged. The AFL-CIO recently held its first contested election in 40 years, an inconceivable act that alone generated unheard of debate and stole headlines. Commitments to "diversity" rolled off many a tongue. The victorious slate had campaigned as the New Voice for American Workers, and now must push organized labor to embrace the range of native languages and cultures in which the new voice calls. John Sweeney, the new AFL-CIO president, has shown an open ear as leader of the Service Employees International Union, having boosted the diversity of union membership and staff during his 15-year tenure. As the AFL-CIO's first Executive Vice President, Linda Chavez-Thompson has become the first woman and Latino/a to hold a top post. Forty-six-year-old Rich Trumka, the new Secretary-Treasurer, is the youngest leader the AFL-CIO has known. Trumka's fiery speeches tap the energy and passion of younger union activists clamoring to inject their voices into the dialogue on labor's renewal. Labor leaders, take note: Young union staffers say that, first and foremost, the AFL-CIO must set up a mechanism to involve young leaders at every level of the labor federation. Tyrone Freeman, the 26-year-old executive director of an SEIU local in Georgia, envisions an entity that is "not just a prop to deal with the current influx of young workers but that has influence in the decision-making process, and that puts young leaders out in front to lead the charge along with those who are more experienced." The charge Freeman refers to is organizing, the centerpiece of the New Voice platform. Re-enter diversity. It's no secret that the most successful organizers usually look and talk like the workers they're unionizing. Young organizers -- as first-generation immigrants, as children of the inner city, as athletes, as factory workers, as students of academics and pop culture, as flaming idealists -- are eager to reach out to their peers. Some, like the Mine Workers' Ann Janks, 30, just want to organize anyone and everyone they can. Francisco Chang, 29, shares this mission. Chang sits on the Executive Board of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), a so-called support group founded just a few years ago. Through APALA, the New York-based SEIU organizer works to introduce students, workers, and community activists to organized labor. "Mainstream labor has not done enough outreach to community groups," said Chang, who was fired from a factory job for organizing Korean immigrant workers. "It has to form alliances and coalitions with different communities." APALA and the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute co-sponsor regular training sessions that open the door to paid internships and union staff positions. Young labor leaders want the AFL-CIO to expand these training opportunities. Their wish list includes paid internships at every level of the labor federation, more forums to hear and respond to young workers' concerns, and more leadership development for union staff and rank-and-file workers. Given the resources and encouragement, young activists today are coming together to tackle their common concerns. Erika Silberman co-chairs a New Teacher Committee within her New York union, the United Federation of Teachers. The committee was formed three months ago as an educational vehicle to acquaint new teachers with the union. As the committee gets off the ground, Silberman is looking for "new ideas and new activities" to spark interest in the union. On the West Coast, William Kramer is busy planning a Young Organizers Conference for early November. Kramer does not have a union background, but was introduced to labor through graduate-school research for the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project (LAMAP), a bold multi-union campaign that aims to organize tens of thousands of workers throughout a geographical area and industry. "Unions should recognize the mutual benefit in having students do research as well as organize," said Kramer, now UCLA LAMAP coordinator. Kramer's work tools include electronic mail, a medium familiar to many young people, especially students. While many union halls are filled with outdated word processors, even typewriters, young people have used the Internet to organize nationally around such issues as Proposition 187, affirmative action, and access to higher education. Like so many others of her generation, Mine Workers organizer Janks was influenced by the social movements of the 60s, including the United Farm Workers' campaign for justice. Many others learned of unions through their families. Today, union members and progressive movements are in short supply, and conservatives are poised to plummet the United States into the Dark Ages. If nothing else, the AFL-CIO election was about hope. Young people today have plenty to fear. With courage, leadership, and vision, the AFL-CIO can provide hope. In June, as the New Voice candidates launched their campaign, Trumka told a story that captures this hope. He said: "Back in the 1960s, around the time I first went in the mines, I remember how Bobby Kennedy used to say while some people see things as they are and ask why, he would dream things that never were and ask why not. "Well, in a way, I think that it's up to us -- up to this generation of trade unionists -- to ask that very same question of ourselves. It's up to us to look at the kind of future we want for working Americans -- and the kind of movement we need to be to get there -- and to ask ourselves, 'Why not?'"

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