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

Copyright © 2012 by Michelle Chen. ‘What Labor Looks Like: From Wisconsin to Cairo, Youth Hold a Mirror to History of Workers' Struggles’ originally appeared in Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America edited by Daniel Katz and Richard A. Greenwald, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Every revolution needs two essential ingredients: young people, who are willing to dream, and poor people, who have nothing to lose. Yet the social forces that make movements strong also incline them toward self-destruction. Hence, over the past few decades, uneasy intergenerational alliances have melted away as impatient young radicals bridle against the old guard of incumbent left movements. At the same time, when it comes to organizing, without patronizing, poor folks, activists continually struggle just to find the right language to talk about systemic poverty in a sanitized political arena that has largely been wrung dry of real class consciousness.

Today, of course, activists tend to speak eagerly about reaching out to “the youth,” or of overcoming cultural rifts between middle class professional organizers and the workers they seek to transform into the next vanguard. But the activism stemming from the recent economic crisis proves not only that the left could use some serious tactical upgrading and fresh blood, but also that movements cannot overturn entrenched social fault lines by sheer force of will. Like any embattled community that needs to rebuild, shepherding activism into the next generation requires that established organizers learn how to retire gracefully, that those moving onto the front lines learn how to temper urgency with patience—and that all sides recognize that there are things they don’t know.

In Wisconsin in February 2011, no one knew what would happen as they gathered at the state capitol. A few picket signs, a megaphone or two, maybe a well-orchestrated sit-in until getting politely marched off by cops. But soon, the optics defied just about everyone’s expectations. Middle-aged school teachers might have done a double take when they saw teenagers detour from their weekly mall trips to join the picket lines; sanitation workers who traveled to the statehouse with their union colleagues probably didn’t anticipate marching alongside young Hmong community activists. The biggest surprise about turnout was the very absence of a defining image: there was no single movement or ideological agenda, no figurehead at the helm of the crowd. The only message emanating from the masses during those days was simply “No.” No to a draconian piece of legislation that threatened a basic labor right that many workers had either forgotten or taken for granted, until it had been threatened with extinction.

So the slogan “This is what democracy looks like” had a ring of both pride and puzzlement: what could we divine about the “look” of democracy from this pastiche of contrasting faces, political orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds? After a parliamentary trick allowed the antiunion measure to slip through the legislature, the movement faced a moment of compunction: was it really about killing the bill? Or protecting unions? Or was it about the fight for the soul of the labor movement, and the question of whether Wisconsin had inaugurated a nostalgic revival or narrative of rebirth.

Technically, the protests sought to preserve the collective bargaining rights of certain public sector unions. But many of the protesters may never have benefited from the collective-bargaining process, in large part because they were too poor, too new to the country, or above all too young to have been of a generation when unions were strong in America. They nonetheless intuitively grasped that collective bargaining represented the sovereignty of working people, principles that organized labor has historically embodied and championed.

So what does democracy look like? The answer will be defined by the young activists who are connecting with, rediscovering, and ultimately redefining labor with a capital L. Perhaps many of the youth who protested in solidarity with the Wisconsin demonstrations never grew up with any labor tradition in their families. Their parents may instead have worked low-paying service jobs or migrated from other countries without independent unions. But their introduction to the movement was through labor’s historical link to broader struggles for social justice—a link that is often overlooked even by unions themselves. In Wisconsin, the idea of labor rights was presented as a counterpoint to a pattern of systematic exploitation of people and public resources: from the corporate underwriting of elections, to the distortion of school curricula by rigid testing regimes, to mounting frustration with chronic unemployment in an unmoored global economy. The new wave of labor activism had a youthful glow: rage polished by cynicism, but also galvanized by an idealism relatively unfettered by the left’s historical baggage of ideological rifts, turf battles, and race and gender chauvinism. So now a reborn movement needs to cross a generation gap, which is also in many cases a culture gap, education gap, and racial gap.

Older progressive activists today stem from New Left movements that underwent a similar break with their antecedents. Many young radicals in the 1960s and 1970s repudiated the chauvinistic and parochial elements of their parents’ labor movement. In his blue-collar revisionist memoir, Striking Steel, Jack Metzgar, who grew up as the son of a steelworker before going on to teach college, interrogated the white unionist heritage that appeared shamefully regressive in the face of the escalating antiwar and civil rights movements. Radical youth, who later became educated liberals, saw in the old-school factory workers of his father’s generation an image of stiff-lipped industrial union men as “the principal perpetrators of racism, sexism and narrow-mindedness in American society. Who could remember that unions had once been more than a white male plot to keep blacks in their place? Who could remember that the Labor movement, as a social movement that made a difference, laid some of the ground work for the Civil Rights, community organizing, and women’s movements?”

Fast forward to Madison, where tradition is entering a new day of reckoning: if the radical legacy of leftist unionism in the early twentieth century has waned, the public memory loss hasn’t just been on the part of youth. Labor itself has suffered from collective amnesia, forsaking militancy for the softer politics of Beltway lobbying, burrowing in the tradition of “business unionism” while burying faded embers of feminist, antiracist, or anti-capitalist critiques. But there’s a bolder, more vital strand of that tradition that must be rekindled in light of current struggles for social justice and human rights. So the protests in Wisconsin (and solidarity rallies in Ohio, New York, and many other communities) blew some of the dust off of labor’s “usable past” by showing young people how economic security dovetails with social justice and human rights. It’s at the intersection of these struggles that a college student graduates with a lifetime of debt. Or a young single mother has to drop out of high school to work at the local big box retailer—the only place hiring in her neighborhood. Or a twelve-year-old Mixtec girl aches with longing when she sees her friends leave every morning on the school bus while she goes back to work the fields with her parents, who don’t get paid until the season, and the semester, ends. Different voices harmonizing into one cry for justice, one that’s often silenced by a socially tone-deaf political system.

Labor's Face-Lift

The labor movement may already belong to youth, but they don’t know it yet. More than two-thirds of young people aged sixteen to thirty-four are in the workforce, but only about one in twelve belong to a union, according to the Labor Project for Working Families, a research initiative of Cornell University and UC Berkeley. At the same time, youth unemployment edged up to a historical high of about 19 percent in mid-2010. Among black and Latino youth, the rate exceeded 30 and 20 percent, respectively. And while working young women had lower official jobless rates, unemployment among black and Latina women in their twenties more than doubled from 2007 to 2009, faring even worse than their male counterparts. Many months into our so-called recovery, countless young people in communities across the country—and many more in the impoverished Global South—are stuck on the sidelines of an economy they should be running.

Declining unionization rates are a symptom and a cause of this declining quality of life. Youth aren’t naturally apathetic; there’s no shortage of awareness or even anger at everyday labor issues like income inequality, lack of health care, or underemployment of highly educated workers. What’s missing is brand recognition. On a material level, it’s easy to see why unions might hold limited appeal for younger workers who have no access to or desire for the kind of lifetime job security that strongly unionized sectors have traditionally enjoyed. On the other hand, a recent study by Jonathan Booth of the London School of Economics and Political Science noted that a big factor in unionization is simply the time when a worker has a chance to join a union. Enrollment generally happens when people first enter the workforce, and after a certain point opportunities for unionization tend to fall off. In the sample, older workers (aged twenty-one to forty-one) were tracked into union jobs at just about a third of the rate of their younger counterparts (aged sixteen to twenty-five), so potential for unionization is actually skewed toward the young end of the age spectrum. The study concludes, “younger workers are not less receptive to unions than older workers,” but initial exposure to unionism, positive or negative, will shape attitudes toward the movement for years to come. From an organizer’s standpoint, the takeaway is that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Even if they haven’t been impressed by the labor movement, in an age of twenty-four-hour news and social media, young workers should be more aware than ever of the value of their contribution to the economy and their collective experience everyday in the cubicle, training center, or unemployment office. Their lives, grievances, and anxieties are constantly “shared”—in the metaphysical sense and the digital sense—by legions of peers. So they know that they’re not the only ones dealing with unfair wages, tumbling from one parttime or temp gig to another, watching the value of their hard-earned degree erode as they e-mail job applications in their parents’ basement. Then there is the psychological tax of having to live on credit, deprived of the chief source of wealth in the postwar era, real estate. Meanwhile, their parents’ generation, once buoyed by the promise of intergenerational mobility, is entering retirement unable to chart either their children’s economic destiny or their own as they age out of the workforce.

Some commentators have questioned whether the new normal is a shift in the time frame of life, as young people delay financial planning, marriage, and other major life decisions. Don Peck predicted in a seminal 2010 Atlantic article, “this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults— and quite possibly those of the children behind them as well. . . . It may already be plunging many inner cities into a kind of despair and dysfunction not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years.” But such apocalyptic forecasts suggest the younger generation is somehow doomed. But in reality, boomers were slapped with the same dire predictions, and they generally survived, even achieved middle-class respectability. There are also indications that kids today are a positive exception to the generational boom-bust cycles. If globalization is potent enough to disrupt traditional pathways to upward mobility, doesn’t it also have the potential to blaze new social systems—horizontal rather than hierarchical, dynamic rather than bureaucratic—that can guide us toward different kinds of wealth and fulfillment?

It may be true that younger Americans—historically lacking the class consciousness that is more ingrained in popular culture in Europe—tend to define themselves outside of class paradigms. But this isn’t so much a reflection of a “loss of class consciousness” as it is a displacement of class politics by other movements and forms of identity. While “identity politics” has become a pejorative shorthand for “frivolity” among older liberals and conservatives alike, the very fact that there are still relatively few arenas for serious discussion on race, sexual and gender identity, immigration status, and other cultural fault lines shows how little space young people today have for grappling with these tensions. The way people frame problems of young versus old, rich versus poor, religious versus secular might in fact obscure more complex divisions in society for which “mainstream” political discourse has yet to develop a vocabulary. Today’s haves and have-nots don’t conceive of assets and power only in socioeconomic terms—not in a world where culture, sexuality, taste, language, and immigration status all mediate one’s social standing.

If mainstream commercial culture militates against “class” as a common identifier, this is not simply a matter of materialism; it has much to do with the fact that many are entering the workforce from wildly different places in life, diverse in cultural background, tastes, and political consciousness. This is the cultural arena in which the labor movement must compete for shortened attention spans. On the other hand, many organizers tend to exploit young people as tokens to score hipness points for middle-aged organizations or they ignore them as inexperienced and uncommitted. Youth respond with corresponding enthusiasm or disengagement, for it’s easy to tell when one’s role in a movement is being taken for granted.

The events of September 11, 2001, were for many a catalyst that rejiggered our worldviews; suddenly we were situated in a much bigger world, full of people on whose misery our relative prosperity was fundamentally contingent. Ten years on, young people are still rising to the challenge, and occasionally slipping back into apathy or disillusionment. While the labor movement could easily let the zeitgeist slip away, public opinion suggests that 2011 could mark a paradigm shift in labor if it can articulate a message that resonates with young people’s aspirations as individuals and as members of a broader social mobilization, one that is hungry for new blood in the ranks of nonprofit organizations, fresh ideas for campaigns, ingenuity in media production and network building, and a wholesale rethinking of what it means to organize in an increasingly messy political landscape.

But rethinking involves revisiting the past, too. The movements of the civil rights and Vietnam War eras handed down templates for organizing and direct action. They established a language for debating power, challenging traditional intellectual and economic hierarchies, and linking “third world” issues with U.S. economic imperialism and militarism. That’s a usable past that can cast today’s hardships in a global as well as historical light.

And the conflicts among activists today echo the social and economic divisions that drove past meltdowns within leftist movements. There is a broad underclass of youth who don’t tweet, won’t ever go to college, and might drop out of the workforce altogether because they see their job prospects as hopeless. If the labor movement lacks mass appeal among youth with enough time and energy to devote to a movement, it lacks currency among the truly destitute youth who have trouble even envisioning a future: kids who’ve grown up in high-poverty neighborhoods where opportunities for economic advancement are scarce, the school system devalues young minds, and children are afraid to hope. Racially charged criminal justice policies push many to cycle in and out of courts and prisons before they ever have a chance to land a steady job.

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.

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.

Citizenship, locally and globally, demands from each of us an understanding of the importance of collective bargaining and union power, of the right to be free from exploitation and abuse, and of the ways in which global capitalism pits workers against each other across borders, between public and private sectors, between distinctions of “legal” and “illegal” labor. Those currently heading unions and other labor-oriented organizations need to engage youth in a discussion on how the movement can, or should, serve their needs and aspirations. The right people together in a conversation—in a church basement, at the next parent-teacher meeting, or on a Twitter feed—is sometimes all that’s needed to catalyze the creativity that shared hardshipcan unlock. To understand this is the very definition of being young.

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