Don't Drink the Tea. Think With the WE.

“These days, the man organizing a zombie flash mob may be the man leading a march on the National Mall in 10 years.”

Young union workers are re-energizing the labor movement by bringing awareness to social injustices in alternative ways. In Northern California, the Communications Workers of America Next Generation Bay Area group recently donned zombie gear and organized a flash mob at a local music festival. They are also holding happy hours where they can spread the word about social injustices in their community. It is a new generation of labor activism where the enemy is ignorance:

“With the lack of education that happens surrounding social justice and workers rights in schools right now, it’s extremely important for us to educate and empower individuals because it’s the people who make change,” said Eric Lindberg, secretary-treasurer of CWA Local 9423 and co-founder of the Next Generation Bay Area group. “Change doesn’t just happen by itself.”

Unions have begun devoting resources to training these workers on how to organize:

The trend also is spurred by the AFL-CIO’s Next Up Young Workers Conference, a dynamic summit created in 2010 for young activists focused on mobilizing, organizing and energizing future generations of workers.

In recent years, six national unions – the CWA, Steelworkers, Electrical Workers, Office and Professional Employees, Painters and Allied Trades and Utility Workers – have passed resolutions and allocated resources to support young workers and get them more involved in union leadership.

“Young people are being told that they just have to suck it up and live in a world without jobs. We’re being told that America can’t afford teachers, but we can afford CEO tax cuts. We’re being asked to accept a society that rewards wealth and punishes work. A society that makes it harder for young people to go to college. A society where hate is growing … It’s shameful,” said Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, in her keynote address during the Next Up conference held last fall. “The economic and social problems, the hate and the fear we see around us this day can only be solved by a fresh generation of committed, smart, tireless and creative activists.”

The need for a new generation of leaders is a result of an aging and shrinking union workforce. Young union member wages are 12.4 percent higher than their non-union peers. However, with unions being pushed out of many industries, organizational skills are as important as job skills. Aging workers, especially those among the baby boomer generation, are likely to exit the workforce in the next decade. This leaves the younger men and women in the shop with the responsibility of carrying on the tradition of standing up for each other:

In 1983, the typical union worker was 38 years old, while in 2008, the typical union worker was 45 years old, according to a study by the Washington D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Part of that is due to the Baby Boomers and workers getting older, but the decline in the labor movement also is to blame, said Kris Warner, who co-authored the 2009 study with researcher John Schmitt.

In 2011, the most recent year for which there is data, the union membership rate was 11.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data was available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent.

“The labor movement needs young people,” Warner said. “You can’t just have it being older folks and no one there to replenish the older folks. But the young people also need the labor movement.”

Young Americans want good jobs, the kind of jobs their fathers and grandfathers worked. But these days, the man organizing a zombie flash mob may be the man leading a march on the National Mall in 10 years.


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