Cornell University

February 3 2010

New and Different Lens

Unions need to listen to and involve young people, Shuler tells Labor Advisory Council

Young workers don't have strong feelings about unions, they just don't know much about them -- and that needs to change, a top AFL-CIO leader told Cornell ILR's Labor Advisory Council, a group of high-level labor leaders and worker advocates.

Elected last fall, Elizabeth "Liz" Shuler is the AFL-CIO's Secretary-Treasurer, the federation’s second highest officer.

Along with President Rich Trumka and Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, Shuler leads the nation's largest labor organization.  The AFL-CIO represents 57 unions and more than 11 million workers.

She spoke at a Labor Advisory Council forum on young workers and unions.  The event was held in the ILR Conference Center in Manhattan last week.

According to Shuler, the AFL-CIO's priorities  –  health care, jobs and the  Employee Free Choice Act -- "should be viewed through a new and different lens if the labor movement is going to be successful: that being young workers."

"Young workers are disconnected from the labor movement; there used to be a parent/aunt/uncle in a union," Shuler said.

Many young people "don’t know what the labor movement has to offer" and often don't realize that health care benefits, paid vacation and overtime pay "are benefits that were hard fought" and "… can be taken away -- unless workers have a collective voice on the job – that being a union contract," she said.

Shuler shared results of an AFL-CIO and Working America study called "Young Workers: A Lost Decade," and pointed out that:

  • Only 31 percent of young workers are making enough money to cover bills and put some money aside.
  • Nearly a third of young workers say they're uninsured.
  • One in three lives at home.

"We know that young people need unions, but do unions need young people? The answer is absolutely yes," Shuler said.

"We need their energy, ideas, creativity and leadership – organizing and mobilizing skills like we saw in the 2008 election," she said.

"But more importantly, we know that the nature of work is changing – and the type of work that young people are engaged in is changing – these are the growing areas of our economy:  young professionals, green technology and the service industry," Shuler said.

Labor needs to address contingent work issues including the growing number of freelance, contract and part-time workers as well as flex benefits, safety and wellness, she said. "Listen to young union leaders and find out what issues move them."

"We need to modify the way we do business to attract the new workforce – not only young people, but people of color and women as well," Shuler said, encouraging attendees to look at new ways of using technology to package labor's message to young people.

A panel of young unionists included Marlena Fontes '10, an Arts and Sciences student who researched youths and unions as a 2009 summer fellow in New York City for ILR Extension.  Other panelists were:

  • Alvin Ramnarain, Local 1102, Retail, Wholesale Department Store Union /United Food and Commercial Workers, Westbury, N.Y.
  • Philip Allen, American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, Washington, D.C.
  • Julie Schmidtke, a member of "Next Generation United," a committee of the Rochester (N.Y.) Central Labor Council.