Young Workers in Peril

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Yesterday the AFL-CIO released a hefty 44-page report on the state of America’s young workers. Its autumnal publication date was no doubt purposeful—this isn’t light summer reading. It is a thoroughly grim account of young workers’ conditions in America today: declining income, lack of insurance coverage, pitiful amounts of sick leave, and a lack of confidence in their financial futures. The authors gloomily conclude that “only economic insecurity is up.”The report, entitled “Young Workers: A Lost Decade,” stands in stark contrast to the AFL’s last youth-oriented study published in 1999. In the halcyon afterglow of the roaring ‘90s, more than three-quarters of young workers felt hopeful about their financial futures at the time. Today, that number has plummeted 22 percentage points. The material circumstances of young workers have markedly declined, too. At present, 24 percent of young people make less than they need to cover their monthly bills, a 14-point increase from the 1999 study, and nearly one-third of young workers are uninsured, up 7 points from 1999. The stats are worse for women, people of color, and the poor.

The numbers are devastating, but they aren’t unexpected. These figures have been reported elsewhere, but the AFL-CIO compiled all the distressing figures in one place and juxtaposed them against young people’s political and economic outlooks. The study shows young people are increasingly politically conscious, and have a pronounced progressive streak (corroborated by several other recent studies). Young people feeling more economic insecurity combined with a more left-leaning political outlook further support the theory that the Millennials could be the most union-friendly generation in half a century. But mere sympathy for the idea of organizing won’t put union cards in their hands. The labor movement as a whole will need to put serious effort into reaching out to young workers.

This is easier said than done. Young people are the least likely to be unionized of any demographic. The number of young union members has been halved since the ’80s, and now only 5 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds is enrolled in unions, the lowest percentage of any age group. But it isn’t that they don’t want to be organized; it’s that the structural impediments to organizing the young are formidable. Some of the blame can be placed on our grossly inadequate labor laws, which privilege employer practices of drawing out contract negotiations for years. These tactics are particularly effective against young workers who have high rates of workplace mobility. The balance may start to shift if Congress ever passes the Employee Free Choice Act—but with health care and other issues taking the forefront, it might be a while before that happens.

To make matters worse, many unions still in the AFL-CIO have aging memberships. They have become more interested in defending the rights of their already-existing members rather than engaging in costly campaigns to organize young people. And with only 7.6 percent of the private sector workforce enrolled in unions, few young people see the impact a union can have on the wages and benefits of someone they know.

Despite these challenges, labor hasn’t been sitting on its hands. Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO that helped produce the report, basically functions as a union for people without a union. They provide some benefits to members, including a robust get-out-the vote apparatus, a health savings program, and a pre-made forum for political action. Working America has proved particularly effective among the young, signing up the under-30 crowd at a rapid clip and turning out a significant youth vote in last November’s elections. Labor’s vigorous support of the Obama campaign gave many Millennials their first experience with the labor movement. And various individual unions—including AFSCME, UFCW, and CWA—have sponsored youth outreach and organizing efforts targeting young workforces.

Rich Trumka, the unopposed candidate for president of the AFL-CIO, described youth involvement as “the issue that will decide the future of the American labor movement” when he spoke at the Center for American Progress on Monday. He emphasized that the labor movement itself is partly culpable for low unionization rates among the young. “You can’t blame them because we haven’t really focused on the way they work,” he said. Trumka promised renewed AFL-CIO attention to young people, including action on college affordability. It’s an issue that hasn’t previously been featured on the labor federation’s list of priorities.

Trumka’s CAP speech lacked specifics, and even if he stakes out a clear plan and enacts it, his power over the rest of the labor movement will be limited. The AFL-CIO has never had much power over the internal workings of its affiliates, given its decentralized structure. It has few means to compel unions with older membership to support youth-friendly agendas and many will likely stay their current courses.

But there are active steps that can be taken. Unlike its sister federations in Europe and Latin America that often have people in their national center that specifically work with, and for, younger members, the AFL-CIO lacks any formal structure for young workers. If Trumka is serious about growing numbers of young workers, he could instate a youth secretary or call for a youth caucus. While the decentralized nature of the federation would limit the power of these entities, it would give a public face to Trumka’s efforts to expand the movement and demonstrate his commitment to the member unions.

The rest of the movement would do well to look at the numbers in the “Lost Decade”—notably, the study found that 50 percent of young people think workers with a union are better off. Young people want to organize, and unions need to organize them or risk fading away. With concerted, collaborative effort—and the passage of EFCA—they’ll both get what they want.


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