Labor's promise

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Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his columns.


The AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions know what they must do to grow and strengthen the labor movement for the benefit of all Americans. They must recruit and train millions of young workers, particularly young women and minority workers.  It is they who will join with others to shape our future.

Union organizers are already focusing clearly on reaching out to young would-be members who are often skeptical of union promises to help them win, not only better pay and working conditions, but also a meaningful voice in community affairs.
Participants in one of several recent AFL-CIO meetings on the subject noted that a key issue among young workers, as among so any others in these perilous economic times, is their inability to find a job or to pay for higher education. While unionization, of course, does not guarantee workers jobs or money to pay for higher education, it certainly gives them to at least a good chance of finding work or earning a college degree.

AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler told another gathering that outreach to young people is a top labor priority. But she said that, even though young workers need unions, they generally don' t know much about them. That's in part because they are less likely than young people in earlier generations to have a family member or neighbor to talk to them about unionization and its rewards.

Unions, of course, usually win agreements from employers for, among other fringe benefits, health insurance.  But recent surveys show that about one-third of young workers have no health insurance.  The surveys show in general "a massive decline" in the economic situation of the young. One-third of those surveyed say they often can't pay their bills, for instance. Only about half have paid sick days and must work so even if ill.

A survey done recently by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics cautions that  "unions must become more diverse and open up more opportunities for young workers and women in leadership or they will move on to other social justice organizations."

The AFL-CIO's James Parks noted that "while acknowledging the significant gains for women in the workplace made possible by unions and their growing diversity in the union movement, the federal report urges unions to do even more to become more open."

The national AFL-CIO has moved further in that direction by requiring state and local AFL-CIO bodies to establish concrete goals for diversifying the leadership of their member unions.

There's also been efforts to movement to meet the complaints of young members and would-be members that union leaders  are often able to stay in office far too long, blocking younger candidates for union office from assuming leadership posts. .  That would be eased by an AFL-CIO proposal for unions to set term limits for elective leadership positions.

At any rate, this much is very, very clear: Unions need the young if they are to prosper and grow, and the young need unions if they are to realize their full potential as citizens. Together, unions and the young can bring important new strength to the country.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his columns.