The AFL-CIO Convention should put on its front burner how to win the loyalty of youth to organized labor. To win them, the unionists will have to do the right thing, the courageous thing. Taking this step is vital for the very survival of the movement.
At one time, the children of most union members would almost inherit loyalty to the movement that brought food into their homes. They often stepped into the jobs and unions of their parents. Neither the jobs nor the automatic loyalty still exist.
All strata of working-class youth — even from sectors slightly better off in access to education — have suffered from the severe capitalist economic crisis that festered for 30 years and exploded in 2008.
The first and most important step for labor, however, is to reach out to those young people who are the targets of a virtual war on youth. These are the youth of color, for whom the Trayvon Martin lynching and the acquittal of his killer is the tip of the iceberg.
The war includes police repression euphemistically called “stop and frisk.” It includes the incarceration of many tens of thousands of youth, particularly youth of color, who are caught in the net of draconian drug laws that punish them for not being able to get regular jobs. These youth suffer the “school to prison” pipeline — all coupled with record-level unemployment.
Labor unions must take a position on these social questions in solidarity with the youth.
The labor movement must stand in solidarity with the millions of young workers who are either unemployed, underemployed, part-time or temporary workers in low-wage jobs, and particularly those who are more likely to end up in prison than to find a job.
It should consider calling an action and investing in such a project, employing funds unions possess from the workers’ dues. This would be not just out of altruism, or because it is a good idea, but to implement a more effective and meaningful way to help oppressed youth than simply lobbying for some legislation or supporting the Democratic Party.
Even if workers in Walmart or Starbucks or McDonald’s have no immediate prospect of getting a union contract, organized labor has to find a way to embrace them and their struggles. Organized labor must show these youth that the mere existence of unions helps them.
Such an act can win over all sectors suffering from the capitalist crisis. That includes those fortunate enough to have finished college. We have seen in the Occupy Movement that these youth don’t consider it a big advantage that the job they went to school for but couldn’t get would pay a little better than the low-paid jobs out there — plus they have a $50,000 debt for their education.
As has always been the case in the history of the United States, building the necessary solidarity among all workers starts with fighting racism and all forms of special oppression. Only in this way can the labor movement win the allegiance of all working-class youth and attract them to the project of fighting for a better world for all.