Sisterhood Blog

No, Gen Y Does Not Have a 'Union Problem'

By Elissa Strauss

  • Print
  • Share Share

In The Sisterhood post “Does Generation Y have a Union Problem?” Sarah Seltzer wrote about the apathy she sees in her peers when it comes to supporting the labor movement, and how she hopes that the protests in Wisconsin will serve as a wake-up call. I agree with Sarah that there is overall less enthusiasm among Gen Y about unions than in generations past, but I don’t think it is merely a case of apathy.

For starters, I feel inclined to point out that when I worked as a consultant on a few organizing campaigns for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), I met droves of passionate and bright Gen Yers who were committed to the trade union movement as a vehicle for social justice and maintaining our ever-shrinking middle-class. These young men and women, many of whom came out of the anti-sweatshop movement that has spread on college campuses over the past decade, work hard and long to ensure that working mothers get health care for their families and janitors receive adequate protection from the hazardous chemicals they must use on the job.

My experience in the labor movement also gave me some insight into the changing shape of the organizing campaigns in the last decade or so, and why they receive less public interest overall. It isn’t just that there has been less support for labor, but that, in a way, there is less to be directly supportive of. We have moved from an economy where workers produce goods in centralized workplaces to one where workers perform services in decentralized workplaces, decreasing the odds for future “Norma Rae” types. Also, for a combination of strategic and legal reasons, strikes and boycotts are no longer always the most effective tactics for negotiations or to send a message to employers.

I spoke with a former colleague, Jessica Champagne, who recently joined the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labor rights monitoring organization, as Director of Research and Advocacy, after five years as a global campaigner and researcher at the SEIU. In this interview, in which she speaks on behalf of herself — not her employer — she discusses Generation Y’s engagement with the labor unions, how the movement has changed and the ways in which it still needs our support.

Elissa Strauss: What is your take on Gen. Y’s support of the labor movement?

As someone on the cusp of Generations X and Y — i.e., in my early 30s — I am constantly in awe of younger student and worker activists who are winning change locally and nationally. United Students against Sweatshops, for example, has now been working with campus workers and international unions for more than 10 years. Working alongside unions, they are winning living wages, ensuring that workers are able to exercise their right to organize unions, and showing that change is possible. They’re definitely a dedicated minority, but that’s been true of every social movement.

As Sarah Seltzer wrote, this is an exciting moment to think about this question — it’s been great to see videos of thousands of folks in Wisconsin carrying signs like “Care about educators like they care for your child” and “Enjoy your weekends? Thank a union!”

How did you get into labor activism?

I was raised with the classic Jewish tikkun olam values of making the world a better place. My grandmother in particular is always very clear that for her, Judaism was about acting for justice. Like a lot of middle-class Jewish folks these days, I didn’t grow up knowing about unions except as a piece of history — although now my grandmother tells me about what being in the Histadrut, the Israeli labor union, meant to her and her parents.

When I was in high school, I read some of the early exposes of the impoverishment and abuses of workers producing clothes for U.S. consumers. I was shocked to hear that the clothes I wore were made in a way that involved exploiting other people, and determined to do something about it. When I got to college, a Students Against Sweatshops group was forming, and I dove into the effort to get Yale to guarantee that Yale T-shirts and sweatpants would be “sweatshop-free.”

It took me a few more years to really understand why unions were necessary. First, I thought about the logistics of trying to monitor thousands of factories, and realized that the only way to create permanent improvements was to ensure that workers were able to be their own “monitors” — to have the strength that comes through unity, the legal protections they deserve, and the opportunity to speak out about problems at worksites.

Why do you think labor campaigns receive less public support than they did a few decades ago?

Around the world, corporate attacks on unions and the decline in government support for pro-worker policies has meant that the portion of workers in unions has declined. Fewer and fewer young people have personal experience with unions — and maybe fewer and fewer young people expect decent treatment on the job and a social safety net, which is a sad thought and maybe also a reason people don’t always fight back. The right has been unfortunately successful in painting the benefits that middle-class people once took for granted (although many other people were still denied them), like pensions and health care, as crazy perks that union workers somehow have at other people’s expense.

What are some of the most pressing issues for American unions today?

The attacks of Republican state legislatures and governors on public workers and public services is a nightmare for people who need state services — which is all of us in one way or another — and for public-sector workers. The fightback efforts in the states, such as the AFL-CIO’s “We are One” campaign is crucial.

Most workers, according to polls, would like to be part of a worker organization that can advocate for their shared interests. The problem is that employers overwhelmingly opt to fire workers, to threaten to close down completely, and to spend huge sums of money on anti-union consulting groups rather than allow workers to have a voice in how they are treated. Under these circumstances, supporting workers in forming a union requires real resources and strategy, which more and more unions are providing.

[In addition,] Democrats have repeatedly showed real cowardice —and lack of long-term thinking — in failing to pass labor law reform that would create a level field for workers.

What about globally?

Over the past decade, global companies have developed more sophisticated communications about their “corporate social responsibility” programs. However, in all too many cases these communications tactics are not accompanied by a willingness to really invest in workers’ standard of living. In the garment industry, and in many other sectors, global name brands contract out 100% of their production. They then push factory owners to constantly lower prices and fulfill tighter turnaround times. After wheedling another penny discount per shirt, they may then tell the factory owner that they expect him to comply fully with national labor laws and the brand’s code of conduct.

What’s the best way for Gen Yers, and others, to get involved in the labor movement?

For me, Jobs with Justice has been a great way to plug into local struggles and national solidarity. Joining in state- and city-level fights to preserve the services we need and the rights of public workers is crucial right now. On the international front, one project I’ve been learning about lately is a garment factory that is serving as an example of what workers’ lives can be like when they are paid a living wage and allowed to organize a union. The AltaGracia factory in the Dominican Republic opened last year and my colleagues at the Worker Rights Consortium have been verifying that it lives up to its pledges to be a responsible employer.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Unions, Organized Labor, Generation Y

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.