- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Too male, too pale, too stale: That’s a criticism frequently levied at the labor movement. But the problem isn’t quite what you might expect.

Think of unions and you probably picture men — Teamsters or auto workers, miners or construction workers. But for years, the majority of workers joining unions actually have been women, reflecting their growing work-force participation. Female leadership also is expanding. The American Federation of Teachers has all-female stewardship, led by Randi Weingarten, and the president of the powerful Service Employees International Union is now Mary Kay Henry.

The situation is even more striking at the federation level. Anna Burger has led Change to Win since its founding in 2005. And women fill two of the AFL-CIO’s top three positions, with Liz Shuler in the No. 2 post of secretary-treasurer and Arlene Holt Baker as executive vice president.

The allegation of “too pale” reflects a more serious dilemma. While the stark prejudice that once afflicted unions in some trades is for the most part behind us, African-American labor leaders remain far too rare. A number of unions have done better promoting Hispanics, a reflection of the rising number of immigrants joining the labor movement.

But labor’s chief problem — one that lowers the relevance of unions today and threatens their viability tomorrow — involves young people. Signs of “too stale” abound — aging membership, aging leadership and priorities and strategies that haven’t addressed the issues facing young workers in a dynamic and evolving marketplace. Workers ages 18 to 35 constitute 36 percent of the labor force but only a quarter of union membership.

The causes of the disconnect are many: A tradition-bound labor movement often slow to adapt to changes, scant knowledge among young people of the historic role of unions, labor’s decline as a new generation is formulating its views, growing self-identification by young people as contract professionals likely to have multiple employers over their career, and the lack of a youth movement like civil rights in which unions could get involved.

New AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka has acknowledged labor’s need to reach out to young workers and adapt to their circumstances — rather than expect a new generation to embrace unions as they are.

To lead the effort, he tasked Miss Shuler, a fitting choice. She was not only the first woman elected AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer but also (at age 39) the youngest. Miss Shuler has spent part of her eight months in office listening to young workers, college students and union activists about how labor can become more relevant to them.

Among other things, they want labor to broaden its focus from full-time jobs to include part-time work, freelancers and contract workers, she said. They also want labor’s political agenda to highlight their priorities, particularly the environment. And labor should communicate more through texting, Facebook, You Tube, Twitter and progressive blogs.

Later this week Miss Shuler will help lead a three-day summit in Washington, with 400 young workers from around the country kicking off the AFL-CIO’s youth initiative. Participants will collaborate on four issues — communications, what issues move young people, preparing young workers for leadership and organizing.

The AFL-CIO hasn’t publicized the youth outreach a great deal, hasn’t issued its typical flurry of press releases — which suggests a campaign aimed more at results than appearances, and a leadership seeking to learn rather than assuming it has the answers.

Those who contend that unions are irrelevant to younger workers grappling with a changed environment should ponder a few things.

Studies indicate that about 19 percent of workers ages 16 to 24 are unemployed. Though workers that age represent only 13.5 percent of the labor force, they account for 26 percent of all unemployment. In contrast, workers 55 and older represent 19.1 percent of the work force but only 13.4 percent of the unemployed.

More than one-third of workers younger than 35 live with their parents for financial reasons, and nearly one-third of young workers are uninsured, much higher than a decade ago.

In essence, economic conditions have led them to put their future on hold, and helped produce the first generation projected to not do as well as their parents. Yet, even as their employers get more powerful, more concentrated and more distant, they are told that they are better off fending for themselves as individuals.

Reflect on this for a while and it doesn’t seem much of a stretch that these workers — not despite their unchartered job trajectory, multiple employers and often isolated work environment but rather because of these things — just might need an advocate and a collective voice.

Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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