The Labor Movement Has to Get Less White Or We're All Screwed


Last week marked the annual national convention of the AFL-CIO, one of the oldest labor rights organizations in the country — creating an opportunity for labor activists to come together to share lessons learned and ideas for moving forward. While I didn’t make it this year, I'm sure the state of our economy came up once or twice.

The August job numbers (released last month) show that the U.S. has added jobs for 35 months in a row, and unemployment is at a four-year low at 7.3 percent; but what does that mean for workers? Not a lot, when you consider that the majority of added jobs are in low-paying occupations. 

The dip in unemployment resulted from a huge chunk of people leaving the labor force — 312,000 to be exact — who have given up looking for work. The real problem isn’t simply the slow growth of good jobs across the country, but an economy that’s leaving a huge part of its labor population behind: young workers.

Young people, ages 18 to 35, are one of the fastest growing parts of the labor population, and yet we face the most significant obstacles to getting good jobs — or jobs at all for that matter. Of the 55.5 million young workers in the U.S, more than 10 percent were unemployed in March 2013 and more than half of that youth population was people of color. Young labor activists say that voicing a collective front in the workplace is a key component for workers in the fight for a living wage and improved working conditions.

So how to revive the economy while empowering employers? Incorporate more young people of color in the labor movement.

The labor movement needs us as much as we need them. As the movement struggles with its aging membership, and millennials hop from job to job ( more than seven before we turn 26), the labor movement must face some new realities. Women, people of color, gay and transgender communities, and low-income folks are crucial populations that support unions and share union values of workplace fairness, economic prosperity, and community engagement. It just makes sense to put these communities at the forefront of the labor movement.

We're still experience a disturbing economic gap between blacks and whites. While multiple millennial movements across the country are picking up momentum (and are winning) let’s not forget the support of communities of color for the numerous protests against poor workplace conditions in fast-food companies.

It should come to no surprise that these groups support labor unions at disproportionately higher rates. A Pew survey from earlier this year found that the highest approval rates come from women, people of color, and young people between the ages of 18 and 29.

If unions don’t change soon, they risk the chance of losing the next generation of activists and leaders. Creating a space where its core potential members — people of color and youth — have opportunities to get more engaged and take on leadership roles is critical for the labor movement.

Millennials have the power to change the economic crisis through utilizing new and innovative ways to organize people and mobilize around issues that we care about most, such as student debt, voting rights, and immigration. Jennifer Angarita, a youth organizer with the AFL-CIO, says millennials have already begun to shift mobilizing efforts in the labor movement. “Young workers reflect the growing demographic changes and have helped usher in new waves of diversity to the labor movement," she said.

Youth-driven campaigns across the country have been wildly successful. Millennials are shaping the conversation on major policy issues and using social media to organize. But you can’t really organize millennials effectively without incorporating young people of color.

Young people of color experience some of the highest unemployment rates in the country as of March 2013. It’s critical that the labor movement utilize this opportunity to incorporate young people of color into the movement. Until labor takes full advantage of the unique perspectives and talents that all millennials have to offer, we're all — labor, and the young people they need to continue their legacy — screwed.