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LABOR ACTIVISTS UNITE!2017.04.19 homepage.image

Develop your skills and knowledge as they’re needed like never before! Our bookstore is an excellent resource for labor activists: take a look!



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stew-trainingLearn the crucial fundamentals of being a union steward—quickly and easily—with the eight-part training course from UCS. Experienced stewards will find the course a great way to brush up on key skills as well. Interactive Scenario Simulators and Skills Checks put you in real-life situations to solve real-life problems. The course covers all the basics.

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New research shows that young workers in the US earn $10,000 less than people their age did 30 years ago, and have half as much wealth – and the numbers are worse for workers of color. (Canadians do not face this problem.) Given the attacks on, and decline in, unions, this number is neither a surprise nor a coincidence. The US labor movement, already less than 12% of the workforce nationwide (and below 7% in the private sector), is also getting older – with 25% of members (and a much greater percentage of leaders and stewards) older than 55.

Changing this downward trajectory for younger workers and for the labor movement will take work and leadership from all of us.  In the words of a 2011 convention resolution from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), “the continued strength and vitality of the labor movement depends heavily on the ability of younger union members to develop into strong and effective labor leaders…and our union’s ability to attract new members and nurture effective new leadership.”

In the December, this publication focused on advice for stewards over 35 on engaging and supporting younger members (find it at www.unionist.com). This time, we speak directly to younger members and stewards: Getting involved in your union can help change your workplace, the labor movement, and conditions for young workers everywhere. Here are some pointers for getting started.

Learn the backstory

Your union has a history—and you should learn about it! Whichever industry you work in, it is important to find out about your predecessors’ fights. What was the industry like before unions got involved? How has your union, and the broader labor movement, changed the nature of work in your industry and the country? What were your union’s foundational struggles? Was there a major strike or campaign that helped form your union? To understand and organize with the older membership, it is important to understand the battles they fought and inherited.

Be on the same side

The boss and the media are good enough at dividing workers without our help. “It's easy to blame older members and leadership for what you may see as failures and mistakes. But remember that you're on the same side of the bargaining table and who the real enemy is,” suggests Brittany Anderson, national AFL-CIO Young Worker Advisory Committee member from the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). “When you approach from the perspective that you both care deeply about the union and want to grow and strengthen the labor movement, they're more likely to listen to and support your ideas and opinions.”

Understand the nuts and bolts of your union

If you want to get involved or to make change, you must understand how your union operates. Every union has a constitution and bylaws, including the process for meetings, elections, contract votes, and selection of shop stewards. They also may detail how to create a formal young worker committee, for instance.

In addition to formal structures, unions also have informal structures and cultures. When Actors’ Equity (AEA) members wanted to form a Young Workers Committee, they needed to understand both the official steps as well as the union’s culture and power dynamics. According to Kate O’Phalen, AEA National Councillor and Chair of the Young Workers Committee, “Getting this committee approved required a lot of groundwork before [we] ever brought the motion, officially, to the National Council. We unofficially organized some big successes to serve as proof of concept, and put a lot of time into having personal conversations with other board members to allay some of their individual concerns.”

No need to reinvent the wheel! Here are a few suggestions:

  • Find a guide! Options include an older member from your local, a young leader from another union, or a rep from your Labor Council or the AFL-CIO Young Workers, among others.
  • Take your time as you build relationships. There are no shortcuts to building relationships with fellow young workers or older leaders within your union. Take time to talk with people and really listen to them.
  • Take action! By fighting together toward common interests—and against common enemies—you work to build power and trust.
  • Be persistent. Making change, building relationships and power, takes time. Keep working and you will find and create the space for involvement and leadership.

—David Unger. The writer is an educator with the Murphy Institute at the City University of New York. Let’s keep the intergenerational conversation going. We welcome readers – whatever your age – to contribute your best experiences of working across generational lines at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and at theUCS Facebook page.  

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This Week's Labor Video

Bad Steward

The United Nurses Association of California and the Union of Healthcare Professionals present a short film that shows what not to do as a union steward.

This Week's Member Tip

The Real Power—Away From the Bargaining Table

The outcome of contract negotiations is determined in large part simply by who has more power.  Each side constantly evaluates during bargaining whether it can hold firm in its positions or whether it must compromise, based on its 2014.08.11membertip-union.strongassessment of how much each side can exert pressure on the other if agreement is not reached.  Because of these power dynamics, effective union negotiators don’t conceive of bargaining as taking place “in a vacuum.”  Throughout negotiations, unions that understand the big picture look for ways to demonstrate that the members stand behind their bargaining team.  If an employer gets the message that the small group of union negotiators it’s dealing with face-to-face is in fact speaking for large numbers of bargaining unit members, that can create enough pressure for the employer to give the union what it wants.  Most important, the employer must believe that if issues aren’t successfully resolved at the table, the members won’t take the employer’s “no” for an answer.  What this means is that if you want a good contract, you and your union may well not have the luxury of simply sending dedicated and skilled union negotiators off to deal with the employer and then waiting until they come back with a string of victories.  Actions outside of the bargaining room may be necessary to get what’s needed inside that room.

—Adapted from The Union Member's Complete Guide, by Michael Mauer.