The grim state of young workers

Published on (first on Campus Progress), by Jake Blumgart, Sept. 3, 2009.

This week the AFL-CIO released a hefty 44-page report on the state of America’s young workers. Its autumnal publication date was no doubt purposeful—this isn’t light summer reading. It is a thoroughly grim account of young workers’ conditions in America today: declining income, lack of insurance coverage, pitiful amounts of sick leave, and a lack of confidence in their financial futures. The authors gloomily conclude that “only economic insecurity is up.”

The report, entitled “Young Workers: A Lost Decade,” stands in stark contrast to the AFL’s last youth-oriented study published in 1999. In the halcyon afterglow of the roaring ‘90s, more than three-quarters of young workers felt hopeful about their financial futures at the time. 

Today, that number has plummeted 22 percentage points. The material circumstances of young workers have markedly declined, too. At present, 24 percent of young people make less than they need to cover their monthly bills, a 14-point increase from the 1999 study, and nearly one-third of young workers are uninsured, up 7 points from 1999. The stats are worse for women, people of color, and the poor …

… Rich Trumka, the unopposed candidate for president of the AFL-CIO, described youth involvement as “the issue that will decide the future of the American labor movement” when he spoke at the Center for American Progress on Monday. He emphasized that the labor movement itself is partly culpable for low unionization rates among the young. “You can’t blame them because we haven’t really focused on the way they work,” he said. Trumka promised renewed AFL-CIO attention to young people, including action on college affordability. It’s an issue that hasn’t previously been featured on the labor federation’s list of priorities.

Trumka’s CAP speech lacked specifics, and even if he stakes out a clear plan and enacts it, his power over the rest of the labor movement will be limited. The AFL-CIO has never had much power over the internal workings of its affiliates, given its decentralized structure. It has few means to compel unions with older membership to support youth-friendly agendas and many will likely stay their current courses.

But there are active steps that can be taken. Unlike its sister federations in Europe and Latin America that often have people in their national center that specifically work with, and for, younger members, the AFL-CIO lacks any formal structure for young workers. If Trumka is serious about growing numbers of young workers, he could instate a youth secretary or call for a youth caucus. While the decentralized nature of the federation would limit the power of these entities, it would give a public face to Trumka’s efforts to expand the movement and demonstrate his commitment to the member unions.

The rest of the movement would do well to look at the numbers in the “Lost Decade”—notably, the study found that 50 percent of young people think workers with a union are better off. Young people want to organize, and unions need to organize them or risk fading away. With concerted, collaborative effort—and the passage of EFCA—they’ll both get what they want. (full text).

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