“I’m convinced that decades from now, when historians look back at these last eight years, they won’t only see it as a time when our country’s leaders lost their way, but also a turning point when we progressives found our voice,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka at a Center for American Progress Action Fund event Monday morning. He was introduced by Sarah Rosen Wartell, CAP Action’s Executive Vice President, and David Madland, the Director of the American Worker Project at CAP Action, moderated the discussion.
Trumka spoke about the role of unions in America’s economic recovery and how unions can better serve the needs of the youngest generation of American workers, whom Trumka said are facing some of the toughest challenges in today’s economy. The AFL-CIO will release a study today on the crisis facing young workers. “What it’s going to show is that by every measurement young Americans are in an economic freefall,” Trumka said of the report. He cited massive student loan debts and the lack of health care, sick leave, and paid vacations as a few of the concerns young, nonunionized workers face.
The challenge facing unions isn’t just about changing the way labor laws work, Trumka said. Unions also need to respond to a new generation of working Americans who view the labor movement as a mechanism only available to older generations of workers. “When [young workers] look at unions, too often what they see is a remnant of their parents’ economy—not a path to succeed on their own,” he said.
Support for unions is higher among young people than any other age group, but Trumka believed that younger workers often think unions don’t have much to offer them. “They know workers with unions make more money and have better benefits; they just don’t think unions fit the way they work,” he said. “And you can’t blame them because we haven’t really focused on the way they work.”
Trumka said this disconnect is why the labor movement is now trying to bring in more young workers, from increasing union presence on college campuses to helping establish unions for millennial-age workers—those 18 to 29 years old—in fields like technology. “We can’t ask millennials to change they way they earn their living to meet our model for unionism,” Trumka said. “We have to change our approach to unionism to meet their needs.”
He suggested that making college affordable, while not a traditional union issue, should become one because of how severely young workers’ economic security is affected by the soaring cost of higher education.
Trumka is poised to take the reins of the AFL-CIO. After having served as the union’s secretary-treasurer since 1995, he is in line to be elected president of the 11 million-member labor federation at its Pittsburgh convention in mid-September.
Besides adapting to the new needs of American workers, Trumka warned that the labor movement must stay focused on its core set of progressive values if it is to continue moving forward. These include challenging racism in the workplace, pushing for health care reform that works, and holding corporate America accountable on workers’ rights issues by supporting legislation such as the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize.
“A movement guided by progressive values … understands that if you fight for those values you may not always win, but if you refuse to fight you are always certain to lose,” Trumka said.
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