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Labour's young worker problem

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Young workers are totally en vogue.

Take, for example, Ryerson University's Centre for Labour-Management Relations' November conference. They've caught on that this young worker thing is pretty hot. The conference is called A New Unionism: Retooling Labour for an era of iPhones and Individual Rights, a wacky way to frame much of what I argue in my book From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement. And by wacky, I mean how an older person would frame this issue, as, you know, the kids and their iPhones and all that.

When you look at the conference line-up, it's glaringly obvious that this will be a conference that talks more about young people and the labour movement’s image problem, than about retooling labour for an era stained by neoliberalism (or, the "era of individual rights"). For example, the first panel: Seniority, Flexibility and the Younger Worker -- Is it Time to Reconsider Core Values? doesn’t actually feature a young worker. While Toronto and York Labour Region Council president John Cartwright's so hip that he might come close, four white older guys picking apart this question doesn't cut it.

The clincher, though, is featuring Bob Rae as the keynote speaker. Rae, the architect of the current policy of higher education in Ontario, is arguably at fault for creating the desperate situation that young workers in Ontario find themselves in today. Forget iPhones and individualism; record-high tuition fees and massive student debt do more to destroy young people's sense of community, and therefore their support of unionization, than anything with a screen and some apps.

And Bob Rae's genius report, the one that paved the way for two-tiered tuition fee increases that ensured that the students the most screwed were also the newest in the system, is partly to blame for the creation of the most indebted, unemployed and overeducated generation Canada has ever seen.

The forum might not be the best example, though, of the divide between old and young. Despite being sponsored by a handful of unions (the Canadian Labour Congress, Unifor, UFCW, the Power Workers Union and the Communications Workers of Canada), Ryerson's Centre for Labour-Management Relations is sponsored mostly by corporations (CN Rail, Air Canada, Bombardier and Loblaws, to name a few). I shouldn’t be surprised that theyre poised to get this issue so totally wrong.

In every city where I launched my book, young workers came up to me with their own stories of disenfranchisement and disappointment from the labour movement. Most times, the disenfranchisement they described could be easily remedied by an active local leadership.

But there were others whose stories of frustration set off warning signals in my head. In one case, a young worker mentioned at a forum in which I participated, that his bargaining committee couldn’t agree to fight for breaks for 60 per cent of the workers because the 40 per cent, who were full time, could lose some of the time of their breaks. The result is that 60 per cent of workers, mostly casual and young, have to work five-hour shifts without a pause.

"What's my argument when they fight to decertify?" he asked the room.

It's a fair question, and a difficult one too. Management knows the weaknesses that exist within the labour force, especially between older, more permanent workers and younger precarious ones, and they exploit them. When bargaining committees fall prey to this exploitation, their division will just sew resentment among the membership, weakening the strength of the union. Management wins.

Young workers hoisted their issues front and centre at the CUPE National convention at the end of October. President Paul Moist's re-election was challenged by a young woman, a first-time delegate, from the university sector. There were also motions served to create a national vice-president position for young workers, all that failed.

While the effect that a national representative for young workers would have on the structures at the local level is debatable, delegates opposed to the motion used rhetoric more appropriate for a football team than the labour movement. Many of the con delegates argued that young workers have to "work their way up" through the union and to not expect to be handed anything, as if forcing young people to scratch our way through the labour bureaucracy is how we want to build inter-generational solidarity within unions.

Another intervention, made by a young worker, argued that the very creation of this position would divide workers in her workplace, and that she relies on the support of the older workers she works with too much to be able to support such a divisive proposition.

Herein lies the problem: unions face a crisis in how to organize young workers and how to engage young members. Vacant rhetoric like this obscures the issues: involving young workers in union decision-making structures isn’t going to displace older workers. They're not the threat. Management, austerity and capitalism are the threats.

Local leaders need to understand how dire the situation is for their younger members, take their issues seriously and refuse to be divided by management's tactics. They also need to create active and meaningful ways for young workers to get involved, to form relationships with older workers and to share their experiences.

If the labour movement truly is going to survive in Canada, it needs to implement mechanisms to create this dialog and build community. The suspicion and fear that I've seen wrapped up in the comments of some older workers indicates to me just how far we need to go.

The good news, however, is that the solutions aren't too difficult. They just take a strong sense of solidarity, a strong faith in the folks that we work with and the effort to build community that is strong enough to withstand the attacks that all working people are facing.

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