Young workers get a bad rep — at least according to Amy Huziak, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) national young workers representative.
“We’re self-interested,” she noted, listing off the other things, employers and unionists alike think about millennials — that they’re lazy, for one, or spoiled — to an audience of about 60 at the young workers forum on the CLC convention on Tuesday night.
But young workers are also necessary for the labour movement to grow. As union density declines, the CLC and other labour organizations are trying to figure out how to bring more young people into the fold in order to strengthen the labour movement, but also to renew it.
They may find some of their answers at Halifax coffee shops. Two stores in the maritime capital ran organizing drives last year, with one, Just Us! Café, successfully forming a local under the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Two of the organizers made the trip to Montreal for the CLC convention, where they explained how they were able to mobilize and engage baristas.
“All of us were so frustrated with what was going on,” said Charlie Huntley, who works at Just Us!, where baristas were subject to unjust hiring and firing as well as being denied basic rights like work breaks. “We were all on board right away. As for convincing other people…it was just about getting the truth out of them and getting them angry.”
One of the main challenges the group faced was the fact that many people didn’t know what a union was. In fact, Shelby Kennedy, who went on to help organize her Second Cup outlet, was one of the people who didn’t know about unions.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” Kennedy added.
Once everyone was on the same page, organizing began in a more informal, albeit appropriate way for the setting — they would head to their own coffee shops to order espressos and chat with their co-workers.
The fact that they are young workers themselves helped them build solidarity. Young workers say that making sure there are more visible young workers in leadership positions, and in the labour movement as a whole, is one of the key steps the CLC and unions will have to take if they want to move forward.
“[The CLC] gives everybody else a chance to have speeches and be asked questions, except young workers,” said Carly Sonier, the incoming CLC national young workers representative.
She hopes that this will change at future conventions. She also noted that the CLC could do more to make the convention accessible for young workers who can’t come because of the cost or timing.
“What I would like to see is having this broadcast on the internet so young workers who aren’t here physically can watch what’s going on,” she said.
Getting young people more involved has been an issue for the CLC for over ten years now. Marie Clarke Walker was the youngest person ever elected to the national executive board when she ran in 2002. She told the forum about attending a CLC young worker forum the year she was elected with only ten people in attendance.
The room was much fuller than that on Tuesday night, which is perhaps a sign that many in the labour movement are ready to listen to young workers. But young workers need more than people open to discussion.
“We need your help,” said Kennedy, adding that support and guidance are crucial, but only if organizers also respect that young workers will have their own ideas for how to organize their workplaces. And that’s just the beginning.
David Bush, one of the SEIU organizers who worked on the campaign, says that organizing young workers will take a commitment of time and resources — and it may not come cheaply. “If unions want to organize young workers they can host as many panels and try to be as hip as they want,” said Bush. “The only thing that is going to do it is you have to spend the money to go organize where young people work.”
He noted that SEIU commits a significant amount of its dues — about 40 to 45 per cent — to organizing, much of which they do just by going out and starting conversations with workers.
At the forum he challenged those in attendance to start showing young people and precarious workers exactly what a union could do for them.
“We better be tipping big at the Tim Hortons,” he said, referring to the outlet in the basement of the convention centre where the forum took place. “We have to plant the seeds.”
photo: Kim Elliott;