The Time For Action is Now—Labor Unions Can Transform Our Economic Futures

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The Time For Action is Now—Labor Unions Can Transform Our Economic Futures

As a millennial, I often hear people say that our generation is quick to rally behind the latest social media trend, like the #SoGoneChallenge or #Beckywiththebadgrades, but when it comes to taking action to transform our economic futures, we become noticeably disengaged. But we know this isn’t true. From movements like Occupy Wall Street to the Movement for Black Lives to the Fight for $15, to addressing mass deportations, young people—especially young people of color—are at the forefront of social movements. But what many young people may not know is that the labor movement and unions have a history of undergirding these movements. And that this is a tool that we, as millennials, must utilize.

Today, on Labor Day—a day dedicated to celebrating the unmatched strength we have had as a collective to bargain and create the greatest middle class the world has ever known—it is time to remind ourselves that the magic of the American labor movement is not an invention whose time has passed. No, the American labor movement is actually the very tool that will move our generation from our parents’ basements to the economic independence and stability that will allow us to reestablish the dwindling middle class during these uncertain economic times.

As the American middle class has continued to shrink, we have simultaneously witnessed union membership decrease. One in 10 American workers now belongs to a union, a sharp decline from 50 years ago when nearly one-third of all workers was a union member.

Make no mistake, these events are inextricably linked, and as a result, one in three individuals in the millennial generation—our generation—are surfing on our parents’ couch and returning to our childhood bedrooms in adulthood. Even more disturbing, nearly 13 percent of us cannot find the employment necessary to jumpstart the financial independence that is necessary to begin supporting families of our own.

About 44 percent of college grads in their 20s are stuck in low-wage jobs with inadequate benefits according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. This economic reality is stunting our growth and entrée into adulthood, and is restricting America’s economic future.

But young people are just one group that is hurt by growing income inequality. Latinos and African Americans are disproportionately impacted by stagnant wages. And this wealth gap may impact us for generations to come.

Maybe we have forgotten that it was labor unions that helped secure many of the gains we enjoy now. It was unions that helped lead the civil rights movement, fight against racial discrimination and rally for fair wages and better working conditions—many of the same causes that we are still fighting for today.

Maybe we’ve lost sight of the fact that by giving workers a voice on the job – this has allowed people to stand up for their rights without fear of losing their livelihood. It’s because of unions that WNBA and NFL players can take a stand for Black Lives Matter and against violence against people of color.

We take for granted the fact that many of the benefits we enjoy today, are benefits that were brokered by unions, and yet we continue to fight the notion that unions are institutions of the past irrelevant to issues of today. But unions are leading the way on the key economic and racial justice issues of our day.

Every day we fight for causes like paid family leave, equal pay, criminal justice reform and bringing an end to racial bias within our unions. From immigration reform to equal rights for LGBTQ workers, we know the power unions hold to be agents of change. Recently Grammy award-winning singer John Legend, who has been partnering with us to reduce the prison population through his Free America Campaign, noted the role of unions. He said, “I was fortunate to grow up in a union household. I know how important they are for families and communities.”

It is time for us to understand that the labor movement is one of the most important vehicles for political change that extends beyond the workplace, because at its heart, the labor movement is a social justice movement. What if our generation redefined what it means to have a union job? What if we were able to change the face and voice and thrust of the labor movement?

As I travel around the country to organize with local communities, I am often reminded of my own community in Pittsburgh, PA. My mother and grandparents, who were union members, have been strong role models throughout my life. They taught me the importance of hard work, that we are stronger together.

It is time for us to get in Formation in partnership with the labor movement. Not only are labor unions the way for us to access our collective bargaining power, but they are also the key to us transforming our economic futures and the economic future of this great nation. For me, the link is natural. We’ve got a problem: the inability to find well-paying, career-starting jobs. And then we have a time-tested solution—union participation and membership. We only need to harness this power to create the change our country needs.

Carmen Berkley is director of the AFL-CIO Department on Civil Human and Women’s Rights