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Millennials offer unions huge, tough opportunity

By Steve Vairma

If the labor movement can eventually achieve a goal that has in more than two decades become almost illusory, the unions will be able to survive and the American workforce will be the beneficiaries.

If the unions were successful, there would be no more talk of wage stagnation, wage theft and other examples of workplace exploitation. The phony promises of politicians would be forgotten.

The diminishment of U.S. private sector labor unions from about 35 percent in the 1950s to about eight percent today would end as labor union membership would once again reach high levels.

The long term key to labor’s survival is to organize the unorganized, and the largest unorganized group today is the Millennials, those young men and women born after 2001, the largest U.S. generation living today. Some 49 percent of them are Hispanic, and they now account for about 36 percent of the American workforce.

Here are some Millennial statistics:

  • They have $1 trillion in student debt. The average member of Gen Y carries $45 000 in debt.
  • Unemployment rate of 16.3.
  • Six in 10 Millennials have jobs, half are part-time
  • 284,000 American college graduates working in minimum-wage jobs in 2012.
  • 48 percent of employed college graduates work in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree.
  • 50 percent do not believe that Social Security will exist when they reach their retirement age.
  • Average student carries $12,700 in credit-card and other kinds of debt.
  • More tolerant of races and groups than older generations (47 percent vs. 19 percent), with 45 percent agreeing with preferential treatment to improve the position of minorities.
  • Millennials account for 36 percent of the U.S. workforce and by 2025, they will account for 75 percent of the global workplace.
  • 41 percent of Millennials do what their managers tell them to do, which is greater than older generations.
  • Interested in high tech, sometimes preoccupied with it.
  • They elected a president – 60 percent voted for Obama in 2012, 66 percent in Millennials will be 40 percent of the electorate by 2020.
  • In 2008, 48 million Millennials (those born between 1978 and 2000) were eligible to vote, and 25 million actually did.
  • Younger Americans are most progressive (56.6) on cultural and social values and the least progressive on economic and domestic policy (53.1).

Some observers believe Millennials are more caring and community oriented than previous generations. Others say they are entitled and narcissistic. They have mastered social media. Some 75 percent have created a profile on a social networking site.

Most Millennials prefer part-time jobs and flexible work schedules; they change jobs frequently, and some say they are not particularly loyal to their employers. For those reasons they probably sacrifice job security and some income, which they may not value as much their preceding generations.

So there it is. The labor movement’s goal for the future. The unions must design an organizing plan that would appeal to this generation, one unlike any of its predecessors — the Greatest, the Silent, Baby Boomers and GenX Generations, and it won’t be easy.

But we can figure it out.

Steve Vairma is Secretary-Treasurer of Local 455 in Denver, President of Joint Council 3 and Western Region Director for the Teamsters Warehouse Division. He has been a Teamster since 1982.

What has the union done for me?

The union movement in the United States has historically been one of the most productive weavers of the fabric of American culture.

Organized labor is primarily responsible for virtually every piece of social legislation ever enacted to help working men and women, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, minimum wage and health and safety in the workplace, among many others.

These benefits are taken for granted today by most Americans. They are used — and sometimes abused — by recipients who generally don’t give a damn how they came about.

Perhaps if they were told the real story of how union men and women fought and sometimes died for these rights, they might not choose to believe it; anyway. If Fox News would pronounce the real story a big, fat lie, they would believe it.

But workers’ benefits are now part of the foundation upon which society is based — even though the unions and others who fought for the legislation that created them were vilified as un-American and worse during the heat of the battle.

In fact, what American citizens today consider their “rights” were won by unions after much blood was shed by workers and their families.

In fact, the blood of thousands of workers, mostly coal miners, flowed within states of Teamsters Joint Council 3 during the early 1900s. All the states within the council were the scenes of labor strife. Coal miners were mostly European immigrants and were among the most persecuted workers in American history.

For example, in 1917, 168 miners died horrible deaths after an exposed electrical cable was touched by miner’s carbide lamp in the unsafe Granite Mountain coal mine near Butte, Montana. Underground mines were notoriously unsafe in those days.

Colorado was the scene of several corporate-sponsored attacks on workers earlier in the century, including a battle in 1904 between the Colorado militia and striking miners at Dunnville, a town in the Cripple Creek mining district. The conflict ended with six union members dead and 15 arrested. Some 10 years later in 1914 two women and 11 children were burned to death in the infamous Ludlow Massacre in Southern Colorado after the state militia attacked a strikers’ tent colony.

In Arizona in 1917, the “Brisbee Deportation” occurred when several thousand armed vigilantes forced more than a thousand Brisbee workers into box cars, already laden with manure, and sent them into the New Mexico desert in retaliation for a strike by workers seeking improvements in working conditions at local mines.

Salt Lake City was the site of the execution of labor organizer Joe Hill who was convicted of trumped-up murder charges despite worldwide protests two futile attempts by President Woodrow Wilson to stop the execution.

At the turn of the century from 1899 to 190l U.S. Army troops occupied the Coeur d’Alene mining region in Idaho to quell violence in a widespread labor dispute that started when mining companies hired scabs to replace striking miners.

These were not isolated cases. The 20th Century was replete with labor strife in the United States. Thousands of working men and women—123 women and young girls were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911—were killed striving for workplace rights, which some workers believe were given to them out of the kindness of their employers’ hearts.

Labor history is rarely taught today in public schools. If it is, it is seldom taught well, which has caused a huge problem for contemporary American workers.

The schools don’t provide them with a union legacy, and neither do their parents, most of whom have never been union members themselves. Many of today’s workers—both union and nonunion—don’t realize what organized labor has done for them, and will continue to do for them.

What a shame.