July 26, 2010: Unions must begin to make changes now or today's young activists, and their younger colleagues, will abandon the labor movement and pursue social justice in other organizations with more welcoming cultures and values, according to a report released July 16 by the Berger-Marks Foundation.
While there have been significant gains for women in workplaces and the labor movement, a two-day summit in March 2010 in New Orleans among 30 women activists from at least 20 unions and other advocacy organizations outlined steps unions can take to attract young workers, and support them in key leadership roles, according to the report, Stepping Up, Stepping Back: Women Activists ‘Talk Union’ Across Generations.
The Berger-Marks Foundation helps to organize women into unions by providing financial support and “camaraderie to people and organizations doing that work,” according to its website (www.bergermarks.org).
The foundation's “trustees weren't sure quite what to expect when we brought together 30 women activists—half of them younger than 35, the other half older than 35—to New Orleans last March for an intergenerational conversation about the labor movement,” the foundation said in a statement. “What we got was a deeper understanding of what it is about unions that turns younger women on and what turns them off.”
The report “pulls no punches in its critique of today's unions. Its prescription for change includes practical, yet bold, steps that America's labor movement should undertake in order to ensure it becomes a ‘safe space’ for tomorrow's women workers and activists,” the foundation said.
The report found that the women under age 35 attending the conference want to spend their adult lives supporting organized labor. However, whether that happens will depend on “how quickly unions and allied organizations respond to their needs.” Members of the under-35 group have already thought about making the transition from labor organizations to social justice organizations because the culture for women and younger activists is more accepting, the report said.
The loss of more than 8 million jobs from 2007 to 2010 has meant that many women under age 35 “feel stuck” in positions that they would otherwise abandon, the report said. But it observed that a guaranteed revenue stream of monthly dues from union members gives women who work for various labor organizations more job security than their colleagues who work for other organizations and nonprofits.
Making Unions More Responsive to Young Women
Some of the goals for unions that the women under 35 recommended during the summit included creating “safe spaces” for women and younger activists, the report said. It found that younger union activists “need room to make mistakes and have the freedom to discuss their experiences without being judged by the higher-ups in the union hierarchy.”
The report also pointed out that sexism and sexual harassment still are “too common” throughout the labor movement and must end or unions will not have the chance to recruit and retain a new generation of women activists and leaders. Adopting policies that avoid sexual harassment has not been enough to change an ingrained culture of sexism, the report said. It asserted that union leaders must be willing to call out and punish union members who engage in inappropriate conduct.
Unions should reach out to younger workers by providing opportunities for interaction that does not rely on social networking, the report said. “What matters to younger workers are the issues unions tackle, not whether their leaders have a large following on Twitter.”
Shifting Labor's Agenda
Organized labor's agenda and its traditionally male-dominated culture make adoption of a feminist agenda “all but impossible for unions,” the report said. It suggested that unions partner with women's organizations at the community and national level.
Other recommendations included establishing a mentoring program for younger women. In addition to formal traditional mentoring, the report recommended peer-to-peer mentoring programs.
Younger activists want training in basic union skills, such as managing meetings and handling grievances as well as comprehensive, continuing education on economics, politics, and why unions matter, the report said.
Unions should implement term limits for certain elected offices at labor organizations that do not already have them, the report said. It added that term limits would send a strong signal to younger activists that they could get the chance to reach the top leadership ranks of their unions. Expanding the number of seats on union governing boards would allow more women and persons of color in leadership positions, according to the report.
Younger workers also want to be included in “real decision-making” and have the opportunity to take responsibility for important projects, the report said.
“The young women who met in New Orleans are tough, seasoned labor leaders who can make a real difference for the union movement,” the report said. “They want to be at the main table. They don't deserve to be relegated to the ‘kids' table.’ But, younger activists don't want just a seat. They want to help plan the menu and prepare the meal.”
Lastly, the report recommended that union meetings be structured to allow younger members to network and interact face-to-face with older, more experienced leaders and activists. Younger members should be encouraged to plan and execute social events, not just for their own peer group, but for the entire membership, the report said. “Life for working families is tough enough these days, so union-sponsored events should be fun as well as informational and substantive,” the report concluded.
By Alicia Biggs