Working for Our Future: Young Working People Are Next Up

Monday night in Cleveland, the AFL-CIO’s young worker program, Next Up, hosted a town hall, Working for Our Future, which addressed issues for young people, by young people, and how they can make a major difference in this election and their communities.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler opened the event:

Several young union leaders spoke at the town hall. Here are some excerpts of their stories:

Rachel Bryan, IBEW, electrician: When I was a young woman, I experienced domestic violence. Due to that, I found myself homeless, incarcerated, abandoned and forced to make decisions that most are not faced with.

My life took a very difficult turn, and the effects of that could have ruined my dreams. When I finished my incarceration, I worried would I be able to find a job because so many industries refuse to provide opportunity to people who have made a mistake. I was advised to seek employment in construction, which would not discriminate against me, and that is how I became an electrician.

I loved being an electrician: creating spaces that people would use, seeing incremental progress I made each day turn into a huge structure over time. I am grateful that I had the chance to have a good union job, where my pay was determined by my skills and classification. I make the same amount as any white man with the same classification. And I made enough money to start to realize my goals. The union changed my life.

Erica Clemmons, AFSCME, former front-end manager: I started my journey at Kroger as a cashier, transitioning fast through the company, and thanks to my union, I advanced from a cashier to administrative assistant to front-end manager in just five years. In 2013, I got a phone call from my dad, who was a Kroger unit manager for over 15 years, asking me to come help take care of him after he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. That meant transferring to Kroger in Ohio, but I lost my status, my pay and my position, leaving me with minimum wage to support my daughter and father on a part-time income.

I was taking care of my 5-year-old daughter and supporting my dad, who had dialysis three times a week. He needed more care at home and help from me. On a part-time salary, I couldn’t afford to send my daughter to day care or hire a home health aide to assist with my dad while I worked. The only option I had was to send my daughter back to Atlanta with my mother, and I stayed and moved in with my dad. Emotionally, separating myself from my daughter and not knowing when I would be able to see her, hold her or teach her things played so heavily on my heart. It also meant that just weeks later I would miss her very first day of school. I worked as much as I could during the four hours my father was at dialysis...until he went into intensive care for the last two weeks of his life. I stayed at the hospital day and night with him, which meant I went two weeks without pay.

Those two weeks I had no means of sending funds to help with my daughter and no way to pay my bills that were due. My father passed six months after I relocated to Ohio.

Young people today are taking on more caregiving responsibilities, and if we are working part time, whether by choice or not, we should have the same opportunities. What all young working people need are stronger workplace protections that will make sure that when we work hard, we can get ahead.

Victoria Fisher, CWA: It is critical to the future of our country that we educate and mobilize young workers to get involved with elections, not just as voters but as protectors of democracy. When I go out to college campuses, mosques or the mall to register young voters, I hear too often from young people, "My vote doesn’t count." We have a lot of work to do to make sure that, indeed, every vote counts. We must remain vigilant over our rights to vote that were hard-fought through the 15th Amendment, the suffrage movement and the civil rights movement. We must ensure that our voices count more than any corporation by getting money out of politics....

We also believe that our democracy works best when everyone has an opportunity to participate. We need to hear from all communities, including those that may have a harder time connecting to our democratic process because it is new for them. Unfortunately, there are many people in this country who want to limit our access to the vote, not expand it. As young people, we stand united against these efforts and demand that everyone’s right to vote be preserved.

Luis Garcia, CSEA, public school support staff: I work in the public school system as part of the support staff. CSEA members are part of the crucial infrastructure of our schools. We are the instructional aides and paraprofessionals. We support the learning environment. We keep the schools clean and safe, and make sure the students have good food to eat and nursing care when they need it. My brothers and sisters also work in California’s community college system.

All of my colleagues are affected by the problems with access to affordable public education. Our members love and care about the kids of today, who will be college students tomorrow. We know they need and deserve an affordable higher education. Many of our members would like to become teachers. They start out as instructional aides to get job experience but then find they can’t go back to school to get full teaching credentials, because they are afraid to take on huge college debt that a public school teacher’s salary can’t repay.

C.J. Jenkins, APWU, postal worker: The first time I ever opened up my collective bargaining agreement, one of the first things that caught my eye was the article on nondiscrimination and civil rights. In that moment, I was so proud to be an APWU member because I realized unions fight for all working people. I was hooked and I caught the activist bug.

I began to advocate for the most vulnerable of us: working people who didn’t have a voice. The union gave me a second chance at education–the union became my college education. I began to learn how effective collective bargaining could be in providing equity for all working people.

I learned racial justice and economic justice are inseparable; you can’t talk about one without talking about the other. The only way we can have racial equity is if we address the severe economic disparities that face communities of color. We have to look at everything we do–whether it’s LGBTQ rights, the fight against bad trade deals, fight for immigration reform or collective bargaining rights–through the lens of how people of color are affected.

Being the most diverse generation in U.S. history has afforded us the privilege of seeing how our differences make us stronger, and inclusion is what allows us the ability to utilize that strength.

Glenn Kelly, IUBAC, cement mason: I believe everyone should have that same chance. What drives me is helping people get a fair wage and have benefits. Workers who don’t have a union don’t have those benefits. They don’t have health insurance or a pension. They might be getting paid under the table. They make low wages, and they can’t afford to save for the future. I talk to construction workers who don’t have a union, and they feel left behind and left out.

Our union works with community partners like Jobs With Justice, LCLAA and others to stop the misclassification of immigrant workers. Misclassification is one of the ways employers exploit immigrants–it’s a way to steal their wages.

Heather Laverty, TWU: I come from a union family, so I know the importance of the union in helping to secure good pay, benefits and a voice at work....

When I transferred to western Michigan, I worked three jobs to keep me afloat with living and school expenses. Because I had so many jobs, I was never sure if I was a part-time or full-time student, making me ineligible for health care. That meant that most of my income went toward paying for my own health insurance. And I needed $20,000 in loans on top of my three jobs. It took me seven years to graduate, but I did it.

But still, every month, I pay back my student loans on top of my living expenses like rent and food. And I definitely cannot buy my own place and will soon have to help my family once my father retires. We need debt-free college. No one should have three jobs and massive student debt just to earn an education to improve their skills and get good jobs.

Patricia Watson, AFSCME, forensic coordinator: Through our union, I learned how important it is to be involved in our democracy, and to go to city hall when they are making decisions that affect me and my community. I make it a point to bring my children to rallies and political events so they can learn how it feels when you flex your political muscles.

I am also director of events for Black Girls Vote. In this organization, we not only do voter registration, but also stress education and empowerment. Part of our community initiative focuses on restoring civil rights to people with criminal records....

I want all people to vote. Everyone should know how powerful their voice is and that while corporations and CEOs have made rules that favor the 1%, we can make policies for all of us. We know that that is where the true power lies. Our organized and empowered voices provide the policies that make sure our communities are places that we want to live in.

Justin Willis, USW, steelworker: I served my country with my fellow soldiers who are Muslim, white, black, Latino and Asian American in Iraq in 2004-2005. We were brothers and sisters, and we had each other’s backs. But we were all terrified. I never knew if I would make it home to be with my family again. We lived experiences that we cannot forget and that changed us forever.

Many of us returned to civilian life with injuries and emotional challenges. We struggled to find good jobs that would sustain our families. I was angry to find out that our government and employers don’t invest in veterans and Americans who want to work....

Young people are the workforce of today and tomorrow. We need our government to build an economy that works for us. Too many young people cannot see a path into their future because there are not enough good jobs. We are working part time for low pay. We are challenged to support ourselves, let alone imagine having a family and being able to realize our own version of the American dream....

We want leaders who will honor the service of veterans and all Americans with good manufacturing and infrastructure jobs that won’t be exported and that ensure living wages, health care and retirement with dignity after we serve.

U.S. Ohio Senate candidate Ted Strickland also showed up at the event and addressed the issues the young working people were discussing: