Young labor activists see hope in future

New generation of union leaders works to engage members
2009-09-06T00:00:00Z Young labor activists see hope in futureBowdeya Tweh - bowdeya.tweh@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com
September 06, 2009 12:00 am  • 

Despite concerns of a graying work force, young labor leaders around Northwest Indiana and Chicago say they are encouraged about the prospects of younger members being part of an advocacy movement for change on, and after, Labor Day.

Jorge Ramirez, 38, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor, says younger workers have a lot more exposure to labor issues, and they are learning more about them through sources such as the Internet. He says it's the job of labor leaders like him to make those connections with younger workers.

United Auto Workers Local 551 President Carlo Bishop, 35, says the majority of hourly employees his local represents are younger than 40 and sometimes aren't engaged in labor issues. The local represents nearly 1,200 hourly employees at Ford Motor Co.'s Chicago Assembly Plant.

"We have a pretty young work force, and they aren't too involved in the health care rallies and Employee Free Choice Act. That's not their main concern," Bishop says.

He says speaking to workers one-to-one and posting pictures from rallies around the South Side plant help show them the importance of certain issues.

Changing work force

Nearly 30 percent of the state's population older than 60 is currently working, according to an Indiana University Center on Aging and Community study. Despite a projected increase in the number of older workers including Baby Boomers, younger workers are going to control the direction of the labor movement, according to the head of a local building trades council.

Randy Palmateer, 30, business manager of the Northwest Indiana Building and Construction Trades Council, acknowledges a generation gap exists among his members. Older workers aren't being pushed out of their jobs, and Palmateer says he understands they have a lot vested in the success of future efforts.

"We need their knowledge," he says. "They got us here, (but) we're going in a different direction because the times dictate how you move forward. It's different than how it was in the '50s or '60s."

Ramirez says the age of workers isn't the only labor demographic changing.

"Folks that come in from other countries -- including the 17 million undocumented workers in this country -- they don't come here to vacation, they come here to work," Ramirez says. "Until we can make sure that these folks have some type of permanent residency status or ability or path to citizenship, employers will exploit that in an organizing campaign."

Ana Guajardo, 30, founded an organization in 2008 on Chicago's southeast side to empower and educate workers, especially those who are immigrants.

"Everyone in the U.S. has a right regardless of their status," says Guajardo, executive director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, or the Immigrant Workers' Project.

The organization, which is seeking federal tax-exempt status, has held training seminars for workers and acts as an intermediary in labor disputes. Guajardo says when workers receive training, the hope is they will, in turn, educate their fellow workers.

Where labor is heading

Palmateer says his unions are becoming more business-minded and getting away from holding pickets at each perceived unfair labor practice.

The council represents about 30,000 members among 16 building trades in Lake, Porter, Newton and Jasper counties.

"If we don't start running it like a business, we'll be out of business," Palmateer says. "We can't do the old style anymore."

The new style represents doing more marketing and customer-relations work to drum up business. Once a government agency or private developer requests proposals, organizers use technology to find the owner or developer and try to contact them before the work goes nonunion. He says the council will attempt to sell them on using a qualified, drug-free, cost-effective work force.

Getting involved in politics and in the community, Palmateer says, also is something more members need to do. Palmateer serves on redevelopment commissions for Lake County and Crown Point and the Center Township Advisory Board.

Words of wisdom

Union activist and organizer Tom Shepherd says the new crop of younger leaders is going to have to figure out how to slow down the hemorrhaging of American manufacturing and service-sector jobs to overseas locales.

Shepherd, 59, says anti-union politics have spurred the decline of the labor movement's influence, which has been helped by increased self-absorbed attitudes among younger workers and a lack of history being taught, creating a "dumbing down" effect on younger generations.

He says leaders can't be afraid to take hard-line measures when necessary.

"There's going to be struggle and hardship and pain," Shepherd says.

Emily Rosenberg, director of De Paul University's Labor Education Center in Chicago, says for the labor movement to be successful, organizers need to be educated. The center teaches about 50 people each year writing skills, labor history and the economics of labor. Many graduates of the program ascend to leadership positions in different sectors of labor, she says.

Rosenberg, 60, says she's optimistic that young, "active" leaders will work hard to restore rights that politicians and business interests have eroded since the 1980s.

"If people are looking for an immediate changeover, it won't happen," Rosenberg says. "It takes a long time to rebuild a movement. People get really discouraged when they don't see a lot happening. The name of the game: it's local, it's state. It's what you can do banding together."

Coming Tuesday. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn headlines a Labor Day rally Monday at the Pullman State Historic Site on the South Side.

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