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The_Workers_Voice

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Elana Levin, communications director for the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), joined us at the recent Labor Caucus during the Netroots Nation 2010 conference of bloggers and online activists.

We had a lot to cover at this year’s Labor Caucus at the Netroots Nation conference in Las Vegas last week. Some 70 participants took part—the largest-ever since we met five years ago at the first such national blogger conference. Participants included union staff, union members, political activists, labor bloggers, community organizations and candidates both past and present. The moderators were the AFL-CIO’s own Tula Connell and Matt Browner Hamlin of SEIU. We focused our discussion on young workers/young people in labor and how to improve public perception of labor unions.

Browner Hamlin brought up how the enemies of the netroots are the same pro-greed forces who are enemies of working people and the union movement. We have a lot of experience fighting against the corporate lobbies who sponsor astro-turf campaigns against the public interest and it would be good for the labor movement and the netroots to work together to stand up to the usual suspects that vex us all.

Because we focused our discussion on reaching out to young workers and demonstrating the relevance of unions to people who work outside traditionally unionized sectors, many participants brought up the changing workplace young workers and others face. Fellow attendee Robert Daraio of the New York Broadcast Trades Council summed it up nicely:

In the past, it was easier to organize and provide services to workers because they usually worked 40 hours a week for one employer, in one location. In the 21st century, work is short term, involves many employers and many locations.

To address the changes in the way work works today, this union, like so many others, needs to create multiemployer trusts for health and retirement plan contributions to be made for these members. There needs to be a greater percentage of union resources allotted for training to keep up with the rapid technological change that is the new norm in all industries.

AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler shared some lessons learned from the AFL-CIO’s Next Up Young Workers Summit. Key issues for keeping young people active in unions include:

  • Organizing temps and freelancers in the highly mobile (and highly exploited) workforce.
  • Teaching young members union basics since many have had no prior contact with unions.
  • Giving young people real leadership opportunities in their union as well as training for their work and their union activism.

Several participants said the young members of their unions are highly engaged in collective volunteering efforts set up by the union—at nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity or food banks. Young people want to see their union invested in the broader community, and want ways to help out.

Speaking of broader community, an attendee from Pennsylvania made a fantastic point: When unions get involved in coalition work with community groups, we need to make sure it’s a two-way street. For example, if you expect a student organization to go to your rally, help out those students in return next time they need the power of a union’s name on a petition for their causes. It’s solidarity, people!

Online organizing came up a lot as a way to engage young workers and non-union workers and to change the public’s perception of unions (big shock, I know). Charles Lechner from the New Organizing Institute emphasized that unions’ social media presence should be written a human voice—not sound like it’s written by committee. It’s great for unions to be on Twitter but if their tweets read like they are written by a robot, aren’t timely and don’t engage in the twitter community as a conversation you won’t get very far.

A really cool thing I learned at the caucus was that Wisconsin has a law requiring labor history to be taught as part of school curriculum. Students from Wisconsin will actually know why they have the privilege to attend class rather than be stooped over in a sweatshop or in farm fields—and find out why they will get weekends off when they join the workforce. If more states adopted legislation like Wisconsin’s, it would go a long way to helping the public understand the value of organized labor.

The caucus ended with some words from past and current candidates for office who stopped by. Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter thanked labor and the netroots for our support during his recent primary bid. Rodney Glassman, a Democratic candidate running against Republican Sen. John McCain in Arizona asked for labor support. AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Emerita Linda Chavez-Thompson received a standing ovation from the crowd—she is running for Lt. Governor of Texas and later spoke during the closing plenary.

That’s all I got for now. Were you at the Labor Caucus? Take better notes than I did? (which is not hard to do). Let me know what I missed in the comment thread. I hope to see even more of you next year.

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