Empowering Young Workers

August 23, 2016

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Courtney Jenkins, standing, co-chaired the workshop

At a workshop on Empowering Young Workers, Robin Robertson asked the question on everyone’s mind: How do we attract more young workers to the union cause? At 38, the secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Gateway Area Local is the youngest activist in her local.

In the past, locals had bowling leagues and invited workers to join; if they heard you singing by your machine, they asked you to join the chorus, said Clerk Craft NBA Rachel Walthall, who helped lead the workshop.

But as Cleveland Area Local President Daleo Freeman pointed out, “You have to craft the message for the time.”

If a young worker is interested in art, ask them to design a flyer for an upcoming event, Walthall suggested. “Find out what they are into, what excites them,” she said. 

“Find your niche,” said Keith Richardson, Central Region Accident Benefit Association Director. “Find that first and then you grow. Every local has something that you can take from it and grow.”

In a panel discussion, Walthall, Freeman and Richardson – now in their 40s – shared lessons from their own triumphs and tribulations when they were young, new union activists. The panel discussion was moderated by Courtney Jenkins, a member of the Baltimore Area Local’s Executive Board and the APWU’s representative to the AFL-CIO’s Young Worker Advisory Council.

Growing Pains

There’s no denying that being a young union activist comes with growing pains. Mistakes will be made, but finding a mentor – or several – to guide you will keep you moving in the right direction, Jenkins said.

Walthall echoed that theme, repeatedly paying tribute to the experienced union officers who guided her when she got started – and who continue to give her counsel to this day.

But older, more experienced union officers don’t always encourage young people to get involved, Freeman noted. Sometimes, he said, “They tell you to wait your turn.” 

“Don’t think you are going to run in and become president,” he added. “What you need to do is get involved. That’s the only way we are going to perpetuate ourselves.”

Young members have every right to attend meetings and voice opinions, Walthall said, and when their numbers grow, their voices will grow louder, too.

By the same token, newer activists must recognize they have a lot to learn. Freeman recalled how proud he was of the first grievance he settled as a shop steward, until a more experienced representative helped him negotiate a better deal. 

Finding the balance between asserting yourself and learning from others was a theme throughout the workshop. But all agreed: Getting more young people involved is essential to the future of the APWU.

Johanna Rice, from the Northeast Florida Area Local, asked how to avoid getting overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being a steward, especially when time to conduct union business is scarce.

“You have to learn to sustain yourself. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Freeman said.

Getting young workers involved is a must, Walthall said. When experienced union officers retire, young workers must be there to fill their very big shoes.

“Don’t forget about the APWU because we are here to stay. We want to make sure the union is here for working people,” she said.

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