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It’s Past Time We Invested in Young Workers

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Image: Liz ShulerFree, high-quality public higher education. Expanded apprenticeship programs. Jobs that pay living wages. Workplaces that are free of discrimination. Strong union rights. Don’t those sound great?

These are what the members of the AFL-CIO’s Young Worker Advisory Council are asking for in their newly released Youth Economic Platform. This new generation of union leaders is tired of tone-deaf political conversation that completely misses the mark. They’re fed up with an economy that’s not working — especially for young people.

So they’re calling on President Obama to go big in his State of the Union next week. And they’re asking politicians everywhere to heed the call. The message is simple: Our government needs to invest in young people if we have any hope of reviving the American Dream.

Will millennials be the first American generation that ends up worse off than their parents? Many are struggling with an intimidating amount of student debt and lack of good employment options. They’re hampered by an economy that’s been held back by stagnant wages, weak worker bargaining power and declining union density. And youth unemployment remains too high — at 7.9 percent — especially for African Americans at 14.8 percent.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Economic challenges don’t just spring up. They’re the result of conscious political choices. Too many state legislatures have slashed funding for public education, causing college tuition to skyrocket. Congress has failed to ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, perpetuating horrible injustices.

So let’s chart a new course. Let’s choose to provide every student with free, high-quality public higher education. Let’s build out union apprenticeships and technical training so students can learn while they earn. Let’s encourage more young people to go into modern manufacturing. And let’s make a pledge: No worker who is just starting out should have the deck stacked against him or her. No one beginning a career should have to borrow against the future or risk becoming a victim of an unscrupulous training program or a predatory for-profit college because they want to achieve the American Dream. And it must be easier for young — and seasoned — workers to organize in the workplace and make their voices heard at the bargaining table and in the political process.

Together, labor unions will carry this message across the country to young people and to politicians, especially in the early presidential primary states. Politicians need to realize that if they want young people to turn out at the polls, they need a jobs agenda focused on youth issues. Union members, allies and community partners who belong to AFL-CIO young worker groups also will use this platform as an agenda for action. They’ll join and launch local campaigns surrounding these principles. Labor will continue this conversation because we are determined to build a movement that raises wages for all.

I’m proud to join young people in the call for a better future. It will take all of us working together to make the difference.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post and on Aflcio.org on January 17, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Liz Shuler was elected AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer in September 2009, the youngest person ever to become an officer of the AFL-CIO. Shuler previously was the highest-ranking woman in the Electrical Workers (IBEW) union, serving as the top assistant to the IBEW president since 2004. In 1993, she joined IBEW Local 125 in Portland, Ore., where she worked as an organizer and state legislative and political director. In 1998, she was part of the IBEW’s international staff in Washington, D.C., as a legislative and political representative.


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