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‘Young Workers: A Lost Decade’

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(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)


Take a look around this Labor Day. Chances are, you’ll see a lot of young workers on the job, because something bad happened in the past 10 years to young workers in this country: Since 1999, more of them now have lower-paying jobs, if they can get a job at all; health care is a rare luxury and retirement security is something for their parents, not them. In fact, many—younger than 35—still live at home with their parents because they can’t afford to be on their own.

These are the findings of a new report, “Young Workers: A Lost Decade.” Conducted in July 2009 by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the AFL-CIO and our community affiliate Working America, the nationwide survey of 1,156 people follows up on a similar survey the AFL-CIO conducted in 1999. The deterioration of young workers’ economic situation in those 10 years is alarming.

Nate Scherer, 31, is among today’s young workers. Scherer lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares a home with his wife, his parents, brother and his partner.  He spoke at a media conference at the AFL-CIO today to discuss the report.

After getting married, my wife and I decided to move in with my parents to pay off our bills. We could afford to live on our own but we’d never be able to get out of debt. We have school loans to pay off, too. We’d like to have children, but we just can’t manage the expense of it right now…so we’re putting it off till we’re in a better place. My [work] position is on the edge, and I feel like if my company were to cut back, my position would be one of the first to go.

During today’s press briefing, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka summed up the report’s findings this way:

We’re calling the report “A Lost Decade” because we’re seeing 10 years of opportunity lost as young workers across the board are struggling to keep their heads above water and often not succeeding. They’ve put off adulthood—put off having kids, put off education—and a full 34 percent of workers under 35 live with their parents for financial reasons.

Just last week we learned that about 1.7 million fewer teenagers and young adults were employed in July than a year before, hitting a record low of 51.4 percent.

As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said:  

Young workers in particular must be given the tools to lead the next generation to prosperity. The national survey we’re releasing today shows just how broken our economy is for our young people…and what’s at stake if we don’t fix it.

Some of the report’s key findings include:

  • 31 percent of young workers report being uninsured, up from 24 percent 10 years ago, and 79 percent of the uninsured say they don’t have coverage because they can’t afford it or their employer does not offer it.
  • Strikingly, one in three young workers are currently living at home with their parents.
  • Only 31 percent say they make enough money to cover their bills and put some money aside—22 percentage points fewer than in 1999—while 24 percent cannot even pay their monthly bills. 
  • A third cannot pay their bills and seven in 10 do not have enough saved to cover two months of living expenses.
  • 37 percent have put off education or professional development because they can’t afford it.
  • When asked who is most responsible for the country’s economic woes, close to 50 percent of young workers place the blame on Wall Street and banks or corporate CEOs. And young workers say greed by corporations and CEOs is the factor most to blame for in the current financial downturn.
  • By a 22-point margin, young workers favor expanding public investment over reducing the budget deficit. Young workers rank conservative economic approaches such as reducing taxes, government spending and regulation on business among the five lowest of 16 long-term priorities for Congress and the president.
  • Thirty-five percent say they voted for the first time in 2008, and nearly three-quarters now keep tabs on government and public affairs, even when there’s not an election going on.
  • The majority of young workers and nearly 70 percent of first-time voters are confident that Obama will take the country in the right direction.

Trumka, who is running for AFL-CIO president without announced opposition at our convention later this month, is making union outreach to young people a top priority. He said one of the report’s conclusions is especially striking:

Young people want to be involved but they’re rarely asked. Their priorities are even more progressive than the priorities of the older generation of working people, yet they aren’t engaged by co-workers or friends to get involved in the economic debate.

Currently, 18-to-35-year-olds make up a quarter of union membership. And at the AFL-CIO Convention, we will ask Convention delegates to approve plans for broad recruitment of young workers, as well as plans for training and leadership of young workers who are currently union members. And that’s just the beginning of a broad push towards talking and mobilizing young workers in the coming months and years.

According to the report, more than half of young workers say employees are more successful getting problems resolved as a group rather than as individuals, and employees who have a union are better off than employees in similar jobs who do not.

Read the full report here.

About the Author: Seth D. Michaels is the online campaign coordinator for the AFL-CIO, focusing on the Employee Free Choice campaign. Prior to arriving at the AFL-CIO, he’s worked on online mobilization for Moveon.org, Blue State Digital and the National Jewish Democratic Council. He also spent two years touring the country as a member of the Late Night Players, a sketch comedy troupe.

This article originally appeared in employeefreechoice.org. Re-printed with permission from the author.

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Employee Free Choice Act: A Signature Battle for Our Future

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At the three-day America’s Future Now! conference going on now in Washington, D.C., many workshops are focused on empowering people and building a stronger, fairer economy, and few issues are more critical to those goals than the Employee Free Choice Act and restoring workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life.

At a session this morning on the Employee Free Choice Act, some of the people most involved in the fight to pass the bill discussed why we need it and how we’re going to make it happen.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the leadership in the Senate is strongly behind the bill and he won’t back down on giving real freedom to workers who want a union, making sure workers can get a first contract and that there are meaningful penalties to violations of workers’ freedom.

If senators refuse to compromise, if they refuse to come to the table in good faith, I will take the original bill to the floor and demand an up-or-down vote. We will see where everyone stands, and working people can vote accordingly.

Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), talked about the 1930s, when the expansion of collective bargaining helped rebuild the economy by giving workers a stake in the economy. We need to give workers that power again, he said:

You will never revive this economy or the buying power of American workers unless American workers have a seat at the table, a voice, the ability to collectively bargain.

Cohen told the story of Sara Steffens, a prize-winning journalist who, with her co-workers, faced massive employer intimidation while trying to form a union. The United States is nearly unique among industrial democracies in the world because here workers like Steffens face a management veto and management abuses over what should be their choice to form a union. CEOs and corporate lobbyists are spending tens of millions of dollars, Cohen said, to block the Employee Free Choice Act and keep their control over the process. That’s why we need a strong and united progressive front behind this bill, Cohen said:

We need to say to every senator, which side are you on? Are you on the side of Sara Steffens, or are you on the side of the Chamber of Commerce, making the same arguments they made in 1935? Some people are saying this isn’t the time, but this is exactly the time. It’s the time to rebuild the middle class.

Former Rep. David Bonior, chairman of American Rights at Work, said there needs to be a tie between the union movement and the broader progressive community, because we have common goals: making sure people have health care, fair wages, safety in the workplace and dignity and power in their own lives. We have the ability to change this country in a fundamental way, Bonior said. He offered a strong case that the Employee Free Choice Act is at the heart of the change our country needs.

We will pass the Employee Free Choice Act. We will do it. This is a struggle that’s been going on for decades and the injustice of it is ringing out.

We’ve watched our economy take a nosedive. It’s obvious that CEOs and corporations have gone too far, and everyone is paying a price. Those who have been calling the shots the last eight years, they put profits ahead of people—now they have the nerve to say that progressive policies will hurt the economy, as if they were experts?

Bonior said that you strengthen the economy from the bottom up, by giving workers, not their bosses, the choice about forming a union.

If you work hard, you should get a decent wage. If you get sick, you should have decent health care. If you put in a lifetime of work, you should get a pension. That’s the American dream. There’s no history of a strong middle class without collective bargaining…the Employee Free Choice Act will empower people.

Bonior said that over the past decade, 90 percent of wage growth went to the top 10 percent of earners, 59 percent of growth went to only 1 percent of earners—and a staggering 34 percent of wage growth went to the very top 0.1 percent of earners. That hurts the economy, and it’s a striking contrast to the fairer, more balanced wage growth when workers had a real choice to form a union. It’s due directly to the relentless attacks against workers who are trying to form unions, he said.

Bonior closed with a strong message for President Barack Obama and his economic team:

It is not good enough to go back to what we had, because what we had did not work and is not just and we will not stand enough.

We all have a stake in empowering more workers to have unions.

Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, said that the Employee Free Choice Act is a critical step in history.

The election of Obama is a testament to the long history of the civil rights movement and the progressive coalition—we haven’t won everything yet, Henderson said, but we look at real changes like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court and it’s striking to think how much things have changed. But we need the Employee Free Choice Act as well, said Henderson.

It’s not just about what unions do for individuals—although that’s critical—but what they do for communities, Henderson said.

We support it because it’s fair, because it’s the right thing to do, because it will transform this country. We need to turn up the heat to make sure that Congress deals with the fundamental needs of American workers.

Harkin, like Henderson, said the changes in Washington since the election are obvious—with a president, Barack Obama, who co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act in the Senate, and a strong secretary of labor, Hilda Solis. The next change we need is to give workers the bargaining rights they need.

The American people know the economy is broken, and they know the best bet for strengthening the middle class is giving them the right to organize. And the best way to do that is through the Employee Free Choice Act.

Workers need an easy way to say, “Yes, I want a union,” without being harassed, without being intimidated, without being fired.

About the Author: Seth D. Michaels is the online campaign coordinator for the AFL-CIO, focusing on the Employee Free Choice campaign. Prior to arriving at the AFL-CIO, he’s worked on online mobilization for Moveon.org, Blue State Digital and the National Jewish Democratic Council. He also spent two years touring the country as a member of the Late Night Players, a sketch comedy troupe.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on June 2, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.

Note: for more information on the Employee Free Choice Act visit this resource page compiled by Workplace Fairness http://p2pt0.wetpaint.com/page/EFCA+Resources

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