Young Workers: Challenges Now and in the Future Workshop

• Khamati Mugalla, Executive Secretary, East Africa Trade Union Confederation (EATUC)
• Aruna Jain, Working America, AFL-CIO, USA

• Molly McCoy, Solidarity Center Regional Program Director for the Americas

There are few young female workers in union leadership structures. She noted that as the panelists discuss the increasing participation of young people in the workforce and in unions, they will share their varied approaches in reaching out to young workers. She pointed out that the Solidarity Center and partner organizations also have used media and other methods to reach out to young men and women workers. Molly McCoy introduced the workshop by pointing out that young workers’ socio-economic situation around the world needs to be seen in the context of gender and as a part of the overall theme of this conference. Young people, particularly young women, often are employed in exploitative and low-paying jobs, mirroring in many ways women’s overall economic situation. Many young workers are not members of trade unions.

See the presentation.

Aruna Jain described Working America, created by the AFL-CIO in 2003, as a member organization formed by the AFL-CIO to connect with U.S. workers not being reached by traditional unions and to expand the ranks of organized working people in the face of declining union membership and ongoing attacks by anti-union groups. Working America engages in extensive door-to-door outreach, with two out of three people contacted being signed up as an associate union member. In its first year, Working America signed up 1 million members and now has 3 million members nationwide.

Jain pointed to Working America’s use of social media and traditional media outreach to promote union issues and provide information about unions. Many in the United States aren’t familiar with the labor movement and unions, which creates obstacles for union organizing.  Some 500,000 young workers have signed up as Working America members.

Many young workers are unemployed and sometimes don’t qualify for unemployment benefits because they have not worked long enough, Jain said. The rise in student debt rates is a major new issue for young people, as these rates have doubled under new laws. Because of these issues, young workers sometimes delay getting married, having children and moving forward with their lives. Many live with their families and find it difficult to obtain the skills needed to get work. Many young workers have distant relationships with employers, are contract employees and have difficulty identifying as workers. This is true of both college graduates and those without degrees as well.

Working America has mobilized students and young workers on these issues by seeking out young people on campuses, bars, and other places where young people go. Many don’t identify themselves as workers and younger people often don’t know much about unions, which are seen as bastions of older white men. On the other hand, unions need to be convinced to focus on young workers’ issues and recruit them into unions, especially since young workers are one of the few growth areas for U.S. unions. Unions have sought to change their traditional approach by establishing youth committees and by including young workers and these committees as part of overall national level union work.

Khamati Mugalla said her country and union are experiencing problems similar to those described by the preceding speakers. Women and young people are twice as likely to be affected by economic issues, she said, citing as an example the lack of adequate pensions in Tanzanian employment sectors which employ many women. The export processing zone in Tanzania, the banking sector and other economic sectors with high numbers of women workers are especially affected by the ongoing economic crisis. Starting a business or becoming an entrepreneur is a good way to get out of these difficult economic circumstances, but most young people and recent graduates are unable to take advantage of this kind of opportunity.

Single mothers do not have access to child care and, partly as a result, can’t find jobs. Social insurance is a big concern for many young workers without secure jobs. Without job security, workers worry more about immediate concerns, rather than longer term issues, such as pushing lawmakers to raise the minimum wage. Yet they need both job security and higher wages. Domestic workers, who are often young school dropouts, are paid very badly. Many women and young workers are having difficulty finding jobs and may never get decent work and advance.

Mugalla, who has a degree in biochemistry, has been involved with trade unions since 2005, when she was 24. Her father was the general secretary of a union in Kenya, giving her early knowledge of the labor movement.  However, most youth do not understand what unions do. Unions need to engage young people and enable them to better understand the trade union movement.

Yet unions’ gender and youth departments are often underfunded. Many staff and cooperating partners are men who don’t fully understand the need for gender programming and how it should be conducted. They don’t have the knowledge to implement gender programs or know how to find the capacity to implement these programs. But women leaders need to be proactive to accomplish more, Mugalla said. They need to have sufficient funds to conduct gender programs, which should be more mainstream. More women, men, older people and younger people need to be involved in gender activities.

“We have to be sure to include gender and youth issues in labor activities such as social dialogue, organizing, and productivity and to take a holistic approach to program training and implementation,” she said. “We need to look at the whole picture in Africa, and to take into account gender and issues of importance to young people.” Even though cultural complexities and prerequisites can make this much more difficult, it’s important not to ignore these types of issues.

Mugalla said her union has a relatively new youth section that was formed in 2007. Her union also has new constitutional provisions regarding youth and women. Youth and women are now included in more higher level union meetings, since most union secretary generals are older men. A youth conference is planned during the fall on the informal sector, social insurance coverage and youth employment. The union is also planning a mentorship program for young people and women to assist in bringing them more into active roles in unions and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

Read her full presentation.

Summing up the three presentations, Molly McCoy said they each offered similar observations about why young workers and women need unions. Panelists discussed the need for access to social protections and to child care; as well as the effect of the economic crisis on women and young workers and how good industrial jobs have disappeared. The high cost of obtaining a good education is a big problem.

After graduating, many young people are unable to get a job or find a job in their field. Panelists discussed why young workers and women need a voice that clearly represents their needs and interests and how unions responded by instituting formal structural and constitutional changes, which made a good start in addressing these issues and how workers can have a voice in making changes. Obtaining adequate funding for these activities is important, because they are sometimes made a lower priority by union leaders.

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