Our Children Need to Hear Us Talk About Unions

We've come a long way in this country, but certainly not always in the right direction when it comes to speaking openly and proudly about the value of unions.
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Recently, a friend shared on Facebook a roughly 35-year-old photograph of himself as a toddler, toted in his father's arms on a union picket line. In our current climate of relentless attacks on unions, it seemed simultaneously quaint and bold. A colleague of mine, a woman who works in the labor movement and was due to speak at her daughter's career day at school, wondered whether she should even mention that she worked at a union, for fear of some parents getting rankled.

We've come a long way in this country, but certainly not always in the right direction when it comes to speaking openly and proudly about the value of unions. At a time when unionization hovers at 11 percent and it's barely over 6 percent in the private sector, merely talking about unions can seem like a radical act, yet it's a conversation we cannot abandon, especially when it comes to talking with our children.

Every day, we get new reminders of how political rancor and bad policy hamper this nation's youngest generation. Our little ones suffer in the lunchroom when politicians slash school meal programs. Millions cared for under the Affordable Care Act live with the looming threat of the law being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court this summer. College-age children are saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. They face an anemic job market where a college degree that costs too much will often culminate in a job that pays too little to stay afloat.

Parents know the acute anxiety when a child turns to us for answers and we feel we have none. But with growing certainty, Americans sense that the deck is stacked. And there's growing dialogue in our country about economic mobility and fairness, and that there is in fact an answer for unstacking the deck: unions.

Unions can rebuild the middle class, just as we built it two generations earlier. We bring better pay and benefits. In fact, union bargaining for fair pay means a worker takes home on average, approximately $207 more a week. Those opposed to working folks having that sort of collective strength love to condescend, telling us that we no longer need unions. But ask your kids if they'd rather make $207 more a week and see if they grasp the concept of what unions can achieve for everyone today.

Whether we're in a union or not, we cannot be afraid to point to the fact that where union density is highest in this country, workers have increased economic security. To shy away from such facts is as self-defeating as denying the overwhelming science that the planet's getting hotter. Politics must no longer get in the way of frank discussion about what ails this country economically and what will help fix it.

There are encouraging signs that the value of unions is sinking in with the youngest generation of workers. Last week, a new poll showed that among all age categories, those between 18-29 have the most favorable view of unions, with only 29 percent viewing them unfavorably. Young workers are an integral part of the Fight for $15 movement in which people are rallying and organizing, demanding fair wages from companies raking in billions in profit off the backs of workers. Last month, the young scribes at Gawker made headlines of their own with their decision to unionize. "Every workplace could use a union," wrote Gawker's Hamilton Nolan. "A union is the only real mechanism that exists to represent the interests of employees in a company. A union is also the only real mechanism that enables employees to join together to bargain collectively, rather than as a bunch of separate, powerless entities."

Within AFSCME, our youngest members -- called the Next Wave -- are organizing to strengthen our union with one-on-one conversations in their workplaces and homes through a new campaign called AFSCME Strong. In 2014, AFSCME surpassed our organizing goals by more than 100 percent. That means AFSCME's membership is growing every day -- we've organized nearly 140,000 new members since the beginning of 2014, even in right-to-work states. It also means ordinary people are stepping up and having conversations in worksites and at kitchen tables about why unions are the best way for workers to raise their wages and bargain for fairness in the workplace.

I know how powerful talking with young people about unions can be. I had this exact conversation just a few weeks ago with my own daughter, a junior in high school. She just started her first job, as a hostess at a restaurant, and she asked me about unions. As a union organizer mom, I was happy to oblige, and we talked about fair pay and treatment on the job, as well as workplace safety. She deserves to hear that information.

It's the type of conversation that decades prior wouldn't have been unusual. As American manufacturing was on the upswing and unionization rates were robust, families had those conversations in plenty of households as children considered their options after high school. Now, when our older children are rolling their eyes in disgust at what awaits them in the job market, we need to let them know that there is a solution, but only if they become a part of it.

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