'Union Scholars' Can Open New Doors for Themselves, Workers

There was a time when organizing meant knocking on doors, holding meetings at the local house of worship, passing out handbills and posting them on streetlights, and resorting to the old-fashioned telephone tree.

Social media has changed all that, especially for the millennials -- those born between 1982 and 2004. "Promoting, discussing and taking action around issues is part of Millennials' social personality and personal brand," according to a recent study on digital activism. "They seamlessly use social media to tell the world what they stand for."

Organizing -- the process of one-on-one engagement and relationship-building -- is the best strategy for building on that brand of activism. AFSCME sponsors a program that puts college students on the front lines of union-organizing campaigns across the nation.

The AFSCME Union Scholars Program, offered in partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, is a 10-week summer field placement for rising college juniors and seniors. Participants are placed on a union-organizing campaign, provided with on-site housing and paid a stipend. They also qualify for academic scholarships of up to $6,300 for the 2015-'16 academic year. The program targets students of color, because AFSCME believes it's crucial to cultivate more diversity in the ranks of organizers in the labor movement.

Being part of a campaign means talking to public-service workers -- nurses, sanitation workers, clerical workers, teacher's aides, childcare and home-care providers, social workers and the like -- about how to win a voice on the job, fair wages and benefits by joining a union. AFSCME scholars learn that it's possible to change the world by helping workers improve their lives. "I worked on a campaign to organize emergency medical service workers, and I saw firsthand what happens when people come together," said Christopher Crump, a 2014 Union Scholar. "I felt proud of my contribution to the campaign, but what meant the most to me was the role I played in assisting the workers with discovering and using their own power. Now that they know what they can achieve, there's no going back to the days when they had no voice."

In the labor movement, organizing is how we build power for working families. It is especially timely right now, when income inequality -- the gap between the obscenely wealthy and everyone else -- is wider than ever. Unions help narrow income inequality by raising wages and other compensation.

Union members earn about $207 more a week than nonunion members, or nearly $11,000 more a year. That's real money that has an immediate impact on someone just starting a career. But unions help raise wages even for nonunion workers by setting the standard for an occupation or industry, or within a region.

In fact, every benefit and right people have on the job today came about through the activism and bargaining power of unions. The eigh-hour workday. Overtime. The weekend. The end of child labor. Paid vacation and sick days. Laws that say employers can't discriminate based on race, creed, color, gender or LGBTQ status. Procedures that give workers a way to challenge unfair treatment.

But while the need for organizing is clear, state legislators across the nation are making it harder for workers to have a voice on the job. Very often, these are the same lawmakers who want to turn back the clock on voters' rights, equal protection under the law, educational opportunity and accessible health care. They don't envision America as a land where we're all in this together; their philosophy is "You're on your own."

Nationally, there's been an upswing in unrest and protest in cities to push back against that narrow view of America. College students are always on the front lines of movements to raise the minimum wage and protect voters' rights and workers' rights. They are disrupters, urging us to live up to our ideals and be true to the values that make us a great nation.

Organizers are disrupters. They built the union movement, and the union movement built the middle class. Organizers built the civil rights movement and the LGBTQ movement. They built the environmental justice movement and the movement for voting rights. Without organizers, these movements would be "moments" -- opportunities when we could have done more but lacked the capacity for systemic change.

We need more builders with the courage to make a difference. If you are interested in becoming one of them, apply to the AFSCME Union Scholars Program. The deadline for applications is Feb. 28.