As newly elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, I traveled the country this fall, talking with workers and hearing their concerns. The economic crisis is causing a lot of pain. So many people have no jobs, no health care--and many are losing their homes. And as I looked into the faces of young workers, the reality hit home that these young people are part of the first generation in recent history likely to be worse off than their parents.
This is a tragedy.
The AFL-CIO and our community affiliate, Working America, recently surveyed young workers--and I'm not talking about 17- and 18-year-olds. I'm talking about 18- to 34-year-olds. In the past 10 years, young workers have suffered disproportionately from the downturn in the economy:
- One in three young workers is worried about being able to find a job--let alone a full-time job with benefits.
- Only 31 percent make enough money to cover their bills and put some aside--that is 22 percentage points worse than it was 10 years ago.
- Nearly half worry about having more debt than they can handle.
- One in three still lives at home with parents.
Young workers are living the effects of a 30-year campaign to create a low-wage workforce. It has succeeded.
For decades, the far right led an anti-government, anti-investment, feed-the-rich-and-starve-the-poor drive that gave us an era of deregulation, privatization and job exporting.
At the same time, corporations and government attacked unions and workers' freedom to form unions and bargain for decent wages and benefits. When unions are strong, paychecks grow and workers have benefits like health care and pensions.
When unions are under attack, paychecks shrink. Pensions vanish. Health care becomes the emergency room.
What's left is not working for young people--or for any of us. It will take a broadly shared sense of wartime urgency to replace today's low-wage economy with a high-wage, high-skills economy. The first step must be immediate action to address the nation's jobs crisis, with five essential steps:
- Extend the lifeline for jobless workers.
- Rebuild America's schools, roads and energy systems and invest in green technology and green jobs.
- Increase aid to state and local governments to maintain vital services.
- Fund jobs in our communities.
- Put TARP funds to work for Main Street with job-creating loans to small businesses.
We took these initiatives to the White House Summit on Jobs on Dec. 3 and are pushing Congress to take action now. The first reports from the Jobs Summit are encouraging, and we look forward to working with the Obama administration and Congress to carry on this momentum.
It's time to rebuild an economy that works--an economy based on prosperity, an economy we can be proud to pass on to our children and their children. And we need young people to lead the way. That survey I mentioned earlier shows they are ready.
· Young workers have a whole new level of civic engagement, with the surge of new voters in the 2008 election.
· They are well-informed and following government and policy news.
· They believe in collective action and understand the power of having a union.
· They have hope for the future and the vision of a savvy, diverse movement to bring about progressive change.
We're planning a major summit for young workers after the first of the year to bring all our ideas and voices together. When crises hit, it's young people who drive change.
Martin Luther King Jr. was 26 when he led the Montgomery bus boycott. At 25, César Chávez was registering Mexican Americans to vote. Walter Reuther headed strikes demanding GM recognize its workers' rights starting when he was 30. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was 33 when she drafted the declaration of women's rights.
Young people are being hard in this jobs crisis. But I believe they provide much of the fuel we need to get out of it.