‘Unconference’ for young workers coming to Twin Cities next month


With an eye toward developing the next generation of labor activists – and giving their movement a much-needed shot of youthful energy – leaders of the AFL-CIO are bringing Next Up, a summit for young workers, to the Twin Cities next month.

Geared toward workers under 35, Next Up is “a creative, dynamic summit designed for young workers, by young workers.” It will take place Sept. 29 to Oct. 2 in Minneapolis, and is open to union and non-union workers alike.

Organizers are calling Next Up an “unconference,” hoping an action-oriented agenda will appeal to members of the millennial generation. “Hands-on” workshops will tackle social media and leadership development, while a community service project and public action will connect conference-goers with locally based campaigns for economic justice and workers’ rights.

The goal, according to summit coordinator Kurston Cook, is to further the AFL-CIO’s effort to make labor unions relevant to young workers.

“There’s no AARP for young people,” Cook said. “We’re looking to be a solid ally and a major player within the youth movement.”

Indeed, the labor movement has much to offer young workers – and much to gain in establishing itself as a nationally recognized voice for their issues.

Joblessness is the biggest challenge facing young workers in today’s economy. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds averaged 18.4 percent in 2010, well above the national average.

But young workers face challenges beyond unemployment, like the increasing inaccessibility of higher education and skyrocketing debt loads among college graduates. Young workers also suffer higher injury rates on worksites.

On all of those issues, young workers have a natural ally in the labor movement. That’s why the second-ranking elected official in the AFL-CIO, Liz Shuler, has made outreach to young workers one of her top priorities.

Shuler, the youngest elected secretary-treasurer in the nationwide labor federation’s history, began laying the foundation for the Young Worker Program shortly after taking office in 2009.

Since then, the program has grown to include more than 20 active groups across the country, some within individual unions and others within area labor councils or statewide labor federations. Minnesota, for example, is home to a statewide group, initiated by the Minnesota AFL-CIO, and a “Next Wave” chapter for young members of AFSCME Council 5.

One objective of the Next Up summit next month is to build a framework that AFL-CIO affiliate unions and labor councils can use to jump-start their own young worker groups, using structures that have worked for already-established groups, like AFSCME’s Next Wave, as models.

“How can we provide the right tools, the right skill sets so young people can help achieve the goals of their unions?” Cook said. “How do we get young people to go from being union members to being union activists?”

Outreach is another major objective of the second Next Up summit, as the Young Worker Project seeks to attract new members – and latch onto other, broader movements afoot among young, progressive-minded activists.

To that end, AFL-CIO interns have spent this summer “on the ground, pitching Next Up to non-union groups of young workers, young progressive groups and student groups,” according to Jessica Hayssen, the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s field director and a member of the AFL-CIO Young Worker Project Advisory Council.

Cook noted that college and high school students were at the forefront of massive, pro-union demonstrations in Madison, Wis., last spring. It’s a powerful example of how valuable an effective relationship with young workers could be for the labor movement – but only if unions are serious about building that relationship.

“Too frequently, we’ve asked young people to come to our aid when we need it, and haven’t been the best friend in returning the favor,” Cook said. “When it comes to issues that affect young people, we’re going to be a spokesperson on those issues and stand with other community groups that do that work as well.”

For information on the Next Up summit, or to register, go to www.aflcio.org/aboutus/youthsummit. Registration deadline is Sept. 1.