This post is a little more personal that my usual work on HtU. I struggled with whether to put it up here, or just write it somewhere else–but it seems to be more relevant to HtU readers than anyone else.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the activism of young people. I’m the mom of two teenagers, for one thing. I’ve been involved in some of the organizing work around the #fightfor15, in Philly, which is a movement largely made up of young workers. There’s the unprecedented wave of activism about gun violence that’s been sweeping the US, since the Parkland shooting that’s led up to today’s #marchforourlives. And finally, there’s the fact that I’m currently working on a campaign that involves retail workers, a group the media and elected officials constantly want to claim are “just students” or “just in entry-level jobs.” It’s made me conclude that we aren’t doing enough in the labor movement to teach kids, from the very beginning, how to stand up for themselves at work.
My daughter^ was a high school senior when she entered the formal workforce last year, through the kind of semi-crappy food service job that lots of us experience in our work lives. On her first day of training, the manager tried to convince her that she shouldn’t take breaks, even if she was legally allowed to take them. Of course, a young woman who has grown up with two parents that work in the economic justice movement isn’t going to buy that–but it made me wonder–where would she have learned it, if not from us? There isn’t ever a class that teaches you, “here’s what your rights at work are, even as a teenager, and how to assert them.*” Later on in that same job she experienced wage theft, and again, she pushed back on it (and eventually won the money)–but it was in the kind of situation where most people in their first job might think, “Oh, the boss says this is a rule I don’t understand, so I guess I’ll just go along with it–I’m new, and I don’t want to piss him/her off.”
In the waves of organizing around the Fight for 15, and Fair Scheduling, the messaging themes from low-wage employers & their political allies are focused on the fact that, for many middle-class white people, service jobs are just an entry to the workforce. They’re counting on the fact that people like me–educated, middle-class, middle-aged–will look back on their first jobs and think, “well, I survived that stupidness and now I’m successful, why can’t everyone do that?” They’re counting on our privilege to blind us to the reality of life for young people in the US today.
But they’re also doing something else. They’re also counting on those low-wage employers to teach kids (some of whom will grow to adults with ‘real’ jobs) that fighting the system doesn’t work. That your boss has power over you that should go unquestioned, even if it doesn’t seem fair, because that’s just how it is.
They’re counting on low-wage employers to indoctrinate teenagers into believing that wage exploitation is fair.
And that doesn’t just help fast food and big box retail employers keep control of their workforces–it helps all bosses keep control of their workforces.
If, in your very first job, you get told “you don’t deserve fairness,” do you start believing it about every job? If you experience wage theft in your first paycheck, and you don’t know what to do about it, where do you ever learn to fight it? If you’re told, when you’re sixteen, “oh, it doesn’t matter that the minimum wage hasn’t gone up in ten years, that’s not supposed to be enough money to live on” what do you do when you get into that ‘real’ job and don’t get a raise for ten years?
I’ve talked to a lot of young people in movements (not just the labor movement, but in other fights for social justice) about their struggles at work and around living with low-wage employment. Invariably, all of them have said to me some version of “nobody ever taught me anything about my rights, or how to do anything about it when I got screwed at work.” What that says to me is that my generation of organizers, and the generations before me, haven’t done enough thinking about the kinds of practical skills that young people can use to fight authority, whether they are in a union or not.
And let me be clear–I’m not talking about teaching labor history. There is, of course, a strain of thought in the labor movement that thinks we should focus on teaching people to be grateful for the things the labor movement won–things like the 8-hour day, and the minimum wage, and protection from child labor. Did I mention that I’m the parent of teenagers? Even the best of them are not always full of gratitude for the sacrifices of those who came before them.
We don’t need to teach kids what it was like to work for terrible employers in the early 1900s. They’re living it now. We need to teach them how to resist it in today’s terms, not by creating nostalgia for the fights of the 1930s.
So go out and find that group of kids who organized a walkout of their high school over gun violence, and talk to them about justice on the job. Go out and find the youth organizers fighting for education justice or #blacklivesmatter or immigration reform, and fund them to teach kids how to talk to their managers about scheduling problems while they do the rest of their work. Find that young organizer in your union or worker center, and let her build a youth committee–even if it isn’t going to lead to an immediate organizing drive. Think of it as your investment in fighting the boss in five years, or ten, or fifteen.
Because a sixteen year-old who learns that they have the power to say no to skipping breaks, in their first week as a barista, is going to grow up into the kind of member that every union wants. The seventeen-year-old stocking shelves in a big-box store who learns to appreciate the power of collective action, when the boss cuts their hours and the rest of the shift stands up and won’t let the boss get away with it, will someday be on your bargaining committee. And the eighteen year-old who fights for $15 while working at the dollar store is going to grow up to run your union someday.
^Thanks for letting me use your story!
*I did email the superintendent of her school to suggest that they add a section on labor rights to the school’s Financial Literacy class, which is required for all juniors. He agreed to do it, so we’ll see how that goes when my son gets there.