Published on Monday, August 27, 2001 by the Associated Press
Rather Than Hikes and Swimming, Union Interns Spend a Summer Learning to Organize
by Kathryn Masterson
HARTFORD, Conn. The wake-up call comes too early, but the eight interns have to be at the dump before dawn if they're going to catch the trash haulers.
They give the garbage haulers updates about a recent unionization vote. Later in the day, they return in matching "Union Yes!" T-shirts and demonstrate outside the dump.
For those working to spread the message of unionizing a tough sell in today's global workplace early mornings and long nights approaching workers, giving out information and demonstrating are the norm.
It was exactly how 22-year-old Pam Newport wanted to spend her summer.
"I've been around labor my whole life," said Newport, the daughter of a steelworker and labor organizer in Ohio. "I wanted to experience some of the things myself."
Newport is one of 200 "summeristas" taking part in the AFL-CIO's Union Summer program, a four-week crash course in labor organizing held in Hartford, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and a dozen other U.S. cities. The programs all end by the end of August.
"We lost a couple of generations when we were not out explaining why people need unions," said Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the national AFL-CIO.
The Union Summer program began in 1996 as an attempt to fix that, Chavez-Thompson said.
Since then, 2,000 college students have gone through the program and the AFL-CIO has added two more summer programs one for seminary students and another for students of law.
Many of the interns are college students who participated in living-wage campaigns or writing for left-leaning newspapers at school. Some, like Newport, come from labor families with parents who were active union members.
Others, such as Jonathan Bibbs, a 20-year-old from Richmond, Va., arrive fired up for social change and giving people a voice at work but with very little knowledge in what the labor movement really does.
"I thought it would be all picketing," Bibbs said. "That's the image you get with unions unions, strikers, same thing."
Aside from holding signs at the dump, the eight interns working in Connecticut haven't seen any strikes. Instead, they have worked with Teamsters in East Hartford and helped hospital workers in New London try to organize a union.
At the hospital, the interns met workers on their lunch break to get updates on who would and would not be voting for the union. They visit workers at their homes, often meeting resistance from workers warned by the hospital that the union was invading their privacy.
With many workers not home and others closing doors in their faces, the interns said getting someone to sign a petition indicating they'd vote union was a victory.
The face-to-face contact with real working people hospital cafeteria workers, Teamsters, garbage haulers, janitors and many others provided insight into today's working conditions, labor leaders say.
"We're trying to teach the next generation to care about what's happening with workers' rights," Chavez-Thompson said. "We're trying to show the next generation what's at stake."
What's at stake for the AFL-CIO, the national umbrella organization for unions, is a slipping percentage of the work force. Where unions once represented about 20 percent of American workers, the AFL-CIO now says about 13 percent of the American work force is unionized.
The organization looks with hope to its Union Summer graduates, Chavez-Thopson said. Already, former interns have helped unionize graduate students at private universities, worked campus anti-sweatshop campaigns and had a sit-in at Harvard University demanding living wages for the janitors.
"They've energized the labor movement," Chavez-Thompson said.
© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press