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Why a Growing Movement of Young People Could Ignite a Workers' Revolution

The following is an excerpt from a longer essay, ‘What Labor Looks Like: From Wisconsin to Cairo, Youth Hold a Mirror to History of Workers' Struggles,’ written for the new book, Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America (The New Press), edited by Daniel Katz and Richard A. Greenwald. Reprinted here with permission.

Every revolution needs two essential ingredients: young people, who are willing to dream, and poor people, who have nothing to lose. Yet the social forces that make movements strong also incline them toward self-destruction. Hence, over the past few decades, uneasy intergenerational alliances have melted away as impatient young radicals bridle against the old guard of incumbent left movements. At the same time, when it comes to organizing, without patronizing, poor folks, activists continually struggle just to find the right language to talk about systemic poverty in a sanitized political arena that has largely been wrung dry of real class consciousness.

Today, of course, activists tend to speak eagerly about reaching out to “the youth,” or of overcoming cultural rifts between middle class professional organizers and the workers they seek to transform into the next vanguard. But the activism stemming from the recent economic crisis proves not only that the left could use some serious tactical upgrading and fresh blood, but also that movements cannot overturn entrenched social fault lines by sheer force of will. Like any embattled community that needs to rebuild, shepherding activism into the next generation requires that established organizers learn how to retire gracefully, that those moving onto the front lines learn how to temper urgency with patience—and that all sides recognize that there are things they don’t know.

In Wisconsin in February 2011, no one knew what would happen as they gathered at the state capitol. A few picket signs, a megaphone or two, maybe a well-orchestrated sit-in until getting politely marched off by cops. But soon, the optics defied just about everyone’s expectations. Middle-aged school teachers might have done a double take when they saw teenagers detour from their weekly mall trips to join the picket lines; sanitation workers who traveled to the statehouse with their union colleagues probably didn’t anticipate marching alongside young Hmong community activists. The biggest surprise about turnout was the very absence of a defining image: there was no single movement or ideological agenda, no figurehead at the helm of the crowd. The only message emanating from the masses during those days was simply “No.” No to a draconian piece of legislation that threatened a basic labor right that many workers had either forgotten or taken for granted, until it had been threatened with extinction.

The new wave of labor activism had a youthful glow: rage polished by cynicism, but also galvanized by an idealism relatively unfettered by the left’s historical baggage of ideological rifts, turf battles, and race and gender chauvinism. So now a reborn movement needs to cross a generation gap, which is also in many cases a culture gap, education gap, and racial gap.

So the slogan “This is what democracy looks like” had a ring of both pride and puzzlement: what could we divine about the “look” of democracy from this pastiche of contrasting faces, political orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds? After a parliamentary trick allowed the antiunion measure to slip through the legislature, the movement faced a moment of compunction: was it really about killing the bill? Or protecting unions? Or was it about the fight for the soul of the labor movement, and the question of whether Wisconsin had inaugurated a nostalgic revival or narrative of rebirth.

Technically, the protests sought to preserve the collective bargaining rights of certain public sector unions. But many of the protesters may never have benefited from the collective-bargaining process, in large part because they were too poor, too new to the country, or above all too young to have been of a generation when unions were strong in America. They nonetheless intuitively grasped that collective bargaining represented the sovereignty of working people, principles that organized labor has historically embodied and championed.

So what does democracy look like? The answer will be defined by the young activists who are connecting with, rediscovering, and ultimately redefining labor with a capital L. Perhaps many of the youth who protested in solidarity with the Wisconsin demonstrations never grew up with any labor tradition in their families. Their parents may instead have worked low-paying service jobs or migrated from other countries without independent unions. But their introduction to the movement was through labor’s historical link to broader struggles for social justice—a link that is often overlooked even by unions themselves. In Wisconsin, the idea of labor rights was presented as a counterpoint to a pattern of systematic exploitation of people and public resources: from the corporate underwriting of elections, to the distortion of school curricula by rigid testing regimes, to mounting frustration with chronic unemployment in an unmoored global economy. The new wave of labor activism had a youthful glow: rage polished by cynicism, but also galvanized by an idealism relatively unfettered by the left’s historical baggage of ideological rifts, turf battles, and race and gender chauvinism. So now a reborn movement needs to cross a generation gap, which is also in many cases a culture gap, education gap, and racial gap.

Older progressive activists today stem from New Left movements that underwent a similar break with their antecedents. Many young radicals in the 1960s and 1970s repudiated the chauvinistic and parochial elements of their parents’ labor movement. In his blue-collar revisionist memoir, Striking Steel, Jack Metzgar, who grew up as the son of a steelworker before going on to teach college, interrogated the white unionist heritage that appeared shamefully regressive in the face of the escalating antiwar and civil rights movements. Radical youth, who later became educated liberals, saw in the old-school factory workers of his father’s generation an image of stiff-lipped industrial union men as “the principal perpetrators of racism, sexism and narrow-mindedness in American society. Who could remember that unions had once been more than a white male plot to keep blacks in their place? Who could remember that the Labor movement, as a social movement that made a difference, laid some of the ground work for the Civil Rights, community organizing, and women’s movements?”

Fast forward to Madison, where tradition is entering a new day of reckoning: if the radical legacy of leftist unionism in the early twentieth century has waned, the public memory loss hasn’t just been on the part of youth. Labor itself has suffered from collective amnesia, forsaking militancy for the softer politics of Beltway lobbying, burrowing in the tradition of “business unionism” while burying faded embers of feminist, antiracist, or anti-capitalist critiques. But there’s a bolder, more vital strand of that tradition that must be rekindled in light of current struggles for social justice and human rights. So the protests in Wisconsin (and solidarity rallies in Ohio, New York, and many other communities) blew some of the dust off of labor’s “usable past” by showing young people how economic security dovetails with social justice and human rights.

It’s at the intersection of these struggles that a college student graduates with a lifetime of debt. Or a young single mother has to drop out of high school to work at the local big box retailer—the only place hiring in her neighborhood. Or a twelve-year-old Mixtec girl aches with longing when she sees her friends leave every morning on the school bus while she goes back to work the fields with her parents, who don’t get paid until the season, and the semester, ends. Different voices harmonizing into one cry for justice, one that’s often silenced by a socially tone-deaf political system.