On The Line: Labor Activism In The Trump Era

Editor's Note: The following blog post is a dialogue between myself and Marc Polite on labor activism and how the labor movement can engage Millennials of color. It was great to be able to exchange our perspectives and ideas; particularly with Marc having many years of experience as a labor activist and myself more recently having come to work in the movement. With the inauguration of Donald Trump just a few weeks away, conversations like these will be essential as progressives figure out how to develop strategies for organizing and resisting policies that are harmful to working people, their families and other vulnerable populations. Follow Marc's work at Polite on Society.

Who are you, how did you both meet and why this topic?

Marc’s Answer:  Marc is a writer and labor activist from New York City. He presented a talk over the summer called “Economic Justice in a Post Obama Black America. This current topic relates to us, because we both presented at BloggerWeek 2016, and decided to collaborate. Considering that Polite On Society and Conflict Undone both deal with issues from a progressive point of view, our working together makes sense.   

Marc and Kelly met at BloggerWeek 2016.          

Kelly’s Answer: Kelly is a writer, educator and consultant who focuses on the intersections of diversity, communication, conflict and identity. She is based in Washington, DC. Kelly manages the organizational equity and inclusion program for a national labor union with over two million members. When they reconnected at BloggerWeek 2016 (they actually met in 2015 at BloggerWeek but Marc doesn’t remember!), they both talked about their work in labor and thought it made sense for a collaboration around progressive issues and the labor movement.

What role can the labor movement play in the lives of young Millennials of color?

Marc’s Answer: The Labor Movement can play the role of community. As millennials typically don’t gravitate to church, there is a vacuum there of influence that can be entered. Especially now, with such an anti-labor president that we have incoming in the persona of Donald Trump, it will be even more important for Labor to make its voice heard and its impact felt.

Kelly’s Answer: I think the Labor Movement can mobilize Millennials of color by providing an organized space to do meaningful change work around critical issues of importance for this generation. Job and economic opportunities, student loan debt, climate change, and especially racial justice, are all issues that impact this generation more than any other. Labor has the infrastructure and the people power to connect these issues and coalitions of people to the broader issue of economic justice. What will be a challenge, however, is for Labor to know how to effectively partner with other activists and organizations currently doing this work. As with any social justice work, there are opportunities to lead and there are opportunities to follow. Knowing when to do which will guarantee the effectiveness of a multi-issue movement.

What are some ways the labor movement can organize and mobilize Millennials of color to become politically and socially engaged?

Marc’s Answer: By connecting to the need for a jobs program, and a rebuff of the “gig” economy.

 Kelly’s Answer: I think this generation often gets a bad rap and is consistently marginalized. As much as society portrays Millennials as lazy, entitled and disengaged, I see just the opposite. I see young people using their creativity, interests and leveraging technology to make a change. I think the Labor Movement could benefit from this energy. Using technology to educate, organize and mobilize people has been a trend within this generation. I would love to see Labor come into the present by using some of these new methods of organizing and outreach which speak to young people and their ways of participating in the world. To Marc’s point, I think the “gig” economy has struck a chord with people because it taps into their desire for entrepreneurship and autonomy. So instead of pushing against it, I wonder how Labor could work with it and benefit from it. What if Labor began to organize those workers? How might that make the movement relevant to Millennials who may not be interested in traditional 9-5 jobs? I think these are all questions worth exploring.

How can the labor movement benefit from the energy and knowledge of Millennials of color?

Marc’s Answer: The labor movement seems moribund. Isolated. The protests for the end of police brutality have a broad focus, and draw 1000’s of people.

Kelly’s Answer: Don’t marginalize young people and create opportunities for them to lead. The Labor Movement still has the appearance and attitude of an all white, boys club that values tenure over fresh ideas and perspectives. While female leaders and leaders of color are now heading some unions, the culture remains overwhelmingly masculine and white dominant. Investing in the leadership of young people of color and then creating the space for them to lead can re-energize and reinvigorate a movement that many feel is stale.

Why don’t millennials look to labor as a force as past generations have?

Marc’s Answer: Lack of connection.

Kelly’s Answer: Agreed. And Millennials may not have the patience while Labor struggles to figure out how to make the movement for economic justice an intersectional one.

Is there a way to turn that around?

Marc’s Answer:  In steps. Unionization drives, rallies, connecting the struggles of the unemployed/underemployed to those of union workers… and eventually unions have to start winning battles and reviving the strike as a weapon.

Kelly’s Answer: I’m not sure. But I would love to see smart, capable young people of color involved in thinking it through!

Why has organized labor ceased speaking out on social issues?

Marc’s Answer: The unions don’t want to get bound or bogged down in issues not directly related to their members, and is hesitant to speak on social issues that are at variance with the views of some of the politicians they may have to end up endorsing.

Kelly’s Answer: I think it’s an act of courage that not all unions are willing to do. To Marc’s point, members drive a very big portion of the conversations and strategy within Locals and nationally. If a union takes on a social issue, it may receive backlash from members who want their union to do nothing more than negotiate contracts. Or if it’s a police union or some other entity, it may see progressive social issues in direct contradiction to their work and profession. If there is any silver lining to the election of Trump to the presidency, it is that I am hopeful now that Labor will have to organize around social issues because they are increasingly relevant to the lives and well-bring of today’s workers.