Earlier this week The Berger-Marks Foundation released a report, “Stepping Up, Stepping Back: Women Activists ‘Talk Union’ Across Generations“, based on a gathering they held in March with 30 women social justice activists. The group, half under 35 and half older than 35, and representing over 25 unions and solidarity organizations, spent two full days analyzing their experiences in the labor movement.
What they found was that although unions have made significant strides over the generations, unions are still not fully responding to the needs of younger women. The labor movement is at a “tipping point”, where if unions do not reform NOW they will lose the next generation of activists. Women cited too few leadership opportunities, little mentoring and a disregard for the need to have a work-life balance as examples of ways they are being driven out. Additionally, the under-35 folks worried that seasoned members spend too much time focused on the technology they use to talk with younger workers and not enough time thinking about the message. They want real connections, not facebook messages and tweets.
Based on these concerns, the group came up with a series of important recommendations:
- Create “safe spaces” for women and younger activists.
- Eradicate sexual harassment and sexism.
- Reach out to young workers and activists by providing opportunities for interaction that don’t rely on social networking or other technology.
- Adopt a more feminist agenda through sustained partnerships with women’s organizations.
- Establish formal mentoring programs specifically for younger women.
- Fund education and training programs to assist younger activists so they can “talk union” with their peers.
- Adopt term limits for top elected union offices.
- Expand the number of seats on union governing boards (to allow more opportunities for women, minorities and young folks without threatening incumbents).
- Include younger workers in real decision-making and let them take responsibility for important projects.
- Make union events meaningful… and fun.
A story featured in the report’s introduction really sums up what is needed in the labor movement as a whole: during the first three sessions, the older women led, taught, and guided the discussion, and then, during the final session, the younger women stepped up and the older women stepped back. This wasn’t done on purpose or by any sort of conference rule, but done naturally. What these recommendations lay out is a way to help this natural process occur in the labor movement as a whole. Lets hope unions take notice and implement before the dire predictions of “tipping points” actually tip.