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Young Progressives and Labor


I’ve talked before about how young progressive bloggers don’t seem to have too much interest in labor history or labor issues more broadly. Of course, most of the voices in this debate are familiar. So it’s nice to hear someone I haven’t read before weigh in, a young writer at one of the Kos diaries. As a response to the left neoliberal conversation from the other day, eastern619 notes that it took him a long time to understand why labor was important:

One of the problems for young left wingers like myself is that we have no sense of labor history. I was born in 1987; during the height of the Reagan Era. I have no idea what life was like when the labor movement was at its peak. I have lived in a capitalistic system all my life, and even though I’m aware of alternative economic systems like social democracy, I have never experience it. Finally, like many college graduates, if I wanted to participate in discussions about class, socialism, and labor, I had to seek out my college socialist club because I wasn’t getting it from my political science major.

For my generation, its very easy to go through life without ever questioning our capitalistic system. Given the limited power that workers have today, it’s very easy for my generation to assume that this is how the world always worked. As in, its easy for us to assume that employers always had an advantage over the employees, and the lack of workers rights is simply the natural result of our changing economy and society. It’s easy to believe that so long as you are not aware that since the 1970’s there has been a very deliberate effort on the part of businesses to weaken the power of workers by destroying their unions.

This is just one opinion here, but it makes some sense to me. Last month, when making this point, Yglesias found some numbers suggesting that young people were as pro-union if not more than older people. Can’t find the link now, but it’s interesting. I don’t know. Could be true. I’m not going to argue against numbers with my anecdotal information, but I don’t think that translates to much in practical terms. I’d guess that those numbers reflect that young people aren’t per se opposed to the idea of a union when it is mentioned to them, but still don’t know much about what it is. Since the fall of the Soviet Union there hasn’t been a legitimate system to use as a counterweight to capitalism. The widespread assumption that free-market capitalism was the only workable system has created ground for embracing it in its extremist form, as we are seeing in today’s Republican Party.

Everything young people have been taught about extremist capitalism is that it’s the perfect economic system. So why wouldn’t most people think this was true. After all, they all have video game systems. This is the first time that faith may be questioned, with high unemployment rates for the young and a persistent economic crisis. I have only had the chance to teach labor history once and this was in the spring of 2008, just after the recession began. Much to my surprise, students were really into it. So maybe there are more young people like eastern619 out there. And whether that’s true, we should be trying to make it so. There are millions of young Americans unsure about the future. Making a concerted effort to get them to see that labor unions could be part of the answer should be a top priority.

UPDATE: Matt sent me his post on the demographics of union support.

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