Young Steelworkers Take Action

Debunking The Myths of Whining Millennials

An all-too-common narrative has developed about young workers. Too often millennials, born roughly between 1980 and the mid-1990s, are depicted as lazy, privileged and spoiled complainers. Millennials are frustrated by these inaccurate portrayals that seem harmless or funny, but disguise the real generational economic situation facing young workers.

These dangerous narratives and assumptions mean that when millennial workers – who are facing real problems such as low wages, contract work, high student debt and rising tuition – speak up about the collective problems they face, the complaints are often dismissed as whining.

Millennials are facing distinct problems from those of previous generations. According to Statistics Canada, the median wage for workers aged 17-24 has declined since 1981 for men (14.2%) and women (6.5%), translating into $4,638 and $1,809 less per year, respectively. And women are still paid less overall in that age group. One half of young workers are employed in either food services or retail – sectors with low wages and low unionization rates. Millennial workers are also overrepresented in part-time jobs compared to their older peers.

On top of it all, getting an education and starting an independent life is now far more expensive. Housing is increasingly inaccessible and university costs more, with tuition now four times higher than in 1981. Average student debt after four years of study is now $28,000, according to the Canadian Federation of Students.

This is a symptom of a concerted attack on public services and broader shifts in economic and public policy since the 1990s, such as the failure to protect manufacturing jobs, a move towards a service-based and resource-based economy and corporate moves towards contract positions and part-time work.

All workers are affected by this corporate agenda and public policy shifts. But millennials are particularly hard hit and have many legitimate grievances. Often painted as lazy and entitled, in reality, young workers are standing up and actually doing something about the issues they face.

NextGen Training and Action

On April 4, 2016, in Montreal, Steelworkers aged 35 and under attended the second USW NextGen Conference.

Through its theme United We Bargain, the conference took direct aim at the assumptions about lazy millennials. In highlighting the need for collective action to confront the economic situation facing millennials, the conference included discussion and direct action against two-tier pension schemes that subject newer workers to inferior pensions based on the date of hire.

National Director Ken Neumann reminded participants of a lesson that transcends generations: it is always important to connect our collective workplace action with broader social struggles. Furthermore, achieving improvements inside and outside of the workplace is a marathon. Challenging the generational problems we face may not be solved immediately, but that cannot deter or delay us from taking action.

In the words of a conference panellist, “history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but there are a lot of lessons we can learn from history.”

Young Steelworkers also discussed their organizing efforts in remote communities and reinforced the importance of connecting our union work with our political activism with the NDP. Participants emphasized that youth having a say in the workplace and in public policy will help all working people.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a leader of Quebec’s Maple Spring student protests in 2012, provided a political and economic analysis of the situation facing students and young workers in Quebec, demonstrating how organizing and mobilizing can achieve specific goals. The alliances between students and others in Quebec in 2012 forced the government to abandon its plan to raise post-secondary tuition rates.

Nadeau-Dubois underscored how this convergence of activists did not just happen – it took a lot of work, meetings, mobilizing and building a movement. Students had to overcome a pervasive neoliberal ideology that individualizes economic and political problems and creates cynicism about the possibility of collective change. Ultimately, it was the arduous work of student leaders over years that built the resistance to proposed tuition hikes, with support from unions and all parts of society.

Finally, NextGen members from across Canada joined with striking members of USW District 5 Local 6658, from Lafarge Cement, in a direct action against Quebec’s Liberal government.

The NextGen members were among nearly 600 activists who rallied outside the Quebec Premier’s office to demand an end to two-tier pension plans – a pre-election pledge the Liberal government has not fulfilled.

NextGen members learned to identify an issue, make a specific demand and tie it to a larger economic and social struggle. We raised our voices, gained experience in addressing issues facing millennials and generated ideas for more local actions.

If you are a USW member aged 35 or under, sign up for NextGen at usw.ca/nextgen or on Facebook at facebook.com/groups/uswnextgeneration.

This article appears in the June 2016 edition of USW@Work magazine.

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