Haley Shaffer has been fighting for workers’ rights—including her own—for quite a while. But she says she’s just getting started.
Haley moved from the Milwaukee area to New York City in 2014 for an internship at a non-profit organization, StoryCorps, and later took a staff position. “My coworkers and I were dealing with a toxic work environment—we were expected to give everything for little remuneration—so we started to organize in 2016,” Haley said. “And I found myself on the organizing committee.” After a challenging campaign, the staff union went public in 2017 under CWA 1180.
“That was my first experience with the labor movement,” Haley said. “I stayed at StoryCorps through 2018, through an NLRB hearing and several months on the bargaining committee, but after such a tough campaign I was ready to move on.”
After working at another non-profit with similar issues, Haley wanted to do something else. “I saw two of the staff organizers from CWA 1180 at a StoryCorps picket, and they told me I should think about coming back to the labor movement. One of those organizers, Leslie Fine, is a Union Semester graduate and she suggested I look at SLU’s programs. I was interested in developing my organizing skills, and I was really interested in making it my full-time job to work in the labor movement. So I enrolled in the Union Semester program in 2019. I got placed with United for Respect, which works on organizing employees at big corporations like Amazon and Target and WalMart. It was a great experience. Then David Unger suggested I go into 32BJ’s training program, and I did that for a semester, organizing residential building employees like porters and doormen.”
Lawrence Ben is a long way from his home in Adelaide, South Australia.
Lawrence made the arduous two-day journey in August 2018 with a very specific purpose: to experience SLU’s Union Semester program.
“My parents sparked my interested in labor,” Lawrence said. “They were both teachers and union members and always told me that ‘when you go to work the first thing you need to do is join your union.’ I also worked as a fruit-picker in my teenage years and was never paid for my work, which sparked an interest in working for a union. While I was studying Law and Arts at the University of Adelaide I took a part-time job with the retail and fast food union in Australia. After I graduated from university, I worked full-time there.”
How did he learn about Union Semester? “I googled it,” he laughed. “It’s really rare to find a program like that with a stipend attached. The stipend made it possible for me to come here. And what better place to study labor than New York City—the classic union town and the center of the labor movement in America.” He added, “I did the application online and Diana Robinson responded right away. She facilitated everything, helped me deal with the international hurdles—she pulled down the roadblocks all the way, for me and for the other students in my cohort from overseas.”
In this piece from Organizing Work, Marianne Garneau debates with labor organizer and journalist Chris Brooks and veteran union negotiator Joe Burns about Bargaining for the Common Good and its use as a model for connecting workplace fights with broader social demands.
Labor Studies Professor Stephanie Luce writes about organizing in the labor movement to defend democracy in the event of a contested election. She notes that some unions are trying to connect their core activists with local “protect the vote” groupings in key states and cities to show up to polls and fight to make sure every vote is counted.
On December 6th, members of SLU community gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities faced by young adults in building the labor movement.
Despite the recent weakness of the U.S. labor movement, young workers are invigorating unions and other working-class organizations throughout the country, showing the promise of a new broad-based progressive movement. Social media-driven movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, along with the emergence of left political organizations and young candidates for local and national office, have also played an important role in sparking new organizing among younger workers. At the same time, student debt is skyrocketing, permanent full-time jobs are harder to find, unemployment and underemployment are prevalent among low-income young people and communities of color, and increases in housing/living costs far surpass increases in real wages for many young workers.
How are young adults building the labor movement in the face of worsening conditions? How are young workers in other movements influencing the political landscape? Are there fundamental differences in young workers’ outlook or analysis compared to previous generations? What are the primary challenges and obstacles they face given the changing economy and its more precarious job opportunities? What are the most exciting opportunities and partnerships that are being developed by young workers?
The conversation featured Arsenia Reilly-Collins, Jedidiah Labinjo, and Kim Kelly, and was moderated by Diana Robinson.