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Have you ever wished you could turn back the clock and be young again? If you saw what conditions are like for today’s young workers, you might think twice. Overeducated, underemployed, underpaid and exploited, today’s youth are the first generation that stands to have a lower standard of living than their parents.

According to the Canadian Labour Congress in a July 2005 study of young workers, the situation looks grim. Youth unemployment has been very high since the mid-1970s, never falling below 11 per cent and reaching a high of 17.3 per cent in 1992. One in three unemployed workers in Canada today is a young worker. (For statistical purposes, a young worker is generally age 15-24, although in the union the term usually designates anyone under the age of 30.)

Not surprisingly, unemployment rates are even higher for Aboriginal youth and young people of colour. However, since the early 1990s, young women have enjoyed consistently lower unemployment rates than young men.

Even if you have a job, it can still be a struggle to make ends meet. Take-home pay for young workers has fallen to less than 80 per cent of what it was 20 years ago, even though education levels (and corresponding student debts) have risen.

These are just some of the reasons young workers need strong unions. But there are just as many reasons why Canadian unions need youth. CUPE recognizes the important role young workers play in revitalizing the union at all levels.

We have to be relevant to those workers,” says Michelle Day, co-chair of CUPE’s national young workers group. Day, 28, is a health care aide and a member of CUPE 408 in Lethbridge, Alta.

If we don’t start involving more young members in the union movement now, there won’t be any leadership for our union in 20 years,” Day notes. “And if we allow public sector jobs occupied by young workers to drift away, there won’t be a union left to lead.”

Her concerns are warranted. While it’s true that unionization rates for young workers in the public sector remain much higher than for those in the private sector, more than half of young public workers are now in non-unionized positions. And they’re staying in those low-end positions for longer than ever before.

Even more alarmingly, fewer public sector jobs are available to young workers. Less than 6 per cent of young workers are able to find work in the public sector. Every public service job eliminated through downsizing – even attrition – is a job that a young worker will never have.

This especially hurts young women. “The unionization rate has been consistently higher among young men than young women, in contrast to the overall unionization rate in Canada which is now almost exactly the same for men and for women at just over 30 per cent,” the CLC study notes. “This gender gap reflects the fact that young people are less likely than older workers to be employed in the highly unionized and disproportionately female public sector.”

Privatization is another threat to young workers. Many of the jobs they typically occupy – child care centre workers, lifeguards, park landscaping – have been disproportionately hit by privatization. Jobs that were already precarious have become even more so, not to mention increasingly de- or non-unionized. The solution, according to Jordan Iannone, is the same as with other cases of privatization of public services: if you can’t stop the sell-off, follow the work.

Iannone recently worked as a member-organizer for CUPE, coordinating a union drive at a private swimming pool in Surrey, B.C. Lifeguards there were making less than at the public pools.

Despite the clear financial and protective benefits of unionization for young workers, organizing them can be challenging, Iannone says. Young workers, especially if they are still in school, are often seasonal, casual or part-time, meaning traditional ways of organizing don’t always work.

Not only is there significant turnover, which makes both organizing and communicating with members difficult, but there are unique challenges,” he says. “For example, when you’re dealing with minors, you not only have to convince them to sign a card, you also have to convince their parents, because they have to give their consent. Also, because they’re new to the work environment, the kids are often much more easily intimidated by employers.”

In addition, organizers acknowledge that many youth view unions as being old-fashioned and not for them. To help with these challenges, CUPE National recently approved a sponsorship program that allows a young member in each province to attend member-organizer training. Day sees this as a step in the right direction, but notes that unions need to first find young members who can take on organizing drives, and encourage and support them in their work.

Again, the transient nature of the jobs occupied by younger workers makes this problematic. Some CUPE locals have managed to overcome those barriers and find ways to reach out to young workers. Last year, the Ottawa and District Association for People with Developmental Disabilities offered an orientation course to its new employees. CUPE 1521, which represents staff at the organization, approached the employer and negotiated for time to provide union orientation as part of that training.

We created a half-hour presentation that explained everything we thought they absolutely needed to know about being in a union and being in our local,” says Anne Cole, a 28-year-old residential development counsellor with CUPE 1521 and a member of the local executive. “It allowed new members to put a face to the union. As a result our casual and relief staff have been far more willing to actually contact us when they run into problems.”

Other locals have arranged to offer the “Know Your Rights” course, a three-hour workshop that helps young workers and new union members to understand their collective agreement rights. Ken Hawkins, a member-facilitator who has been teaching the course for several years in B.C., says that by keeping it short and active, it stays interesting and relevant.

Many young workers and new workers are actually extremely curious to find out what the rules actually are, and there’s nowhere else they’re going to get that information,” Hawkins, 30, says. “But the biggest hurdle is often actually reaching people. Too many locals don’t know where their young workers are.” Hawkins is an assistant head lifeguard in Surrey and member of CUPE 402.

Day is quick to note that just identifying young workers isn’t enough. As with any equity-seeking group, these members need to feel respected and valued. If not, they’ll take their loyalty, energy and commitment elsewhere. After all, unions have to compete for the attention of Canadian youth, just like everyone else.

Even once you know who your young workers are and they know who you are, you need to find the people who want to play a role in the union, and mentor them so that they’ll have the skills for the future,” Day says.

Help them find opportunities for union training, think of them first when you need someone to replace a shop steward or an executive position, and just encourage them to stay involved with the union,” she says. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to move forward.”

E-mail youngworkers@cupe.ca or visit http://www.youngworkers.cupe.ca/ for more information on the programs mentioned in this article.