This week, the Ontario Federation of Labour will once again be debating whether or not to redefine young worker from “30 years old or under” to a vague definition that leaves it up to each affiliate to define.
Young people need a labour movement that will stand up on their behalf more than ever before – not just one looking to renew the status quo, old boys’ club. This issue is not new or isolated to the Ontario Federation of Labour convention and we must collectively learn from past attempts to prevent such motions from continuing to divide us. The following are some of the commonplace arguments been used to support this change.
Argument #1: My union has no young people. Defining “young” as 30 or under means my union will be left out in the cold. Have you thought about my union?
If you don’t have young workers in your union, that’s okay. If the nature of the work your members do means there are no young workers, that’s okay too. If you have no young workers, then you will be left out of young workers’ organizing. But that’s okay! There’ll will be plenty of opportunities to support young workers as they organize through the committee.
Argument #2: I’m “young-ish,” could I just pretend to be a young worker and have you look the other way?
Unfortunately, yes. The labour movement seems to pick and choose when the age item is appropriate to bring up. It is all too rare for young worker meetings to be run by actual young people. This is a problem. Increasing the age to legitimize this space being taken by older workers is not a solution to a lack of young workers being involved in the labour movement.
We cannot see the OFL as a mere sum of its affiliates. We need an OFL that represents and fights on behalf of all workers, not just whoever is paying dues at any given point in time. A 17-year- old McDonald’s worker has more of a right to be in an OFL Young Workers Committee than a 35-year- old union staff person. If you think this is inaccurate, I encourage you to approach any one aged 17-22 years old and ask them if they would consider a 35-year- old a fellow young worker.
Argument #4: Young people are in precarious, part-time positions. By the time they have a real, union job, they are in their 30s.
Part-time, precarious jobs are real jobs. No worker should be seen to be less a part of the labour movement because they don’t have full-time permanent job. Precarious jobs are not simply a product of age, but sadly are becoming more and more common for all workers.
If the labour movement wants more younger workers to be involved it needs redouble its efforts in organizing workers. It needs to strongly back campaigns like the $15 and Fairness campaign, take on the differentia student minimum wage, think about how to successfully organize in the service sector, fight for accessible post-secondary education.
Young people in the labour movement need a space to self-organize. Developing our capacities and confidence as workers cannot come about by older workers substituting in for younger ones. Developing the next layer of leadership in our labour movement can’t paper over the lack of young workers involved by expanding the definition of young. Changing the definition of young workers will not make the labour movement younger or more relevant.
Denise Martins was the Vice-President Young Workers for the Ontario Federation of Labour from 2013-2015.