Fresh Faces Are Labor’s Hope

Organizing Matters

Volume CIV, No. 11November, 2004

Amy Cocuzza

History and tradition tell us that the education of youth is one of the critical means of preserving any movement or culture.

This is intuitive; the students of today are the leaders of tomorrow.

Any group with a collective interest has a profound responsibility to see that its youth have the tools necessary to carry its messages forward.

As union members, we must make reaching out to today’s students one of our top priorities if we hope to survive as a movement. Labor issues have never had much of a platform in the schools, but today’s students can make it all the way through their formal education without learning anything substantial about unions.

These students will one day be our rank and file, our great leaders and our innovators. Indeed, they’re our future. But first we need to recruit them.


At Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), fewer than one in ten undergraduate ILR students pursue a career in the labor movement.

According to the school’s 2003 Postgraduate Survey, only 9 percent of the 2003 graduates who planned to work after graduation went into the labor movement. And the truth is, this figure was the highest in decades, thanks in part to the recent surge in anti-sweatshop campus activism.

Bear in mind, the Cornell ILR School is widely renowned as one of the world’s premier academic centers for labor studies. Many of the labor movement’s most valued researchers are based there. ILR alumni hold top ranking positions in some of the most innovative American unions.

So why are so few ILR students entering the labor movement? And where are they going instead?

Almost 70 percent of the 2003 graduates went into corporate human resources. If our paths cross theirs at all, it will be across a bargaining table.

The uneven distribution between these respective fields is often chalked up to the salary gap. The prevailing wisdom is that the corporate starting salaries are much, much higher than labor’s.

This is at best a shallow argument.

While there’s no question that corporations have more money in their coffers than the average union, the salaries normally start in the same approximate range.

The 2003 human resources graduates’ starting salaries averaged about $6,000 higher than the labor graduates’. While $6,000 is nothing to sneeze at, it’s probably not a significant enough figure to sway someone’s life decisions.


A much greater disparity exists in recruitment and access.

At Cornell’s ILR School, corporate recruitment begins before the start of classes.

Juniors, seniors and graduate students regularly get the chance to rub shoulders with high-level business executives.

Summer internships are assigned months in advance, often amidst much pomp and circumstance.

The process is very different for labor students.

Very few unions send representatives into the school, so internships must be sought on the students’ own time and dime.

This also means that the students are missing out on a key element of their education — a sense of how their theoretical learning would translate into a practical career.

There is a substantial mythology surrounding careers in the labor movement — that there are no “real” jobs, that it’s impossible to make a decent living, that all union employees burn out and leave the movement.


But the opportunity to meet professionals in the field is often enough to dispel these myths. For instance, Joe Eisman, our organizing director, recently attended ILR’s second annual Labor Roundtable in Ithaca.

This event brings a diverse group of labor professionals to the school and puts them at the students’ disposal for an afternoon. Through informal group discussions, the students have the opportunity to hear about labor careers firsthand.

“While most students seemed inclined to enter the field of human resources, the good news is that almost everyone I met wanted the job they eventually take to have some meaning for them — to help make the world a better place,” Eisman reported back to us. “Clearly, we in the labor movement need to step up our outreach efforts so that these students see that they can bring about the greatest positive changes through the labor movement.”


As professional musicians, we have an additional and equally important responsibility to reach out to young music students.

During our organizing drives at 802, we consistently encounter young musicians and teaching artists who have no idea what a union is, let alone how to take ownership of one.

Employers routinely take advantage of their ignorance by pitting them against their more senior colleagues.

But we’ve made strides on this front as well.

802’s recent efforts to meet with Juilliard students hired by Elton John for a special benefit concert were a good first step.

We took several hours to meet with these students, answer their questions and explain the realities of the music industry, as well as the critical issues facing their union.

We plan on increasing our presence in the music schools, as well as reaching children in the public schools through various projects like our Hudson Yards arts initiative.

We need young people to experience first hand the positive effects than can be derived from studying music and being exposed to live music.

We need to do more to educate our youth so that we can build a secure future for Local 802 and the entire labor movement.

During the Juilliard education session, one of the most commonly asked questions was, “Why don’t we have programs like this regularly in school?”

Which is exactly what we should be asking ourselves. Why not indeed?