Union label not proudly worn by younger workers

January 5, 2011
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Union activism has dropped among younger workers, a trend that may bring innovation into union management.

“We don’t communicate the way our parents did,” Sean Egan, 32, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers West Michigan Local 275, told Capital News Service reporter Nyssa Rabinowitz. “Leadership needs to be more accessible.”

Most of the executive board of Egan’s local, based in Coopersville, is between 26 and 35, and its volunteers are about 35, so it has more participation from this age group than most, Egan said.

Egan became president of the local when he was 25 and served in that position for four years. He is an example of a young union member who actively participates, said Mark Gaffney, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO.

Many young members, however, don’t participate, because they don’t see anyone in union leadership who looks like them: All the leaders are older.

For example, most unions still publish newspapers or newsletters to communicate with their members instead of using social media like Facebook, Gaffney said. And that’s not how much of the younger generation communicates, he said.

The drop in union activism isn’t uncommon, said David Reynolds, a labor historian at Wayne State University. Union activity regularly goes through cycles, he said. When the influence of unions ebbs, they have less of a presence in new industries and jobs, which is where the majority of younger workers are, he said. When unions grow, they generally grow in the same new areas and with a strong young worker presence.

Reynolds predicted that younger workers will become more involved in the future. But that won’t happen without some help, the AFL-CIO’s Gaffney said. The drop in active participation is a challenge for unions across the country, he said, but unions in some states are doing better than others in attracting younger workers.

New York, California and Colorado unions all have more participation among younger workers, Gaffney said, and have done a more effective job marketing themselves to younger members.

Now Gaffney is taking up the charge to move Michigan in that direction.

He plans to reach out to younger leaders for advice on how to inspire younger members.

Egan said younger workers are important because they bring new perspectives and they have a better understanding of work-life balance than older colleagues.

If younger workers don’t become engaged, the role of unions may diminish, Egan said. Unionization rates are going down, and it’s up to the young workers to find a system that works. Having someone who looks and talks like them will help spark their interest, he said.

For example, his local is moving toward monthly or quarterly webcast meetings so all members can take part, regardless of where they are.

There needs to be more communication between leaders and young workers, and e-mail and texting could help bridge that generational gap, Egan said.

Marking the calendar

The significance of Jan. 11, 2011, or 1/11/11, is clear for Grand Rapidians as it is the opening date for the new Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. But other people all across the country are looking forward to that day for other reasons.

PC and PS 3 players can enter the DC Universe that day and become the next legends. Fans of the film “Dances with Wolves” will be able to buy the 20th anniversary release on Blu-ray that day, and the 30th anniversary edition of “Raging Bull” also will be released then. The new $36 million (Salvador) Dali Museum will open that day in St. Petersburg, Fla., and resorts in Atlantic City will offer 11 hotel rooms for $1.11 and meals for $11.11.

The long-awaited debut CD from Sky Ferreira, a sultry 18-year-old electro-pop newcomer, hits the store shelves 1/11/11, and the Indiana Mentoring Partnership will kick off its recruitment drive for adult mentors that day. Mattel is celebrating UNO’s 40th anniversary with packs of limited-edition retro cards that will sell for $1 on 1/11/11.

Meanwhile, Texan Tea Partiers will meet that day on the steps of the Texas Capitol in Austin to help set the state’s legislative agenda and are being encouraged to wear red. Many are hoping that what they do to Texas that day matches what they did to the country in November.

FSU makes the grade

Ferris State University recently gained notice from the Chronicle of Higher Education for boosting graduation rates.

Earlier this month, the Chronicle found that FSU ranked 15th in the nation in graduation rate improvement between 2003 and 2008.

In 2003, the rate at the college was 34 percent, FSU said in a release. By 2008, it was 43 percent. If you go back a year prior to the Chronicle’s database, Ferris’ graduation rate in 2002 was 28 percent.

“We are very pleased with the increased retention and graduation rates for our students,” Ferris President David Eisler said. “They reflect the commitment of our people to student success and the hard work of our students in completing their degrees.”

The Chronicle looked at “first-time, full-time” students who achieved bachelor’s degrees within six years of entering in the fall.

“Raising graduation rates from 34 percent to 43 percent in six years does not happen by accident,” added Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Fritz Erickson.  “It takes a dedicated faculty and staff committed to academic excellence and student success to make that happen.”

The increase came amid increased admission standards and a rate of 35 percent who transfer to other higher education institutions.

Economic boosters

Local First has unveiled its first-ever Local First LocalMotion Awards Nominees. LocalMotion Awards “focus on businesses and individuals whose commitment to a sustainable, local economy is moving West Michigan forward; an optimistic view on what has become a pessimistic subject —Michigan’s economy,” said Elissa Hillary, executive director  for Local First.

Hillary said members and non-members were asked by the nonprofit local business advocacy organization to nominate individuals and businesses that are positively affecting the West Michigan economic landscape. Forty businesses and individuals were nominated in four categories: Change Agent, Local Hero, Triple Bottom Line and Mover & Shaker.

Those nominated include:

Atomic Object LLC; The Beerhorst Family; James Berg; Brick Road Pizza; Judi Buchman; Business Strategy Inc.; Paul Bussey; The Center for Community Leadership; Coat of Many Colors; Comprenew Environmental; Curtis Cleaners; Electric Cheetah; Essence Restaurant Group; Steve Faber; Fat Chicks Coffee Cantina; Gazelle Sports; Global Infusion; Grand Rapids Community Foundation; Grand Rapids Social Diary; Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell; The Image Shoppe; Ken's Fruit Market; the Loeks family; Lott3Metz Architecture; MadCap Coffee Co.; Marie Catrib's; The Meanwhile; Michigan Film Reel; Modern Hardware; Reds on the River; Rylee's Ace Hardware; The Score Restaurant & Sports Bar; Spirit Dreams; Twa Construction; the Twa family; Twisted Rooster; Verhey Carpets; Wealthy at Charles; Wealthy Theater; and The Winchester.

Winners of the Local First LocalMotion Awards will be announced and recognized at the Local First annual meeting at the Goei Center Feb. 1.

Some energetic talk

The West Michigan Environmental Action Council and Rhoades McKee will present the second Exploring Our Energy Future Forum Jan. 12 at Calvin College’s Fine Arts Center from 7 to 9 p.m.

“I Want Wind in My Backyard: The Potential Impacts of Wind Power on West Michigan Farms, Rooftops and Manufacturing Floors” will focus on the potential trend toward utility-scale wind farms and residential wind turbines in West Michigan and how these technologies will impact residents, land use, agriculture and businesses.

Like the first Exploring Our Energy Future Forum, this event is “designed to inspire and educate those interested in supporting or using alternative energy on its possible environmental, economic and social impacts,” said WMEAC Energy Programs Manager Ann Erhardt.

“More and more of our members are asking questions about how they can get wind energy in their region or on their rooftops … and what to expect if they do,” Erhardt said. “We’re going to answer as many of those questions as we can in the time allowed.”

Speakers include: Matthew Heun, Calvin College (moderator); Bruce Thompson, MAPA Group; Joelle Gehring, Michigan State University; Michael Ford, Cascade Engineering; Steve VanSteenhuyse, city of East Grand Rapids; Steve Harsh, Michigan State University; Chris Idema, Energetx; and Dennis Marvin, Consumers Energy.

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