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Unions must empower the next generation of leadership

Rochester Business Journal
June 26, 2009
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," begins Allen Ginsberg's beat poem "Howl." These words defined the opening of my generation, a generation marked in American history by social upheaval; social awareness; cultural, racial, sexual and generational revolution; and an awakening of political power among the masses.

Abby Hoffman and others took social activism to new boundaries, while John Fogarty sang of privilege and the lack thereof. Children of plenty, born of the post-World War II generation, we were privileged to have opportunities to ask questions of those who came before us and to demand answers about our place within this great country.

In the time since our generation came of age, we've experienced terrible acts of violence against our fellow citizens in Iran, Lockerbie and Beirut. We have also experienced the economic loss of the late 1970s and economic return under Reaganomics. With the policies of Reaganomics, our country found periods of growth but also momentary glimpses of what would come. Privatization of energy, postal and water resources, exportation of jobs to China, South America and Canada, and Gordon Gecko's "Greed is good" began to redefine our generation's post-activism midlife crisis.

Again generational shift is approaching. When my grandparents moved here from Sicily, the life expectancy of a Sicilian was less than 50. Today, thanks in part to achievements by our generation's scientists, we in the United States expect to live well into our 70s, 80s or longer. But for those of us who are baby boomers, the generations to follow will carry our burden. Without immediate health care reform, preferably in the form of a Super-Medicare system, we stand to bankrupt our own children when they need financial security the most.

Until we began our own families in the 1980s, union jobs were known to hold security and financial promise. Families could grow, mothers and fathers could provide, and all of our neighbors were able to achieve the American dream. Since Reaganomics, that dream has eroded, increasing the gap between rich and poor. We abandoned our roots when the Vietnam era ended, but we do not need to leave our last solution in the 1970s.

During the past weeks, my staff has pushed me, and at my direction our executive board, to consider the next generation. While we fought for change, causing rifts within families, workplaces and social institutions, they have learned that words may be more effective. They use different forms of communication, use different words and have attempted to learn to make change without making our mistakes. With technological advances such as cell phones, personal computers and the Internet, this next generation will capitalize on our successes when given the opportunity.

Like you, I know our generation has the capacity to continue to provide and contribute. We are not yet ready to stand aside, but we must be ready to work together with those who come after us. As you'll read in the following words of Aron Reina, my lead field organizer, who writes on behalf of our AFL-CIO under-40 unionist group, Next Generation United, the next generation is standing in the wings, waiting to make an entrance. Difficult as it may be to continue with generational shift, I challenge our generation to continue our good work: Let's be the first to openly welcome the next generation through brotherhood and cooperation toward our mutual goals, while we continue to teach what we have learned. I for one wish our generation to leave that legacy, and to see my children succeed.

Aron Reina, lead field organizer:

"Come (with Me to) the Revolution"

The new revolution will not be televised. Instead, it will be seen on MySpace and Facebook and it will be Twittered and use technology not yet introduced. The new generation of union members stands united with our elders to collectively work on objectives such as economic justice and civil rights.

As in the past, the new generation will have its own challenges, changes and opinions, but its goals are not dissimilar from those of the generations of activists that have preceded us. The lessons, principles, ethics and passion of our elders found fertile soil among many of today's young activists, who appreciate the opportunities and knowledge gained from our parents and who look forward to making similar contributions to those who will succeed us.

We have heard the stories of grandparents who provided through difficult times, and we have heard the stories of how the '60s generation rose up to gain control, to change the system, to make the world a better place. We have seen the struggle-and we agree that the struggle continues and is necessary, although sometimes we see that struggle as misplaced energy, derailing true success.

For the moment, we need your advice and input as the new generation of activists begins to move from small steps to walking and running. As we move forward, we realize that some conflict is necessary and inevitable but that if we fight, we should fight on the same side.

Today the new generation declares not simply that we are here but that we have arrived. We wish to be a full part of the family with all the privileges and pains that accompany kinship. Our arrival requires that our voices be heard. Because you taught us to be prepared, we are ready to fight when necessary-hopefully at your side.

Today, as we look for our seats at the family table, we ask you this: If we show you how to speak our language, will you join the new revolution?

James Bertolone is president of the Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He also is president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 215. Aron Reina, lead field organizer of the Rochester & Genesee Valley Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, assisted with the article on behalf of Next Generation United, a union organization dedicated to giving voice to young workers fighting for economic justice.

06/26/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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