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Does Generation Y Have a Union Problem?

Jewish women have a long and storied history in the American labor and worker’s rights movement, from Emma Goldman to Rose Schneiderman to Betty Friedan (yep, she was a union rabble-rouser first) and beyond. This excellent article at the Jewish Women’s Archive gives a partial overview of Jewish women’s involvement in the movement: the good, the bad and the ugly. And our presence in the movement continues today: arguably one of the most visible and controversial union leaders in our country, Randi Weingarten, is herself a Jewish woman.

I grew up in a pro-union household. We sifted through clothing at stores, looking for that UNITE! label, honked whenever we passed workers on strike, and did our best never to cross picket lines. But this practice wasn’t widespread, even among friends and classmates on the Upper West Side, people who embraced other liberal causes wholeheartedly. It’s true that my generation has birthed some of the most successful student labor activists in decades — bringing college administration after administration to the negotiating table from the 90s through today to increase worker wages on campuses and demand that apparel come from non-sweatshop factories. But as a wider group, we’re pretty apathetic about unions. My college-educated peers have entered the education reform movement in droves, a movement sees unionization of teachers as enemies, not allies. And particularly among that educated group in my generation, there is a growing disconnect between our comfortable lives and the working-class forbears whose pensions and insurance plans helped us achieve that comfort.

So that’s why what’s happening in Wisconsin right now is so fascinating. As an organizer writing for Think Progress described it, it’s birth of a massive “solidarity movement” — relentless, supportive and unflinching in its opposition to an awful bill that would strip workers of their essential right to bargain collectively. It’s particularly heartening to see the flood of support for teachers, who are both primarily female (at the elementary school level, at least) and frequently maligned. Signs like “if you can read this, thank a teacher” have been waved high above the masses of protesters, and speakers have been sure to thank their children’s teachers and all the other public servants who help them everyday. That’s more than just political solidarity — it’s true brotherhood, recognizing that none of us would be where we are without the transit workers, the firemen, the mail carriers and the nurses and teachers who help us everyday. We’re all in a universal brotherhood and sisterhood, the protesters acknowledge — and in my mind, it’s no coincidence that these are terms used for both unions and synagogue groups (and this blog)!

And so as the standoff continues, I can’t help but think that Emma Goldman and her ilk would be proud of those brave Wisconsin souls who’ve shown such backbone and fierce optimism in their unified expression of dissent.

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