Generation Z and late millennials can also be described as Generation Labor, not only in the sense that young workers are widely pro-union and leading a new labor movement revival in the retail and service industries. Young workers are also Generation Labor because of the economic stressors that have driven us to organize. Precarity and student debt were foisted on us by capitalist systems and have left young workers yearning for a new solution —one that we can find in a new labor movement.
Born in the late 1990s or early aughts, Generation Labor’s earliest political memories are likely those of the 9/11 attacks or the Iraq war. Perhaps what comes after the start of those wars was most formative: in elementary or middle school, experiencing the financial crisis from an adolescent’s point of view.
Generation Labor is part of a cohort that grew up during the 2008 financial crisis, where political consciousness from its earliest stage was formed by the economic crisis and massive societal disruption. Graduating high school or college proved no different, as the grips of a recession caused by a global pandemic took hold. Those of us who craved some stability and perhaps looked forward to a promising future were quickly reminded how little the capitalist economic system and the billionaire class care about the workers who create its profits.
However, we can take this anxiety and demand a better world. We can learn from the history of the American labor movement; by doing so, as Caitlyn Clark and Jeremy Gong have remarked in Jacobin, we “have the power to shake the earth.”
Our generation is understanding how the capitalist system needs us to live in an everlasting cycle of precarity, but we can combat this with solidarity. Young workers leading efforts to unionize Starbucks stores across the country, and on TikTok and Twitter, Generation Labor has learned how to exploit new technologies to organize and support ongoing unionization campaigns by exposing the tactics of union-busting corporations and corralling support for active efforts. Though this fervor is found nationwide, we are seeing local examples of this new momentum here in Washington, DC, too. From bookstores to sandwich shops, we have seen a growing labor movement, evolve out of the now-commonplace idea that every worker deserves dignity, fair wages, good benefits and a union.
The most important thing for us to do is what we have always done best: agitate. Always we must continue to agitate, to work toward starting a union in our workplace. If your work is already unionized, then get involved and use the union as a vehicle to make it more militant. If you are self-employed or not in a place to organize your workplace, you can agitate outside of it. Showing up in solidarity with those unionizing at protests, strikes and online, using your platform to expose union-busting corporations. Our agitation is what makes a difference; bosses and the capitalist system will never give us what we do not take — but to succeed, we have to do that together.
The boom and bust of the capitalist system will always prioritize profits over the people that generate them — but through our work and agitation, Generation Labor can break this cycle. We can learn a lot from the socialists and labor organizers of the past; Eugene V. Debs’ words about our nation’s capital continue to ring true today and highlight our need to build a mass movement together:
“If you go to the city of Washington, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of congress, and mis-representatives of the masses claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad that I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”