Canadian IAM Member Reflects on AFL-CIO Young Workers Summit

Dan Janssen is the vice president of IAM Local 2323 in Ontario, Canada.

This past weekend in Chicago, I attended the AFL-CIO Next Up Summit, which is a young workers conference. While there, I had the privilege of not only representing my union, the Machinists (IAM) and my Local Lodge 2323, but also of representing Canada as one of only seven Canadian delegates in attendance. More than 1,000 young workers from across the United States and Canada descended on the shores of Lake Michigan and came together in the Chicago Hilton’s Grand Ballroom to discuss the labor movement. We were a diverse group with different backgrounds: race, gender, sexual orientation and age, united in a common passion to change the world around us.

Janssen asks a question to a panel of labor leaders during the AFL-CIO’s 2015 NextUp Young Workers Summit.

The energy was palpable and the vibe almost intoxicating. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said it best: “Our energy is the most powerful thing in the world… the numbers are on our side, when we stand together we have the power.” He was talking about the youth and our potential to create change. Together we can make a difference.

Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) spoke to us about social injustice and inequality: “Don’t think that you can’t turn this thing around, it’s possible now!” Using the civil rights movement as an example, he reminded us that only 50 years ago, John Lewis, a civil rights activist who was only 23 at the time, joined forces with Martin Luther King, Jr., who was 35, and 500 others to march from Selma to Montgomery, AL. The march was a major turning point in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They changed the world when they were the age we are now.

During the conference, I met and had conversations with many people. We shared information and stories about ourselves and our situations at home. One subject that came up over and over was health care, and how lucky I am as a Canadian. I don’t have to think about whether an illness or injury is serious enough to go see a doctor, or whether I have enough cash in the bank to pay for it, I just go to the doctor. It reminded me of how privileged we are and how important it is to protect our health care system. The fact that our conservative government is trying to erode our system by taking $36 billion in funding out of the budget is something worth fighting against. It is scary to think that one day our envied healthcare system might be used for profit, to put more money in the hands of the few. Having these conversations made it clear to me, our struggles are the same, regardless of what side of the border we are on.

I love that feeling of déjà vu, you know, when you feel like you’re in the right place at the right time. It couldn’t have been more apparent, when on the second night of the conference, a group of us walked some 20 blocks to attend an event put on by the Minnesota Young Workers. They rented the rooftop patio of a bar in Chicago’s south side. During the walk there we talked about each others’ interests and hobbies, and I mentioned that I was a DJ and I loved to collect records. When we finally got to the venue, I was stoked to see that there was a second floor record shop, below the patio bar, and it was open until midnight! I was in heaven! I dug through the crates and picked up a few old gems before heading upstairs to join the group. Our group was in full swing, brainstorming and sharing ideas, inspirations and plans to push our movement forward. I stood there listening, taking it all in and I felt as though I was exactly where I needed to be, at that exact moment in my life.

On Saturday morning, we exercised our power in numbers. We broke off into five different groups. The largest group designed a protest based around the fight for a $15 living wage. Another group decided to protest Guitar World over unfair wages and their commission structure.  Another went door to door to educate citizens about the unfair treatment of Chicago teachers and the effect that treatment is having on the education system. My group raised awareness about a Nissan dealership, protesting their use of temporary workers and ongoing health and safety issues in some of their manufacturing plants. These demonstrations showed us that it doesn’t take a lot of people to make an impact.

The summit offered a variety of courses, and I was able to attend four very informative and motivating classes. The first was called Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. It taught us about important figures in labor history and how their strength and courage can be used to inspire us right now. The Wage Theft course brought awareness to the unfair treatment of the working class and how companies take advantage of workers’ inability to collectively speak up. The Non-Violent Direct Action course was my favorite. We learned creative ways to bring light to issues, using a holistic, grassroots approach. The last course I took was Leadership: Story of Self. I learned that storytelling is important; it can motivate and inspire others to change their lives in a positive way. Everyone has a story to tell and it’s important to share those stories and moments that we feel changed the course or path of our lives. In a few years, I may look back and discover that this weekend was one of those moments.

As we ramp up for the federal election here in Canada, the need for us to come together as workers is greater than ever. Now is the time to start fighting for our rights. Our rights to healthcare, affordable child care, a comfortable retirement, safe working environments and our freedom to speak openly in this country. All of these things are under attack, but together we have the power to make a difference. Make sure to vote in the upcoming federal election. If you find yourself with some free time, get involved in your community, with your local labor council or your union. Think about the change your involvement could make in the future of our movement; you could be the one that makes the difference.

Thanks to the AFL-CIO for an amazing event, the Young Workers Advisory Council for the well thought out and planned courses, and a special thanks to the membership of the Machinists for allowing me the opportunity to attend. I will leave you with a quote from John Lewis, a prominent leader in America’s civil rights movement. “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”