The common stereotype of young workers is a middle-class, white teenager without any financial responsibilities working for some extra spending money to buy CDs, clothes and cars before they head off to college and a “real” career. They make triple, non-fat lattes, sell us jeans, cosmetics and movie tickets, serve us breakfast, lunch, dinner, pour our beer and mix us cocktails. Their jobs almost look like fun—they get to hang out at the mall, in cool stores and hip restaurants.
These images of carefree young workers hide the grim reality that the majority of young people experience. The young people we see everyday serving us are most likely in their late teens or early to late twenties. Many are from working class backgrounds, are immigrants or people of color and are contributing to the family income, or supporting their own young families. To make matters even more difficult, many are trying to balance going to school with work, at the same time that skyrocketing tuition costs are making college more inaccessible for the working class. Young people make up a large part of the growing low-wage service sector army—working in jobs with no benefits, no career advancement, no unions, and little government or advocate regulation.
Young people, especially youth of color and immigrants, make up a cheap, disposable army of labor that has built the multi-million dollar empires of corporations like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Borders, Subway and many others. In exchange, many young workers are getting stuck in a never-ending string of low-wage, non-union, exploitative jobs.
Young workers are concentrated in industries, such as retail and restaurants, that have received very little attention from unions, advocacy groups, government agencies or the media. In contrast, these industries have been very successful at pushing their own agendas—fighting minimum wage increases, health and safety standards, and better wage and hour laws.
Young Workers United is committed to organizing young workers to improve conditions on the job. Part of our work is to better understand the situation of young workers and the industries where they work. YWU collaborated with the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center and Graduate School of Education to produce several studies of young workers.