Rachel Bryan’s family are fourth generation homeowners in Oakland, California. When Rachel moved to Washington, DC, about a year ago for work, she describes the cross-country change as “taking one for the team.” But she says this while laughing, and talks in such a way that you can tell she’s smiling even when you can’t see her face. She is, in short, one of the most positive people I’ve ever met.
There’s a misconception about positivity, I think. There’s this mistaken notion that to be positive is to somehow be unaware or fully cognizant of the facts. That one cannot be positive in this world while fully understanding it.
Rachel defies such stereotypes. She’s cheerful, but this sense that she can so clearly see the problem and knows–just innately knows–the solution cuts right through the cheeriness. I trust her intuition immediately.
It was this relentless drive and sense of purpose that brought her to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union after she was incarcerated. Upon her release, Rachel’s options were fairly limited. She needed employment, of that she was sure, but finding a job that would pay sustainable wages while not discriminating against her status as a formerly incarcerated person would be difficult at best, she thought. In the end, Rachel devised a plan: she would join a pre-apprenticeship school for construction, and apply to every trade group she could find, hoping one would take her.
One morning, at 6 a.m., she was the fourth person in line at the Electricians Council of Alameda County, part of the IBEW. By the time they opened their doors at 9 a.m., Rachel estimates there were over 400 people in line. Competition to get into apprenticeship program is tough, Rachel says. Of the 400 to 600 people who apply each time the program opens, which happens just once or twice a year, she says only 40 or so make it. Many people apply more than once. Rachel applied just once, and made it. For the first time, she says, being a woman and a person of color (Rachel is black) may have worked in her favor.
“We know the history of labor unions around race and discrimination,” Rachel says, alluding to the labor movement’s past exclusion of people of color.
Rachel moved quickly up the ranks in her union local, becoming just the second woman to be on staff since their charter in 1907. Eventually she was offered a position at IBEW’s national headquarters in Washington, DC, where she now works in the community engagement department. Rachel has broken a lot of barriers, which is maybe why she’s so prone to counting. In the course of our conversation, she counts: the total number of staff members (30), the number of young people on staff (3), the number of women (9), the number of people of color (4). Not that anyone’s counting.
“Labor, trade unionists, we’re our best kept secret,” Rachel says.
Rachel was let in into the secret young. Her family—a black middle-class family—was able to live in a redlined neighborhood in Oakland because of the higher wages her father’s union-covered job provided her family. More broadly, she attributes the ascendance of a black middle class in her neighborhood to unions. And today she sees unions as an important pathway to increased security and empowerment for young workers:
“Unions are a great benefit to young people because there are so many folks who are aging out, it creates a unique opportunity for us to create inter-generational partnerships to learn this institutional knowledge from folks who have been there, but also for us to bring in modern technology and modern methods as well as fuller inclusion to get the job done. As young people, we’re more concerned with getting the job done than what [people] look like or who they know. I really feel that labor needs young people desperately, they need us. And the greater benefit for us as young people, better wages, better quality of life, and opportunity to have a family and to get out of the burden of student loan debt.”
This match—between the financial security and empowerment unions provide, and the wages and organizing platform Millennials want—is what took Rachel away from her beloved construction sites and to a desk in DC (she considers working inside “taking one for the team” too). She works to create inter-generational partnerships, and, in the last year alone, has brought the number of youth councils in IBEW local chapters from nine to 40.
But it’s not enough, she says. There still aren’t enough young workers in unions.
Millennials are the most diverse generation in history. In 2013, when the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, passed a resolution highlighting the need for youth engagement for the future of the labor movement, it also passed a resolution on diversity. “A diverse and inclusive labor movement is essential to connecting with and representing the workforce of the future,” the resolution read.
The two are inextricably tied. And this connection between young people and diversity could be a good thing for unions—some racial groups, like black Americans, tend to not only be more favorable towards unions, but to be more likely to be in a union. The AFL-CIO reports that 11.7 percent of the workforce is African-American, but 14 percent of union members. And 69 percent of black Americans hold a positive view of unions, versus 51 percent of the general population.
And yet, despite the promise of these statistics, Rachel sees a disconnect between their potential and their reality.
“We’re not organizing in an effective way. We’re not organizing where they are. We’re not linking ourselves back into the community in ways that young people are there…There’s a new American majority, but we’re going to focus on white guys?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” she says.
For Rachel, getting young people into unions isn’t just about securing their future, it’s also about securing the future of older Americans.
“Young workers can’t make it on their own, and old workers can’t make it on their own,” she says. “We’ve got to work together.”