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Black History Month Challenge: A Youth-Led Jobs Revolution

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On Feb. 1, 1960, when four African-American college students sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., they ignited a youth-led movement to challenge racial segregation and injustice in the South.

The freshmen refused to stand and eat at the F.W. Woolworth counter as the policy of that time required. They were denied service but remained in their seats. The manager left the students alone hoping they would eventually leave.

He assumed wrong.

The following morning, 23 other men and women joined them. Within a week, the demonstration reached at least 1,000 people. Students in other North Carolina towns launched their own sit-ins. Within two months, the sit-in movement spread across the South. Within six months, the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter was desegregated.

The "Greensboro Four," as they were known, began a wave of nonviolent protests against segregation across America. The sit-ins came just as the demand for Civil Rights grew into a mass movement, one that changed our nation forever.

The involvement of young people in that movement - along with religious, labor and other community leaders - cannot be underestimated. Young people stood together to fight for a better future. They forced America to change for the better, to change for them.

Five decades later, it's time for America's youth to lead another revolution, one that forces the nation to solve the critical civil rights challenge of this time: good jobs to enable all America to thrive into the next century. Good jobs provide health insurance. Good jobs create strong communities. Good jobs support a high quality educational system for all children.

Consider this: Of the more than 46 million uninsured Americans, 13.2 million are young adults -- the fastest growing segment of citizens without health benefits. Hispanics and blacks are disproportionately impacted: one-third of Hispanics and one-fifth of blacks are uninsured compared to 13 percent of whites.

Behind the sobering statistic of 10 percent nationwide unemployment is this harsh reality: 20 million workers ages 16 to 24 were jobless last year. That's more than 50 percent of all people in that age group. Unemployment rates for blacks and Hispanics are double that.

Sisters and brothers of the next generation, it's time for a revolution. It's time to stand up and be heard. It's time to mobilize online and in the streets. Together, let's tweet, Facebook and text. Let's rally, vote and, where necessary, sit in. Let's lead the civil rights movement 2.0.

Let's do more than celebrate Black History Month. Let's respect that history by emulating the leadership and courage of the Greensboro Four, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph and so many other giants.

They all knew that justice began with economic justice -- that equal opportunity for everyone to work hard and provide for their families and communities would mean a better nation. They knew that good jobs provided a pathway to a better life, including racial harmony. They all knew that justice - as righteous as it obviously was -- wasn't going to happen without coordinated, sustained and organized action.

They knew they had to do something. And they did. This generation of activists went on to become America's business owners, politicians, educators, doctors, lawyers, preachers and yes, labor leaders who helped build this country and the middle class.

It's time for another youth-led revolution.

If America is going to be prosperous, its young people must have the same opportunities we did, as our parents and grandparents did. Together, we need to revitalize the middle class and American communities. We need to make unions relevant to the workers of tomorrow and ensure opportunities for youngsters to grow and thrive.

At the USW, we believe manufacturing is the great equalizer, just as it was during the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s. But get the old, inaccurate, smoke stack-blowing stereotypes about manufacturing out of your head.

We're talking about new, high-tech, clean, efficient and world-class manufacturing. The making of wind turbines and solar panels to power the clean energy industry; hybrid and electric cars; components for iPhones, laptop computers and other electronics; materials for energy-efficient office buildings, homes and roads. Parts needed for high-speed rail, modern schools, updated water lines, sewer systems and other infrastructure that's costing us money and precious time in the fight against global warming.

When America invests in manufacturing, everyone benefits. Check this out:

  • Every manufacturing job supports five more jobs, compared to just one job supported by a service sector position.
  • Manufacturing jobs pay an average 10 to 50 percent more than service sector jobs.
  • Creating 2.5 million new manufacturing jobs would mean at least $100 billion for the American economy over the next decade.
  • Domestic manufacturing is the green economy - it's among the cleanest, most efficient and productive in the world. Factories in places like China do not have to follow environmental or health or safety rules, putting their workers and our environment in danger. The influx of imported toxic toys, poisoned dog food, tainted medicine, malfunctioning cars you've been hearing about? Cheap imported goods have a high price tag.
  • Manufacturing post-World War II and after the civil rights movement created the black middle class, and manufacturing's demise has been devastating to black families and communities. African-Americans working in manufacturing declined from 23.9 percent in 1979 to 9.8 percent in 2007, the largest drop of any group.
  • Black workers who belong to unions earn wages that are 12 percent higher, about $2 per hour more, than those of their non-union counterparts.
  • In fact, most union workers earn more than non-union workers. More importantly, they have a voice to help win health care, stronger safety and health protections and retirement security. Just as Wall Street shareholders are entitled to a share of profits, the hard-working employees who help businesses succeed should get their fair share as well.

America needs a youth-led revolution for manufacturing.

Imagine the opportunities. Think about the difference in your lives, in your communities. America needs you in this fight, and you need to be in this fight.

As North America's largest industrial union, we vow to be there for you, with you. Let's work together to mold our proud grassroots traditions of getting things done with your generation's emerging online- and technology-based mobilization that was such a force in the 2008 elections.

Let's honor Black History Month in a way that would truly make the Greensboro Four and so many other heroes proud. Let's begin a revolution.

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Leo W. Gerard is the international president of the United Steelworkers, representing 1.2 million active and retired workers. Fred Redmond is the international vice president for human affairs. For more information: www.usw.org.