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‘Next Wavers’ Learn to Confront Challenges

By Clyde Weiss and Jon Melegrito
Next Wavers
Center Stage | Diamond Robertson (center), an executive board member of University of California Local 3299, leads Next Wavers in a cell phone poll. Casey L. Karns, (left) a member of Local 1050 (Pennsylvania Council 13) responds to one of the polling questions. Also onstage is Paul Spink, membership secretary of Local 2748 (Wisconsin Council 24). The three rank and file leaders emceed the AFSCME Next Wave Conference in Atlanta this summer. (Photo by Alex Jones)

More than 600 new and young AFSCME activists attending the union’s second national Next Wave Conference this past July in Atlanta vowed to confront the corporate-driven, right-wing campaign against the working middle class. They also gained leadership skills necessary for the trials ahead.

“To me, Next Wave is like a family of young AFSCME members coming together to network and to learn from each other,” says Diamond Robertson, a food service worker at UC Davis Medical Center and also an executive board member of University of California Local 3299.

“I know that if I ever needed anything I could go to my AFSCME brothers and sisters and I would have support,” adds Casey L. Karns, a therapeutic activity aide at Polk Hospital in Franklin, Penn., and a member of Local 1050 (Pennsylvania Council 13). Karns is also the chair of Council 13's Next Wave Steering Committee and AFSCME’s representative to the AFL-CIO Young Worker Advisory Council.

The Next Wave is a five-year-old network of AFSCME members 35 and under, launched at the state and local levels. This was the network’s second national conference.

Exchanging ideas in workshops and other forums, the members developed new ways to fight back, including the use of social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter. They also learned about the nature of the corporate-funded, tea party-inspired attacks on working families and their unions, and the role that young leaders must play in the fight.

During the conference, speaker after speaker impressed on the Next Wavers that they hold the key to the future of American trade unions. “You are energizing our union and our Main Street Movement,” AFSCME Pres. Gerald W. McEntee told the conferees, referring to AFSCME’s campaign to restore workers’ rights and public services. “You have the vitality that is going to make the difference in the lives of AFSCME members across this country.”

During the conference, President McEntee announced the creation of AFSCME’s Next Wave Advisory Committee. Its members, nominated by the union’s International vice presidents, will “advise us on policies and issues from a young-worker perspective,” McEntee said, adding that the committee’s first meeting will convene before the end of this year.

AFSCME Sec.-Treas. Lee Saunders also addressed the Next Wavers: “We’ve been tested from coast to coast by politicians who don’t just want to break us — they want to take us out of the game completely,” he said. “Somebody’s got to stand up and fight for the future! And it’s got to be us. It’s got to be AFSCME. It’s got to be the Next Wave!”

AFSCME leaders in Wisconsin, Saunders noted, “will be the first to tell you that the group most dedicated to standing with us was students.”

Allie Gardner, a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was among the young activists who charged into the state Capitol last winter to defend the collective bargaining rights of teachers and other public service workers. Addressing the Next Wavers at the conference, Gardner warned that a generation “born into freedom of speech, workers’ rights and democracy” was confronted with losing those rights. “Suddenly, I woke up and made a decision that I wasn’t willing to give that up. I knew I had to fight for our voice, our rights and our democracy.”

Another crusader for democracy, a young Egyptian activist named Sarah Kamal, captivated the Next Wavers by recollecting her close-in view of Egypt’s “6th of April Youth Movement,” which helped topple the repressive Mubarak regime earlier this year. Kamal spoke about the important role young people played in that historic confrontation.

AFL-CIO Sec.-Treas. Liz Shuler called on Next Wavers “to be the tip of the spear that carries us to victory.”

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