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Minnesota Youth Collective organize young voters — and themselves

The Minnesota Youth Collective's new union, born on Zoom and raised on idealism, will be entering negotiations this week.

The Minnesota Youth Collective's new union, born on Zoom and raised on idealism, will be entering negotiations this week. Twitter

Minnesota has a strange and conflicted relationship with young voters.

The youth vote is referred to as both powerful and unreliable – a bloc that could swing elections, and yet a consistently uninterested or disenfranchised no-show. Our state, which boasts some of the highest voting participation rates in the nation, patted itself on the back in the 2018 midterms, when it managed to get just shy of 44 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds to cast their ballots.

At less than half the eligiblie youth vote, even that was a 20 percent increase over the figures from 2014. 

The Minnesota Youth Collective, a nonprofit run by and for young people, is trying to change that – most directly by making sure as many people between the ages of 18 and 36 have the resources they need to vote, but also by training them to be community organizers who can push issues like climate change, affordable housing, and defunding the police into political platforms. 

Founded in 2017, the organization points to the 2018 midterms as proof of concept.

“Come November, young people turned out because their peers talked to them, in their communities, about the issues they care about,” the collective’s website explains. “Young people helped flip the state house along with two of the eight congressional districts, and the Hennepin County Sheriff[‘s office.]”

Sean Lim, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Minnesota, has been an organizer with the collective since 2018. Although he believes there’s “a lot more work to do,” he’s been convinced of the power of grassroots campaigns.

He also knows how significant it is that he and his colleagues are getting paid to do this.

“MNYC is the first and only job in political organizing where I’ve been compensated for my work,” said Lim, who's been working on campaigns since the 2016 presidential election, at age 15.

And now, only a couple years into its existence, the young workers at the collective have achieved another milestone: They've unionized. After a staff retreat in August, Lim and coworker Kayla Shelley, 22, started reaching out to personally over Zoom and talking about what they wanted out of their jobs.

The burgeoning union had three basic demands for management: increased transparency about how the collective is funded, a written pay equity policy, and guaranteed employment for their temporary staff through at least January 2021.

It probably shouldn’t come as any surprise that a staff of young people trained to galvanize other young people took it upon themselves to enter into workplace advocacy. Getting the effort together was just a matter of virtually reaching out, holding a meeting to determine that this was truly the will of the 12-person full-time staff, and asking the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU Local 12) to represent them.

OPEIU has been eager to represent a burgeoning crop of nonprofits and think tanks that have been entering the union world in waves this year, in Minnesota and beyond. (The Current and MPR Classical have also moved to unionize.) 

These organizations – often run by idealistic, driven, and educated workers – are being asked to walk the walk, and treat their employees in a way that comports with their stated values. 

The collective’s union also received the swift support of management, which gave voluntary recognition this week. They’ll enter their first negotiation session with management on Friday.

“Everyone on staff is part of the bargaining unit,” fellow union member Danielle Jackson, 25, says. They’ll see what happens on that front this week. And the course of action after that?

“Whatever we want it to be,” she says.

All three union members agree. This has been a very challenging year. And for a lot of folks observing the political process churn through what looks like another inevitably unsatisfying outcome, optimism is a tall order, to say nothing of empowerment.

But they nonetheless remain hopeful. Their ability to organize and come together has won them a few victories already, both in their workplace and in their government, and they look forward to more.

“All it takes is stepping up,” Shelley says. “We’re ready.”