Big Union Energy: Next Generation of USW Activists Rise Up

This article was originally published in the Spring 2024 issue of USW@Work.


A fervent spirit of the union swept through the streets of downtown Pittsburgh in early March as hundreds of fresh United Steelworkers activists convened at the second-ever international Next Generation conference.

The group spent four days working to amplify their engagement in the union and to share their passion for the labor movement with all who could hear.

The NextGen conference, held March 3 to 7, gave young and new union activists a chance to pump each other up and gain new skills as they served on panels, learned from USW staff and member trainers in workshops, rallied in the streets to show solidarity with other unionizing workers, and gave back to the community through various service projects.

The early-morning wake-up call on the conference’s first day didn’t deter the crowd of rowdy Steelworkers from shaking the room to life with the sounds of cheers, applause and hit music – provided by a live DJ – at the opening ceremony.

A handful of talented young USW members served as emcees to the program, including Noah Ledesma of Local 12-52, Ashley Seabrook of Local 8888, and Montrell Steib of Local 5702. The emcees brought energy to the stage each day of the conference, while still maintaining the spirit and purpose of all large USW gatherings – to learn, engage, and gather useful information to build solidarity with the rest of their union siblings.

District 10 Director Bernie Hall, who began his union leadership career as a founding member of the USW’s NextGen committee and served as the first NextGen coordinator of his district, kicked off the conference by welcoming the new members and inspiring them to take action.

“When NextGen took off, I was 30 years old and this union put their faith in me to go and speak – not just for this union, but for the entire labor movement,” said Hall, who is the first person elected to the USW International Executive Board to rise from the ranks of the NextGen arm of the union. 

“The labor movement isn’t a sprint – it’s a marathon,” said Hall. “Take your first steps now, and you’ll do things beyond your wildest imagination.”

Activism Through Art

International NextGen Conference Coordinator Trisha Garcia of Local 8599 delivered the conference’s keynote address, speaking on the power of ideas and the important role creativity can play in the labor movement. 

Garcia highlighted the work of Julian Hernandez of Local 183, a health care worker and NextGen member who designed and painted a colorful backdrop mural for the conference at Pittsburgh’s historic Carrie Furnace on a freezing, snowy day in February. 

“The idea was to use this concept of creating to tap into the vibrancy that is street art, to convey the newness and energy of NextGen,” said Garcia. 

Unexpectedly cold temperatures and winds created challenging conditions for Hernandez – who hails from Southern California – to use his paint cans and brushes, but Garcia and other USW staff helped Hernandez complete the project over the course of two days. 

The artwork utilizes colorful, street art-style techniques and features diverse caricatures of workers in a variety of USW industries.

“It’s truly been an honor being able to merge my art and activism for this conference. It’s a dream come true,” said Hernandez. “This piece feels like the heart and soul of what we’re going to do this week.”

NextGen conference-goers took photos in front of the backdrop over the course of the week.

Learning the Ropes

Throughout the week, USW staff and member trainers provided nearly 60 workshops for conference attendees to hone their activism skills. Workshops focused on history and labor education, labor law, bargaining and enforcing contracts, health and safety, organizing, legislative and political strategies, social justice activism, communications and more. 

Paige Cisco and Andria Tipton, both members of Local 689 who work at the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio, led a course in “Community Service Safety and Health,” which highlighted the potential health and safety hazards to consider when planning community service activities for members.

Many of the principles of the course seemed simple – wear rubber gloves when picking up trash, wash your hands well, don’t mix ammonia and bleach. But the room came to life with hands-on demonstrations that engaged members and drew upon Cisco and Tipton’s experience with handling potentially radioactive material at the Ohio nuclear site where they work.

In one activity, Cisco poured fake blood over each participant’s gloved hands to demonstrate how to safely remove rubber gloves and about the importance of properly fitting PPE. In another, participants drew images on a page with a Q-tip dipped in baking soda and water. Blackberries were then smudged across the page, and the acidity in the berries reacted with the baking soda to reveal the images. 

“Even if you can’t see something, it could still be a present hazard,” explained Cisco, who began working at the Portsmouth plant as a janitor just a few years ago and is now a process operator and full-time safety representative. 

In another unconventional workshop, members of the Pittsburgh Labor Choir taught people how to use union chants and music to manage attention, build morale and direct collective action. With drums, shakers and tambourines, members of the class took turns leading chants and learning the most effective ways to use music to pump up the picket line. 

Bridging the Gap

The NextGen conference provided an opportunity for longtime USW leaders and retirees, along with the newest generation of members, to build relationships and learn from each other.

Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) President Bill Pienta began his USW career in 1966 as an electrician at a steel mill. Before taking on his leadership role in SOAR, he served as president of Local 2693 and later on the international executive board as director of District 4.

Pienta said that the NextGen conference provided connections between younger members and more seasoned activists, both of whom have much to learn from each other.

“As I get older, I learn how much I don’t know,” Pienta said. “We have to move forward, and we have to do it together.”

Conference-goers participated in a day of service on the final morning of the conference, branching out all over the city to volunteer at nearly a dozen sites that included churches, community centers, food banks and other non-profit organizations. 

While washing windows at the Kingsley Association, a community center in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, Precious Pittman, a member of Local 8888 who helps to build submarines at the Newport News, Va. shipbuilding facility, said she came to NextGen with nearly a dozen other members of her local.

“I’m excited to see how we’re bridging the gap between the older generation and the newer generation, and it’s only getting better with time,” said Pittman. 

Zack Mainhart, co-chair of the NextGen committee for Local 1557 at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, said he was glad to be able to build connections with some of the union’s most experienced leaders, who have demonstrated that, through solidarity, workers can overcome any obstacles in their path.

“For us to be able to understand our struggles,” he said, “we need to learn from them and how they navigated those situations.”

Lifetime of Activism

The final night of the conference honored AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond, who formerly served as the USW International Vice President, with the Lifetime of Activism Award to acknowledge his investment in and support of the NextGen group of activists. 

“There’s nobody better to receive this award than the godfather of NextGen, Fred Redmond,” said E.J. Jenkins, a NextGen activist from Local 1014 in Gary, Ind., who was honored with the Legend Award for his contributions to the labor movement that same night.

In his address to the ballroom full of young activists, Redmond highlighted their “electrifying” nature and the important role they have in organizing new workers. 

“Future generations of workers are depending on you to make sure that our union remains the fighting union that we are,” Redmond said.

International Vice President Roxanne Brown said she believes that fighting spirit will continue for generations to come.

“Seeing the enthusiasm in the eyes of our young activists, I know this union will be in good hands,” she said.

International President Dave McCall ended the conference with closing remarks to the room full of bright-eyed activists, who left energized and ready to take their newfound knowledge back to their workplaces.

“When you go home, share what you learned this week, talk to our members in the workplace about the power of our solidarity – to have a voice, to be able to succeed in protecting our members and their families,” said McCall.

“There is no greater power,” he said, “than what we can do together on behalf of our members and on behalf of their families.”


Click below to listen to a USW Solidarity Works podcast episode about Next Gen.

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