Justin Laem learned from his father the value of joining a union. Laem, a Cambodian American, 24, works as an Office Manager and Organizing Assistant for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), Local 2001, of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE). He is also a member of the Office Professionals Employees International Union (OPEIU), Local 8. Before Laem joined a union after college, he observed his dad actively participating for twenty years in the International Association of Machinists Union (IAM) at Boeing. After graduating from college, Laem procured an internship at AFL-CIO in Washington D.C. Through the internship he learned how progressive the labor unions were becoming by reaching out to younger and more diverse people.
Laem is currently working with SPEEA to organize a group of approximately 100 engineers to become union members. Laem also works to raise awareness for the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide conditional permanent residency to certain undocumented students. If they were to complete two years in the military or two years at a four-year institution of higher learning, the students would obtain temporary residency for a six-year period. Laem works hard to reach out to younger and more progressive workers, identifying the growing trend to diversify union membership.
How do you think the issues you’re facing as a union activist are different from those of the past?
Laem: In the past, there were a lot stronger struggles, and therefore, the actions were radical, such as protests. It’s difficult for our generation to become more united. We need different methods. It’s also a lot more political now.
Is there a disconnection between the veteran and younger generation of union activists? If so, in what ways?
Laem: Yeah, there could be sometimes. There are different styles. The older generation likes to focus on the past and the younger generation feels like moving things through to the future.
What can the younger generation learn from the veteran to continue their work as activists?
Laem: We can learn how to be strong, develop strategies for campaigns and how far is too far in terms of strategy.
What lessons can be gained from methods that did not work with veteran activists?
Laem: It’s good for the younger generation to know when it goes too far. To learn the boundaries and be as effective as possible.
If you were to address veteran union activists in a message, what would you share with them?
Laem: Thanks for your hard work. Thanks for leading the labor union movement. You’ve been a great encouragement for younger people to prolong the union movement. And take time to share your lessons with the younger union activists.