Millennials Are Keeping Unions Alive

Millennials Are Keeping Unions Alive

Jobs are precarious, health-care costs are skyrocketing, and wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living—no wonder young people are organizing.


Are you a young adult confused about your economic future? You’re not alone. The president brags of surging markets and job growth, but you’re getting rejected for every job you apply for, scrambling to pay rent, and stuck in a dead-end retail job. Maybe it’s time to take inspiration from the latest stats about millennials: Workers age 35 and under are the main component of an unprecedented surge in union membership over the past two years.

Nationwide in 2017, nearly 860,000 workers under age 35 got hired, and nearly a quarter of those were union jobs. According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, “Historically, younger workers have been less likely than older workers to be a member of union,” so in that sense there’s a lot of room to grow among younger workers, whose union membership lags behind other age groups. Millennials are responsible for a huge portion of the recent gains in union representation across the workforce, which has managed to remain fairly steady (yep, young people are keeping labor alive). Growing by some 198,000 workers, youth in union jobs are offsetting loss of union jobs in older age brackets; union jobs for workers age 45 to 54 dropped by some 75,000 over the same period.

So, in contrast to the myth of millennials’ being economically and politically adrift, they’re stepping in readily to fill the union ranks that have hemorrhaged middle-aged workers over the years—2017 actually saw an increase in the overall number of unionized workers over the previous year. A movement that we’re used to thinking of as getting older and smaller is actually growing stronger and younger—and they may well be leading the next progressive voting bloc in tandem with the labor movement.

In addition to breaking with an overall long-term decline in unionization across the workforce (now 10.7 percent), the youth surge highlights another dimension to the simultaneous rise in “gig economy” jobs. A recent analysis of job growth since 2005 reveals massive growth in temporary, irregular, or subcontracted work, known for unstable pay and precarious working conditions. And yet there hasn’t been a correlating backslide necessarily in younger workers’ labor power. There are actually signs that youth are increasingly driven to join unions precisely in response to economic precarity and eroding economic mobility. Even youth-oriented sectors have seen high-profile union victories, from digital-newsroom unions at Vice and Fusion to graduate-faculty unions at many public and increasingly, private, university campuses.

According to EPI Vice President John Schmitt, the employment trends suggest that the labor movement currently “seems right exactly where the future is…. Either they’re organizing new young workers, [for example] information-sector workers who are disproportionately young and are deciding that their online and/or cool Silicon Valley inspired kinds of firms are better if they’re union than if they’re not. Or the other thing that could be happening is, employment is expanding in sectors that are already union that have young workers,” including historically unorganized service industries like retail or health-care-support services—two areas where robust unionization efforts have been led by women, immigrants, and people of color.

But millennials may experience unique push-and-pull factors that drive them into unions. As EPI details in a separate analysis, unionization counters the characteristics that make jobs lousy today: gender and racial discrimination, wage gaps and lack of advancement opportunities.

Union jobs provide a net wage premium for women, especially in service-sector jobs that often lack stability and livable wages. Collective bargaining and union representation are associated with significantly higher wages for black and Latino workers. Nationwide, unionized workers are more than 50 percent more likely to have an employer-sponsored pension, and the vast majority have health insurance through their employer—a virtual financial unicorn for millennials who are often tracked into freelance and gig work with few benefits. Workers under age 25 who are unionized earn roughly a fifth more than their non-union counterparts.

Because unions give workers a voice in their workplace, unions offer young people a progressive support network at work, including legal support if they suffer harassment and want to bring a grievance against an abusive supervisor, and a community of solidarity for organizing colleagues against biased or inequitable treatment.

It’s true that this increase in youth unionization is not going to change the labor landscape overnight: Only one in eight workers nationwide are represented by a collective-bargaining agreement. But millennials have nowhere to go but up, since under-25-year-olds are the least unionized age bracket. That said, they have their whole lives ahead of them to deepen their involvement in a labor movement that is their best hope for political and economic empowerment.

A recent UCLA Labor Center study of young workers in Los Angeles shows that millennials are engaged on labor issues and are supportive of workplace organizing. According to researcher Hugo Romero, most respondents were “interested in and had positive perceptions of unions,” with about six in 10 expressing interest in joining a union or worker center “if they didn’t fear retribution from their employer.” The strong pro-union sentiment is also bolstered by concerted outreach efforts from youth-focused recruitment programs at unions like SEIU and its grassroots Fight For 15 campaign for low-wage workers. Organizers recognize that “young workers care about work/life balance, upwards mobility, safe working conditions, and living wages, all of which unions provide,” Romero observes. “The recent national data clearly shows that such efforts are paying off and that young people are a key part of creating a strong and sustainable future for unions.”

The dynamic in the union data reveal that whether they just cast a union vote or just landed their first gig, millennials have a keen sense of what they’re up against in the new economy, understand the challenges and opportunities of taking action at work, and, see unions are a springboard into the jobs, and justice, that they need and deserve.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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