In a recent Atlantic article, Alana Semuels asks: “Why have high-profile organizing campaigns succeeded for white-collar workers and failed for blue-collar workers?” Semuels presents new BLS data that demonstrates the growth of white-collar unions: Union membership in professional and technical jobs grew by nearly 90,000 last year, and several white-collar occupations saw an uptick in union density, which grew from 4 percent in 2010 to 7 percent in 2017. Contrasting this with recent defeats of blue-collar unionization drives, Semuels argues that there is a growing “class divide” within organized labor. This, she argues,
is yet another dynamic of an increasingly bifurcated American economy. As jobs for educated workers continue to proliferate in this economy, educated workers feel secure, sure that they’ll be able to find more work if they lose their jobs. In some cases, that security may mean they feel they can advocate for a union, or stand up to employer threats to shut the workplace down if a union forms.
But this is where Semuels’s argument reveals its flaw: White-collar workers aren’t organizing because they feel secure, but because they have more in common with precarious blue-collar workers than ever.
Consider recent changes in the media economy: rampant layoffs that show no sign of abetting anytime soon, and with them, the rise of forced perma-lancing. Today, internet publishers are adding workers at twice the rate that newspaper publishers are losing them, and while many of the latter have long been unionized, the former is a Wild West with few established workplace standards. This is the proletarianization of white-collar labor. And like the proletarians of generations past, these workers are turning to unions to protect what little they already have, and demand better treatment.
Another argument, suggested by Semuels and others, attributes the growth of white-collar unionization to a sort of superficial generational politics. Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center, says that college-educated millennials expected the world “handed to them on a silver platter” if they played by the rules and now find themselves disappointed. It’s true that millennials have a more favorable view of unions now than they did in 2010. As the Economic Policy Institute reports, 76 percent of the increase in union membership in 2017 was workers under 35 years old, even though this group accounts for less than 40 percent of total employment. But this attitude reflects their work experience, not their entitlement. Millennials earn 20 percent less than boomers did at the same age. Far more of these individuals work in “pink-collar” sectors—education and health care, sectors that have doubled in size since 1990 and which contain the country’s most militant unions—than in the niche digital-media sector that often draws attention. In truth, this is a story about how the erosion of working conditions is leading student debt-saddled employees to identify with the working rather than the managerial class.