With union membership dwindling nationally and the U.S. workforce increasingly shifting away from traditionally unionized industries like mining and manufacturing to a predominantly service-oriented economy, it’s easy to assume that young workers have little interest in joining a union.
In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2014 just under 11 percent of workers ages 25 to 34 were represented by unions — down from nearly 15 percent 20 years ago.
“There’s sort of an assumption out there that younger people aren’t as interested in unions as older people because they were brought up in a time where unions aren’t very strong and because they tend to work in different environments than the historic union worker,” said Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions.”
But the recent vote this summer to unionize by the editorial staff of Gawker Media — the new media company that publishes Deadspin, Gizmodo, Jezebel and Lifehacker — tells a different story. This is an editorial staff that skews young; most employees are in their 20s or 30s.
“It reflects a shift in demographics,” said labor professor Robert Bruno of the University of Illinois News Bureau. “The writers who voted to organize are highly educated young professionals. It really points to a new direction for the labor movement as well as the movement itself adapting to new workplaces and the new way in which we work.”
Gawker Media, for its part, said that it was choosing to organize because it believes “every workplace could use a union.”
And this positive attitude toward unionization is shared by many young workers, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. According to a survey conducted in March, 55 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 view unions favorably compared with 29 percent who hold unfavorable views.
“Our generation was taught that you go to college, graduate with a degree, and then get a great job,” said Molly Meyer, author of “It’s My Company Too!” “That’s no longer the case — our generation is swimming in student loan debt, now, instead. Somehow, somewhere, in the eyes of businesses and in the eyes of college institutions, the value of a college education doesn’t match up from a dollar perspective. Perhaps our lean toward unionization is a way to remedy that discrepancy on one end.”
Dine agrees that younger workers are more drawn to unions as a result of the economy they came of age in.
“We got through the worst recession in 80 years, and that’s sort of what they grew up in or what they faced at an earlier working age,” Dine said. “Baby boomers sort of always knew things would get better, but it’s not like that anymore. Young workers now realize they should look for help, that they need some solidarity with each other.”
Additionally, Dine said the evolving work habits of millennials — tendencies to jump from one job to another, freelance or work from home — make them more open to unionizing.
“That’s such an insecure environment,” Dine said. “There’s not much security there when they’re traded off as freelancers, they don’t necessarily get benefits when they’re working part time.”
But if younger workers are so interested in organizing, why aren’t more of them in unions? Dine attributes this to the difficulty of organizing, particularly in jobs and industries that aren’t traditionally unionized.
“The kind of jobs they’re in, while those jobs in my view make them more prone to want to join unions, they also make it harder to join a union,” Dine said. “If you’re working at home, how do you join a union? What union do you join?”
While Dine says the AFL-CIO, the umbrella federation for U.S. unions, has begun trying to make organizing more accessible to the next generation of workers, including scheduling college visits to introduce the concept of unionizing to incoming workers, there is still work to be done to make unions easier to form and join.
“There’s been a lag between efforts to familiarize young people with unions and actually setting up structure to make that easier,” Dine said.
Additionally, Dine said, there needs to be labor law reform to make it easier for workers to form or join a union.
“We have a very complicated set of labor laws,” he said. “They have to jump through hoops to have elections, and meanwhile employers have the ability to put a lot of pressure on workers to not form a union.”
But while there may be barriers to unionization, Dine has no doubt that younger workers will find a way to organize, and that unions will continue to play an important role in the U.S. economic landscape.
“A certain idealism is returning to young people,” Dine said. “Unions have been key in the history of this country to building the middle class. But recently the middle class is shrinking, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer … and we can’t survive as a powerful country like that. Younger people realize this and want to unionize, not just for themselves but for the country as a whole.”