The Millennialization of American Labor

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

In recent years, disproportionately young workers in hitherto largely unorganized industries have been successfully winning union representation. Here, striking teaching assistants protest Columbia University's refusal to recognize their union in April 2018.

On May 4, 1886, thousands of workers rallied together in Chicago’s Haymarket Square to campaign for an eight-hour workday—initiating a tradition of protest for some of the most basic human rights. That was formalized on May 1, 1890, when the first International Workers’ Day was celebrated around the world.

In the 133 years since, workers and their unions have continued to fight for their rights—winning fights 80 years ago to establish the federal minimum wage, secure collective bargaining rights, and even raising wages for non-union workers by setting industry-wide standards. During the mid-20th century when union density was its strongest, unions reduced overall inequality.

But that was then. In the decades since, collective bargaining rights have been under unending attack and it is no accident that union density in the United States has declined to near single digits. Up to 87 percent of private-sector employers fight their employees’ efforts to unionize, sometimes spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay “union-avoidance consultants” to bust the organizing drives. 

In the last year, however, American workers have loudly and clearly said, “Enough!” Teachersmusiciansactorshotel workersgrocery store employees, and many others have gone on strike—the most workers to have walked off the job than in any year since 1986. Crucially, these strikers won most of their key demands. 

Just as crucially, the disproportionately young workers in hitherto largely unorganized industries—digital media journalistsgraduate student workers, and nonprofit employees—have been successfully winning union representation, too. Indeed, millennials’ positive attitude toward unions is driving much of the new wave of organizing. According to Gallup, support for labor unions is at a 15-year high, with 65 percent of workers under 35 approving of labor unions. In 2017, 76 percent of new union members—almost 200,000 workers—were under 35 years old. 

Many of these young people graduated from high school and college in the wake of the Great Recession, and the slowest economic recovery of the post-World War II era. Years of high unemployment and underemployment, low wagesmountains of student debt, and the most expensive health-care system among developed countries have helped create a generation of workers that supports progressive policies over unfettered capitalism. 

But faced with governmental inaction on many of the issues that most affect their lives, millennials have decided to take action themselves and organize their workplaces. On average, union members earn almost 20 percent higher wages than their non-union counterparts, and in certain occupations such as high school teachers, registered nurses, aerospace engineers, and broadcast technicians, the union premium can be even higher. 

New union members are able to negotiate for measures like guaranteed minimum salaries and annual pay raises to substantially raise pay over a short period of time. The digital journalists at Thrillist, who recently organized with the Writers Guild of America East, for example, negotiated for a $50,000 wage floor and a first year raise of 8.5 percent, followed by raises of 2.5 percent in the second and third years of the contract. The Nonprofit Professional Employee Union (NPEU) members at the Center for American Progress raised salaries by nearly 10 percent when they negotiated for minimum salaries and raises in their first contract. Graduate employees at Harvard currently negotiating their first contract are focused on winning affordable, quality healthcare. Digital journalists at Slate used their first contract to secure comp time, paid time off, and severance benefits. Many of the new unions of part-time and other “contingent” faculty on campuses across the country are working to increase the stability and predictability of course loads from semester-to-semester and year-to-year. And unions representing entertainment professionals are collaborating to establish safeguards against sexual harassment..

The growth of our union, the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), provides further confirmation that the labor movement is thriving in growing sectors of the economy, particularly among younger workers. While our union has grown steadily since its inception 21 years ago, NPEU’s membership has more than doubled over the last two years as hundreds of nonprofit employees have come together to improve their pay, create new opportunities for advancement, and strengthen their organizations’ missions.

If the labor movement can harness the power of its millennial members and supporters, it could increase its impact on policy. Most immediately, with voters under 40 likely to make up 37 percent of the electorate in 2020, younger people’s progressive views could have a real impact on the 2020 election.

In many ways, of course, millennials are like everyone else. We want our workplaces to be successful and to have strong working relationships with our managers. But when pay inequality and toxic environments prevent employees from feeling valued or safe at work, the only way to move forward is through collective action. That’s why millennials are working hard to pick up the torch of the labor movement and continue the struggle of the workers who gathered in Haymarket Square more than a century ago.

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