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The U.S. economy has been through some rough times in the past couple of decades — the financial crisis and Great Recession, followed by years of slow-growth recovery, then the pandemic recession.
Through all that time, labor unions — whose mission is to improve members’ wages and working conditions — have continued to decline. Membership in unions fell to 10.3% of the public- and private-sector workforce in 2021, about half what it was in the early 1980s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Union membership was 20.1% in 1983, the earliest year for which BLS has comparable data.)
Alongside the steady decline in union membership, there has been a rise in the percentage of Americans who think well of unions and say they’d like to be in one. A Gallup survey finds approval of labor unions at 71%, up from 64% before the pandemic and higher than at any time since 1965.
And approval is highest among young people in the workforce — millennials and especially Gen Zers. In the past decade, people in their teens and 20s have been on the front lines of strikes and organizing drives across the country, for instance at Starbucks, Amazon and major universities from New York to California.
“Gen Z is the most pro-union generation alive in America today and is more supportive than Gen Xers and baby boomers were at our age,” said Aurelia Glass, a researcher and member of Gen Z at the Center for American Progress, which polled Americans about their opinions of unions for a report published in October. (You can also read about earlier findings on labor unions from the American Public Media Research Lab.)
A few things are driving young people’s support for and participation in organized labor. First is simple economics: Many young people don’t earn enough to afford basic expenses — rent, health insurance, student loan payments — all at the same time, said Jennifer Sherer at the Economic Policy Institute.
“Living with record levels of student debt,” Sherer said, “they’re also a generation that’s more educated, in some cases having earned multiple credentials, and then finding themselves making lower wages than prior generations or not seeing opportunities to advance in their careers.”
It’s not surprising then that “young workers have both the highest approval ratings for unions and also are the most likely to say that if they had the opportunity to vote for a union in their workplace, they would vote yes,” Sherer said.
Stephen Noble, 19, works as a barista at a Starbucks in Maryland. In December, he and co-workers picketed outside the store to press the company to negotiate a union contract.
“The store managers, I don’t think they make enough money for how much work they do,” Noble said. “In general, it’s just — the cost of living is going up too much.”
Twenty-year-old college student Nolia Wilcox leads a worker advocacy group on her campus in the Midwest. “In order to work for the rest of our lives,” she said, “we are going to need to advocate for ourselves in terms of pay and health insurance, but also how we’re treated.”
Many young workers have learned their economic anxiety watching their parents, Sherer said.
“They’ve grown up through the effects of the 2008 recession. Many of them talk about being motivated to reshape their workplaces and their economy, based on seeing what their parents have lived through.”
Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, agrees.
“Young people see that their parents are worse off than their grandparents. They’re worse off than their parents,” she said.
Even with more education than earlier generations, Bronfenbrenner said, young people find that their income, career opportunities and chances of ever owning a home all look worse.
“They recognize that their lives have been impacted by the decline in unions, that the world was better off when there were more unions and they would have had more opportunities if there were more unions.”
Zach Goldberg, 29, works at the University of California, San Diego, as a Ph.D. biology student-researcher and teaching assistant. He’s been a leader of a prolonged strike across the UC system led by graduate student unions. They have pressed for higher wages, better vacation and sick time benefits, and enhanced protections from harassment and hostile work environments.
“It’s pretty clear to people our age that this idea — if you just keep your head down and listen to the boss, you’ll be rewarded with a good life and a sustainable career and survivable wages — we just know that that just isn’t true,” Goldberg said. “If it ever was true, it’s certainly not true anymore.”
This generation’s goals are also broader than those of earlier generations, Bronfenbrenner said.
“Whether it’s climate change, Black Lives Matter, abortion rights, immigrant rights — in years past, unions stayed away from those issues. But there are many unions that are in the forefront, and young people see unions in line with their interests.”
For college student Nolia Wilcox, that means building solidarity with custodial workers on her campus, for instance, by hosting barbecues a few times per semester.
“Now, I know a lot of the workers and crack jokes and have fun,” she said. “One of the workers just had a baby, and we got them a gift. It’s been really great. It deepens the work that much more because we can advocate for what they need.”
Wilcox believes it’s time to sweep away capitalist norms in the economy altogether. “A lot of people in my generation are just thinking about the way that no workplace is really fair. There’s no fair labor under capitalism.”
On the Starbucks picket line, barista Stephen Noble said he thinks advocating for a union is about more than getting a bigger paycheck or better hours.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that the younger generation is more progressive than any other generation before,” he said. “We want to stand up for what we deserve — or what we think we deserve — rather than just settling to work for a corporation.”
Zach Goldberg sees the struggle of his generation in epic terms. “There’s been this cultural project in America to convince us that rugged individualism is the best way to have a good life,” he said. “And I think there’s just this cultural difference. We don’t believe that. No one I know believes that.
“You don’t have to accept your working conditions that you’re unhappy with,” Goldberg continued. “You have the power to change them. And the way that you do that — which I think is very profound and powerful — is just to talk to your co-workers about it and get everyone to collectively come together and build power against the boss.”
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