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Why Unions Need Saving, and Why Millennials Might Be the Best Ones to Do It

Topics: Current Events

Labor unions have a long history in this country of protecting workers. Unions protect workers’ collective bargaining powers and help them negotiate better wages, hours, benefits, job security, and working conditions. However, these days unions are in jeopardy, and it turns out that millennials could be the ones to save them. Let’s take a closer look at this issue, beginning by examining some of the reasons why unions are in trouble.


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Here are some reasons why we should be concerned about the current state of U.S. labor unions…

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1. Membership is down.

Across the nation, union membership is falling fast. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the membership rate fell to just over 11 percent in 2014, the lowest it’s been in 100 years. Generally, (there was just one exception in 2008) the rate of union membership has been falling at a steady rate for about three decades.

2. Right-to-Work laws.

Legislation may be helping to drive workers away from unions. Right-to-Work laws make mandatory union membership and dues illegal. Many people feel that states’ adoption of these laws has had a tremendous impact of union membership, and on the strength of these unions, across the country. Right-to-Work laws lower wages and hurt unions, but they are in place in about half of U.S. states, mainly in the southeast and through the middle of the country.

3. Middle-class income shrinks as union membership declines.

The shrinking middle class is a big concern right now. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that middle class income shrinks alongside union membership rates. Unions’ purpose is to protect workers and help them organize in order to enhance collective bargaining and secure better working conditions and compensation. If we’re concerned about the decline of the middle class, focusing on union membership could be a good place to start.

4. Industries are changing.

More and more, U.S. workers and industries are turning away from the types of jobs that were traditionally unionized. Mining and manufacturing are on the decline, and other industries are on the rise. This has changed the rate at which young workers join unions, but it doesn’t reflect their interest or lack thereof.

“There’s a 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,” State of the Unions author Philip Dine told Workforce.

But, that might not be the case. Let’s take a look now at a few reasons why millennials could be the perfect group to turn the tides for labor unions and get us back on track.

1. Some young workers are demonstrating an understanding of the importance of unionizing and are finding ways to organize within an increasingly service-based economy.

There are some promising indications that millennials understand the importance of unionizing, and that they are finding new ways to organize within an economy that’s less and less rooted in manufacturing, which is the traditional setting of labor unions. Recently, the editorial staff of Gawker Media voted to unionize. Most employees are in their 20s and 30s, just like Salon’s editorial staff, who also elected to unionize shortly after Gawker announced their decision.

“The writers who voted to organize are highly educated young professionals,” Robert Bruno of the University of Illinois New Bureau told Workforce. “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.”

Additionally, recent debates about whether or not college athletes should be allowed to unionize have been heating up.

“Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship,” Kain Colter, a quarterback at Northwestern who’s participated in the movement, told ESPN. “No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union.”

Some millennials are demonstrating that they want to work toward expanding the definition and scope of influence for unions, and this may be just what is needed to keep unions alive and strong in the future.

2. Millennials say that they support unions.

The Pew Research Center recently released a report that shed some interesting light on how millennials view unions. It turns out that (even regardless of political affiliations) young people view unions more favorably than other generations. A majority, 55 percent, of 18- to 29-year-olds reported a favorable view of unions, and only 29 percent said they view them negatively. Forty-four percent of Republicans ages 18 to 34 had a negative opinion of unions and 45 percent had a positive view. Their older peers felt differently. Only 31 percent of 35- to 49-year-old Republicans had a favorable view, and 51 percent felt negatively about labor unions. Across the board, millennials seem to be supporting unions more than their older peers.

3. The Great Recession helped millennials understand the importance of unionizing.

The difficult economy that millennials found themselves in during their early careers left them with no doubt that job security and fair pay are important. A generation of savers came out of the Recession, and now there is some indication that the same factors that have led many to stay home with their parents a little longer than previous generations are also helping them understand the importance of unionizing.

“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.”

It’s not difficult to understand the benefit to workers of joining a union. All generations have longed for fair pay, job security, and decent working conditions. Millennials are uniquely poised to think outside of the traditional labor-union box and expand the definition to meet the needs of modern workers. Let’s hope, for the sake of future generations, that they do just that.

Tell Us What You Think

What impact do you feel millennials will have on labor unions? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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