This is another article about Millennials, and how we value fulfillment over money in our jobs, and experiences over things. But it’s also about why—it’s about how, when the financial crisis hit, we were the ones who couldn’t get jobs. Or money. Or things. And it’s about how, when our country decided that higher education was no longer a public good, we were the first generation hit—really, truly hit—by the staggering cost of college and the interest rates that went along with it.
This is an article about security, and empowerment, and how Millennials feel disengaged from the political process, but not from politics. In the end, this is an article about unions, and how maybe, just maybe, they could be Millennials’ silver bullet.
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In 11th grade I began each day at 7:15, fingering my way towards the off button on my alarm clock. I never hit snooze in my three years at that school, not once. For me, in boarding school, there was no time to snooze. I was out of my league in every way, from the clothes I wore, to the way I spoke, to the way I thought. My class at Andover was the 234th entering class, the 34th that admitted women, and the first to receive need-blind admission.
My second period class was U.S. history with Mr. Jones, a notoriously hard teacher who sometimes played a game called “attendance” with us. He’d ask us for our favorite band, television show, or movie of the moment. If he didn’t like an answer, he threatened to mark us as absent for the day. The school only granted you five “free” absences per the term—any more and you were assigned extra work duty.
Near the middle of the term, as we inched closer and closer to the precise center of our textbook, we began learning about the labor movement. Our textbook, despite its colored pages, featured only black and white images of factories filled with older white men—perhaps a necessary product of the time, perhaps not.
I’m not sure if any kids in the class had family members who worked in unions. No one said they did. No one said they didn’t.
After midterms, I mostly forgot about unions. I graduated from high school and then college, and landed a job at a think tank. My first day was June 1. By the end of the month, I had signed a union card.
“There’s this perception that young people don’t really care about their work, like insurance and benefits. Because they’re young,” Eunice How tells me.
Eunice is 26, Chinese Malaysian American, and an organizer with the UNITE HERE union in Seattle. Her parents, who are ethnically Chinese, immigrated to the United States when they were denied access to higher education in Malaysia. They moved to Illinois, where Eunice was born, then to Singapore, then back to Illinois, and then Eunice moved to Washington state for college, where she’s lived ever since.
Do we care about insurance and benefits? I wonder. Do I care about insurance and benefits?
I pause and think back to when I was offered my job. I was lying in my bed fiddling about, in the last few weeks before college graduation, when a representative from HR called to offer me the job.
“Really?” I asked.
“…really,” she said, skeptical of my skepticism.
“I’m sorry,” I stuttered back. “I’m just. I’m surprised,” I said.
When did employment become a surprise? When did the story change from sending out one résumé to sending out 100?
Millennials, generally defined as those aged 18 to 35, are a generation defined by insecurity. Our lives were rocked by national insecurity, with 9/11 and terrorism and the Iraq War, and then financial instability, when we watched parents and relatives and loved ones across the country lose their jobs in the wake of the greatest economic recession in recent memory. A recession that was so sudden, so unforeseen, that it reverberated across families, towns, and local economies like an earthquake, leaving behind a tremoring 10% unemployment rate.
Today, Millennials are still reckoning with the aftermath. And, if history is any indication, we always will be. Recessions tend to follow generations: if you enter the economy during a recession, when demand for jobs is high but the supply is low (and so are wages), your earnings will stay low even when the recession fades. It’s no wonder that, according to recent polling, Millennials are the only generation that prioritize economic stability over economic prosperity.
Financial insecurity is like trying to build an Ikea bookshelf after you mess up the first step: the bookshelf will never balance quite right. Financial insecurity affects the job you decide to take, where you live, whether you buy a house, how many kids you have, if you have kids, how much money you put toward your health care, whether you can travel to see the world, and your views, beliefs, and relationships.
Unions improve conditions for workers in many ways, from higher wages to stronger benefits, but, taken together, they can be summed up in one word.
What do unions offer young workers? I ask Eunice. “Security,” she tells me.
If you’re a Millennial, you’re likely making less money than your parents did at the same age. Wages for a 30-year-old today are lower than they were for a 30-year-old in 2004, and more Millennials live in poverty today than older generations did at the same age. In addition to earning less, each successive graduating class over the past few years has received the dubious honor of the most indebted graduating class in history; the average student debt burden per borrower now surpasses $35,000.
We’re also the most educated generation in history. And we’re part of a workforce that has become more and more productive, even though we haven’t seen that trend reflected in our wages.
That is the first reason that it’s confusing that more Millennials aren’t in unions: unions are proven to raise individual wages. According to a 2011 analysis from the Bureau of Labor Statistics union workers averaged $23.02 an hour, compared to $19.51 for nonunion workers. These gains are collective: increases in union density raise wages for nonunion members. More broadly, when low- and middle-class Americans have more money in their pockets the entire economy benefits from increased spending.
Americans seem to recognize this: in 2016, a (slim) majority of Americans said labor unions mostly help the U.S. economy. What’s more, in another Gallup poll, Millennials appear to be the generation most supportive of unions. In 2015, Gallup found that 66% of 18- to 34-year-olds approved of labor unions, versus 53% of 35- to 54-year-olds.
And yet, while Millennials appear to be the most supportive generation of unions, they’re also among the least likely to actually be in one. In 1984, 17% of 30-year-old private sector workers were covered by a union. In 2004 that number dropped to 7.6%, and in 2014 it was down to just 5.9%.
Why do Millennials value unions, but not experience their value?
While an uptick in anti-union activity explains part of the mismatch between the number of Millennials covered by unions and the number who could be, there’s another a problem. There’s a pervasive idea that unions are only for certain kinds of people: low-income, industrial, white, older, male workers. For Millennials, the most diverse generation in history, this image isn’t simply outdated—it’s prohibitive.
“I never really learned about the labor movement until I was in college,” Eunice says. Her mom was in a teacher’s union, but since her school was a closed shop she didn’t really have a choice in the matter. “I guess I recall thinking unions are for working class people.”
“That’s changed!” she exclaims. “There’s all sorts of people who are in unions: office staff, nonprofit workers, health care workers. It’s not just like the white man who’s a plumber! That’s the media view.”
That’s also—whether by consequence or coincidence—the view of a lot of Millennials.
Shawn Fields is 27, black, and a graduate student at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She’s also a member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 6300. She grew up in Detroit, home of the American auto industry, and the auto workers’ unions. Union blood runs through her veins: her great-grandfather worked in the factories, and her grandmother, as a preschool teacher, was also a member of the AFT.
But Shawn never saw herself joining a union. “I didn’t think about it,” she says. “In Detroit, a lot of the unions are very much industrial, and I didn’t see myself getting an industrial job so it never necessarily occurred to me that that was an option.”
The three things that came to mind when Shawn described how she thought of unions growing up? Detroit, auto workers, older men.
When she landed at the University of Illinois for grad school, a mentor reached out and told her about the union. Though graduate students at private universities only just won the right to unionize this summer through a National Labor Rights Board (NLRB) decision, as a public university, graduate students at UIUC have been unionized since 2002.
Shawn joined and is now an active member of her bargaining unit, and has also served on the AFT’s racial justice task force.
What do you think of unions today? I ask. Who do they represent?
“It’s definitely more diverse than what I imagined when I was younger. It’s definitely young people, a lot more women and people of color than [what I thought] when I was younger,” she says.
Millennials are the most diverse generation in the history of the United States. When the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the country, passed a resolution in 2013 recognizing the importance of youth engagement for the future of the labor movement, it simultaneously passed a resolution on diversity. “A diverse and inclusive labor movement is essential to connecting with and representing the workforce of the future,” the resolution read.
The demographics skew in unions’ favor. Millennials are more likely to be people of color than previous generations, and some racial minorities—notably black Americans—tend to be over-represented in unions and to hold more positive views of them. According to the AFL-CIO, African Americans constitute 11.7% of the workforce but 14% of union members. At the same time, 69% of black Americans view unions positively, versus 51% of the general population.
And yet despite the promise of these statistics, Rachel Bryan, a staff member at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers—who is black and formerly incarcerated—sees a disconnect between unions’ potential and their reality.
“We’re not organizing in an effective way. We’re not organizing where [young people] are. We’re not linking ourselves back into the community in ways that young people are there…There’s a new American majority, but we’re going to focus on white guys?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” she says.
For the organizers I talked to, unions were about security. But for the young union members I talked to, their union experiences were defined more by a sense of empowerment. For the generation that founded Occupy Wall Street and then Black Lives Matter, the association of unions with empowerment is important.
“I didn’t feel comfortable at my old job to ask for more things, because I felt lucky to have a job,” says Jane Tandler, a 26-year-old Ph.D student at Duke University and a leader of the movement to organize the school’s graduate students. She pauses, twisting an idea around her mind.
“I’m trying to think if this is an issue of empowerment,” she finally muses aloud.
Jane first joined Duke’s graduate student unionization efforts because she wanted to improve her school’s policies concerning sexual harassment. Originally, she says, it hadn’t occurred to her that a union could help address her concerns and work to improve the policy. Now when I ask her to name how unions impact Millennials, she rattles off a list of issues prominent to our generation: Black Lives Matter, sexual assault and harassment, environmental justice. For Jane, whether she realizes it or not, unions represent a distinct kind of empowerment: the ability to organize around specific issues.
Without prompting, Shawn, the grad student at UIUC, volunteered the idea of empowerment when I asked her why she decided to join a union in the first place. “You can kind of feel very disconnected from everything” as a graduate student, Shawn says. But when a mentor introduced her to the union, she says, she had a realization: “Oh this is something I want to do that makes me feel more empowered.”
Economists talk a lot about matching: when the workforce’s skills match the demand of the local labor market, unemployment is low. In a similar sense, unions match Millennials’ needs. They’re a platform to agitate for higher wages and better benefits, which Millennials need to counteract the lasting effects of the Great Recession. They also provide a bridge to advocate for the issues Millennials care so deeply about.
Sometimes it feels inevitable to me: there must be a swell of Millennial support for the labor movement coming. The pieces fit too perfectly. They match. But the image problem—the idea that unions only represent older white male workers—can feel intractable. It’s not just prohibiting Millennials from securing better wages or stronger benefits—it may also be blocking Millennials from using unions as an outlet for their politics.
Millennials don’t turn out to the polls in overwhelming numbers (in fact, the numbers underwhelm). We may be withdrawing from traditional measures of political engagement, but we’re not withdrawing from politics. We demand accountability for biased policing, we rally to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and we organize against the campus sexual assault epidemic.
Unions—which, almost by definition, uplift the 99% and rely on collective action—could be the platform that finally captures Millennials’ particular breed of political engagement. Are unions—and Millennials—ready to turn the page?