After fifty years of decline, organized labor activity in the U.S. is on the upswing. New data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show more than 485,000 workers were affected by large strikes in 2018, the highest number since 1986.
The number includes the teachers who went on strike in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, the employees of digital newsrooms who banded together to bargain collectively, and tech workers at Google and Amazon, who either walked off the job to protest their employer’s handling of sexual harassment claims, or pushed for higher pay.
The strikers also include the young. Workers age 35 and under are the driving force behind an unprecedented surge in union membership over the past two years. Millennials now make up more than 35% of the U.S. labor force, making them the largest generation currently in the workforce, according to Pew Research. As more Gen-Zers enter the workforce, young workers will make up 75% of the labor force by 2025. And they're increasingly becoming unionized. The number of union members in the U.S. grew by 262,000 in 2017, and 76% of that increase was comprised of workers under age 35. That’s enough to offset the loss of union jobs among workers age 45 to 54, which dropped by some 75,000 over the same period.
Perceptions are reversing, too. In Pew’s annual survey of public opinion and unions in the U.S., 68% of people aged 18 to 29 said they have positive views of unions, while just 46% of young people said the same of corporations. Adults under 30 were the only age group in which a majority viewed labor unions more favorably than corporations. According to a Harvard poll, 47% of Gen Z supports a "militant and powerful labor movement."
We quote Michelle Chen reporting for The Nation:
A movement that we’re used to thinking of as getting older and smaller is actually growing stronger and younger—and they may well be leading the next progressive voting bloc in tandem with the labor movement.
The change in union demographics is being driven by technological, cultural, and economic forces, including the changing nature of work. Quoting Steven Pitts, a labor professor at the University of California, Quartz reports:
First, some US industries with older union members—like manufacturing and coal mining—are contracting. “If a steel factory shuts down,” Pitts said, “it’s not just jobs that are lost. You lose a lot of union members, too.”
Second, young people don’t remember the 1970s and 1980s, when unions were demonized by big business and politicians. The stigma that unions kill jobs...has largely worn off. Pitts sees a parallel between the rise of unions and the resurgence of socialism. “What was once a contentious issue is again becoming mainstream,” Pitts said.
Lastly, workers outside of traditionally unionized sectors are forming unions. The push for unionization in newer industries like digital media and coffee shops has given younger folks more access to resources for organizing. But Pitts believes young people’s desire to unionize has gone up as the purchasing power of their income has gone down.
The tight labor market has helped workers’ cause. The Stop & Shop strike earlier this year cost the company about $100 million after some 30,000 employees demanded better pay and healthcare coverage. And just last month, Vox Media employees successfully negotiated a collective bargaining agreement, while Volkswagen workers in Tennessee staged a wildcat strike after management eliminated their paid time-off. The strike only lasted three hours before management reversed its decision.
Even Instagram memers are unionizing. Memers aren’t directly employed by tech platforms, but they do create a bulk of the platforms’ revenue, without any formal protection. In 2016, more than 100 top Facebook pages reaching more than 10 million users collectively banded together to form the Meme Alliance, which called for more transparent enforcement of the platform’s community standards. Facebook did end up revamping its moderation policies, though it did not directly acknowledge the Meme Alliance.
For some employees, especially those of the younger cohort, better working conditions are not enough. In an economy where top talent is drawn to companies that promise to “do good” socially as well as financially, employees are demanding that companies deliver.
Hundreds of employees at the online furniture company Wayfair walked off their jobs in June to protest the company’s decision to supply furniture to migrant detention centers. The employees drew widespread support on the internet from prominent politicians such as presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and from many Wayfair customers, who took to social media to boycott the furniture giant until the company rectified what they see as aiding a grave injustice.
At Amazon, some 8,000 employees concerned about climate change have signed onto Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. About 100 Google employees urged the organizer of the recent San Francisco Pride parade to kick the company out of the celebration, escalating pressure on the internet giant to reform its handling of hate speech online.
The rise of online platforms and blogs where employees can share concerns about management has helped fuel organizing efforts. In the age of internet goliaths, it’s no small irony that Facebook groups, a catalyzing force behind the teachers’ strikes, have been called the “new workers’ unions.” As Economic Policy Institute Vice President John Schmitt recently said: “The employment trends suggest that the labor movement currently seems right exactly where the future is.”