With the U.S. Supreme Court expected to issue a major
anti-union decision later this year, and the National Labor Relations Board
rolling back worker protections left and right, the future might seem bleak for
unions. But there’s reason for hope.
An analysis from the Economic Policy Institute found that the total number of union members increased last year by 262,000 — and three-fourths of those gains were among people aged 34 and under.
The analysis, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, also reports that historically, younger workers have been less likely than their older cohort to be union members. That may be changing.
A Pew Research Center survey found that young people are far more likely than older adults to view unions in a positive light. Three-quarters of those ages 18 to 29 say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions. By contrast, only about half of those 50 and older share such a positive opinion.
“They get it,” said Jennifer Gray, Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 assistant business manager and 9th District advisory committee member for Reach Out and Engage Next-gen Electrical Workers. “We’re turning a corner in young worker participation. They know they need to step up.”
RENEW is the IBEW’s initiative to encourage young workers to get involved with their local unions. With its counterpart in Canada, the RENEW/NextGen initiative claims thousands of young members among its ranks.
Alton Wilkerson, a foreman inside wireman and vice president of Los Angeles Local 11’s Electrical Workers Minority Caucus chapter, says he’s seeing a similar increase in young worker engagement. Wilkerson says the EWMC has a nationwide program to get people involved with the midterm elections and push voter turnout.
“We saw what happened with the 2016 elections and the anti-union policies that followed,” Wilkerson said. “We don’t want to let that happen in 2018.”
Considering the employment landscape young workers have found themselves in, it’s not surprising that they would be looking to join together and fight for higher wages, benefits and job security. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the 2001 and 2008 recessions did the most harm to younger workers, and unemployment in a person’s formative years can leave “scarring effects” that may throw off their entire career trajectories.
“I purchased a home at 23 because I was IBEW,” Gray said. “Young people see the connection between union membership and living the American dream.”
As more and more young workers are finding out, those covered by a collective bargaining agreement make more money and are more likely to have health insurance and a pension, “a virtual financial unicorn for millennials who are often tracked into freelance and gig work with few benefits,” writes Michelle Chen in The Nation, a liberal-leaning publication.
Wilkerson says the EWMC is also promoting apprenticeships as an alternative to college and the potential for debt.
“There’s nothing wrong with going to college. A lot of our members go to college,” Wilkerson said. “But instead of graduating with thousands of dollars of debt and getting a minimum wage job, you can learn a trade and make a good wage from the start.”
Gray says Local 1245 is training more than one hundred organizing stewards, many of who will focus on the elections and other political activity, like pushing back on the Supreme Court case, Janus v. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Janus challenges the right of public sector unions to collect “fair share” fees from nonmembers for the basic costs of bargaining and contract enforcement, services and protections that benefit both members and nonmembers equally.
Gray recently held an organizing meeting with a group of city workers on the issue and said about 60 percent of the attendees were younger members.
“It was awesome,” Gray said. “They’re being proactive, which is what we trained them for. They’re the organizing leads for Janus.”
Gray says they’re asking members to sign voluntary authorization cards, pledging to stay in the union as a show of solidarity. That kind of commitment could be just what the labor movement needs.
“The IBEW’s been here for over 100 years,” Wilkerson said. “We need dedicated young people to make sure we’ll be here for the next 100.”