Young workers are entering a workforce that is still recovering from the pandemic while also dealing with high inflation and rampant income inequality. There is no shortage of economic anxiety.
While the circumstances may be new, the core issue — how to get a good-paying job with benefits that will lead to a secure retirement — is not. For many in Generation Z, the answer is clear: Join a union.
This generational momentum gives the IBEW an excellent opportunity to shore up its own future and raise a new crop of leaders.
|Hundreds of people from other unions and IBEW locals lent support during Local 213's five-year battle with Ledcor because they knew it was not just a fight for its members, said Business Manager Jim Lofty (above, with megaphone). It was a fight for all Canadians who want union representation on the job, he said.
"Unions are cool again," said Toronto Local 353 member Tim Shilson, who also chairs his NextGen committee, the IBEW's young-worker initiative in Canada. "You might think Gen Z is on their phone watching TikTok videos, but they're also watching giants like Apple, Amazon and Starbucks employees demand representation and sign a union card. Gen Z is just starting to see that a union is the best path to the middle class."
That sentiment is borne out in data from the Center for American Progress showing that Generation Z is more supportive of unions than Baby Boomers, Generation X and even Millennials, who are regarded as particularly pro-union.
For the study, which used data from 2020, Gen Z members were 23 or younger, Millennials were 24 to 39, Gen Xers were 40 to 55 and Baby Boomers were 56 to 74.
The report showed Generation Z with a mean approval rating of 64.3 out of 100 for unions, compared with 60.5 for Millennials, 57.8 for Generation X and 57.2 for Baby Boomers. What's more, Gen Z is also more supportive of unions than older generations were at their age.
"Gen Z sees the value in organizing," said Madison, Wis., Local 965 Business Manager Dillon Gorman, a 31-year-old. "Compensation is part of it, but they also want a voice in their workplace. They're getting the message from older generations of 'Don't work like I did.'"
Gorman, who is also a member of RENEW, the U.S. counterpart to NextGen, said Gen Z is willing to learn and listen, but they recognize their own value and won't stick around if they're not being treated right.
"Money is important, but it's also everything else," Gorman said. "They don't want to have to work on their days off. They want fair scheduling and time off for family and the ability to have a conversation with the boss if they want."
The CAP report found that Gen Zers with college degrees support unions at roughly the same rate as those without a degree. By contrast, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers without degrees tend to be more pro-union than those who graduated from college.
The findings aren't surprising given how many of today's college graduates are saddled with debt in a job market that no longer promises them a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Local 405 President Jeff Cooling said his wife took the college route, and after getting her degree she was making half of what he made as an inside wireman.
"Thank goodness for IBEW wages. We still got to build a house," said Cooling, who also serves on the 11th District RENEW Advisory Committee.
His wife went on to apply for an IBEW apprenticeship and now works as a voice and data video technician.
"Now we're a dual-income IBEW house," Cooling said. "We've definitely seen the benefits."
Cooling, who also serves in the Iowa House, said he sees a lot of energy in Millennials and Generation Z, which is good for unions and groups like RENEW and NextGen.
"Younger generations are fired up. They're ready to take the fight on," he said. "RENEW gives them a space to talk about what's going on in their locals. It gives them a voice."
It's something that Charlotte, N.C., Local 379 member Melissa Reyes has seen as well.
"I think there is more of an activist's spirit in our younger members," said Reyes, who has been involved with RENEW since 2019. "I've been able to mobilize young members in our local to participate in leafleting and canvassing with little effort. They just get it."
Reyes also noted that the younger workers have been successful at changing the safety culture at work.
"Our younger members are much more attuned to working safe and understand that no job is more important than their lives," she said.
The security of a union job is appealing for a generation entering the workforce at such an economically precarious time. According to a 2022 survey by Deloitte, only a quarter of Gen Z reported that they can comfortably cover their monthly living expenses, and nearly half said they live paycheck to paycheck.
Meanwhile, a recent Cornell University paper found that union members make about $1 million more over the course of their careers compared to nonunion workers. And unions help reduce racial and gender pay gaps, according to research by the Economic Policy Institute.
"What the union does is it prevents hiring discrimination and promotes job security," said New Orleans Local 130 member Hunter Allums, a Gen Zer. "No matter what company I go to in my city, I'm making the same wages and my skills are recognized before they even see my face because I'm union-certified. On top of that, I can also travel the U.S. to find jobs if I want to and the union will do all the footwork for me. That feels a lot better than scouring hiring sites to see if anyone can take you in your field and pay you properly while the bills are piling up."
The CAP report, which came out last fall, noted that young Americans' strong support for unions is exceptional even when compared with historically high union approval across the board — a record 71% according to an August 2022 Gallup survey, the highest since 1965. And a 2021 Pew Research Center study found that 69% of Americans ages 18 to 29 believe "labor unions have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country" compared with 55% of adults overall.
One reason CAP cited for the popularity of unions among younger workers is the racial and ethnic diversity of Gen Zers and Millennials. While 75.5% percent of Baby Boomers and 65.2% of Gen Xers are white and not Hispanic, according to 2020 data, only 59% of Millennials and 52.4% of Gen Zers fall into that category. By contrast, the share of adults who identify as Hispanic or Latino — 23.3% for Gen Zers and 16.4% of Millennials, compared with only 12.6% of Gen Xers and 7.8% of Baby Boomers — has grown with each subsequent generation.
"This demographic shift toward a more diverse America, which will likely continue for decades, has played a role in shaping pro-union attitudes among younger Americans, as nonwhite workers typically support unions more than white workers," the report stated.
For the IBEW, groups like RENEW/NextGen and the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus are good ways to bring that diverse workforce in.
"RENEW and other affinity groups make the IBEW more cohesive and welcoming. There is a place for you here. We want to hear from you and what you have to say," Cooling said. "As we build a more diverse membership, more and more people will see themselves reflected, and they'll want to knock on our door and join our ranks."
Cooling, Gorman, Reyes and Shilson all pointed to RENEW and NextGen as an effective tool for recruiting and retention.
"By investing our resources into our youngest members, the IBEW stands to gain the biggest return from them over time," Shilson said. "A member who obtains strong union values at the age of 30 could put in 30 years of active engagement with their membership just before they begin to look forward to retirement."
Reyes, who last year became a lead organizer for North Carolina and South Carolina, said RENEW is also a great way to find and train the next generation of leaders.
"I have seen several instances in my own local where RENEW members go on to serve as an officer," Reyes said. "RENEW gives young members an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the union by giving them reasons to stop by the union hall and have conversations with our business manager and president: opportunities they otherwise would not have had if there was not an affinity group to keep them engaged."
Added Gorman: "There's no apprenticeship for being a union leader. RENEW is how you find the next generation."
Having an involved younger membership can seed a new generation of workers as older members look to retirement.
"With a RENEW committee, a local union can ask RENEW members to speak at high school job fairs or at apprentice orientation," Reyes said. "That younger audience may gravitate more to the message if they see it coming from their own peers."
Tarn Goelling, director of the IBEW's Civic and Community Engagement Department, noted that the union is committed to providing training and mentorship to its young members through local union affinity committees and other regional and international opportunities, including hosting the International RENEW NextGen Conference, which is scheduled for August this year.
"It is a unique conference that is organized by young workers for young workers, and the energy and enthusiasm it brings is vital to sustaining the IBEW and our organizing efforts," Goelling said.
That sense of union solidarity is something engaged members spread to others.
"The affinity groups help develop a sense of camaraderie that members may not experience on the job," Reyes said. "This sense of togetherness is what will help with internal organizing, because when a member feels like he or she is truly a part of their union, their testimony to nonmembers about what the union means to them will be heartfelt."
Gorman said RENEW also is a way to transition into something bigger, into the Brotherhood.
"The IBEW is not just another job. There's a legacy, with over a hundred years of history," he said. "RENEW helps members understand that."