For a while now, I’ve been sensing a surge of support for the idea of unions, even as the national media, elected officials, and even many workers have conducted a decades-long death watch of the labor movement. While traditional unions have, indeed, been declining in membership, the media has largely missed the rise of alternative labor structures and a newfound interest in unions among millennials.
So when Gawker editorial employees announced their intent to unionize, I was heartened but not entirely surprised. Their decision follows the Fight For 15 movement, to raise the national minimum wage for $7.25 to $15 an hour. Fight For 15 has energized workers in a way I haven’t seen in quite a while, and the rise of alt-labor groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Guestworker Alliance, National Taxi Workers Alliance and Freelancers Union.
When I founded my organization in 1995 largely as a research and advocacy outfit, I called it “Working Today.” But soon it became clear that this new workforce of freelancers was really a constituency that would benefit from solidarity.
So, we asked our members what we should call ourselves. A union? A guild? An association? Stick with “Working Today”? Our members under 35 embraced “union” immediately. For them, “unions” were instruments of hope. The word evoked unity, mutual support, and, critically, power. The appeal for younger people continues–since 2007, our under-30 membership has risen an astounding 3,000%.
There is, of course, an inherent idealism among young people. But this is more than just the expected idealism of youth. People are looking at their objective (and often difficult) economic circumstances and coming to the same conclusions that workers in other generations did–when you’re in a group, you do better. That’s why, according to a report from the Pew Research Center, more than 60% of people under 30 have a favorable impression of unions–by far the highest favorable rating among any age group.
The working middle-classes are feeling their fortunes declining. They’re realizing they have more in common with the working poor than the comfortably wealthy. In the coming years, I expect we’ll see more economic activism on the part of the working middle-class. You can feel it already in the rhetoric of both Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul, two of the politicians attracting the most support among young people.
Young people are saying enough is enough, they know there’s money being made out there in this economy and that they’re not getting it. So, they’re turning to each other and the institutions that can help them join together.
As Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan wrote in a post announcing the union drive, unions allow workers to group together and be stronger, rather than fight as “a bunch of separate, powerless entities.”
In many ways, the attacks against unions have been going on so long that they’ve lost some of their power. The traditional bogeymen of “union thugs” and Jimmy Hoffa have no resonance with millennials whose primary exposure to labor unions has been professional sports negotiations.
The feelings of the declining working middle-class remind me of the rallying cry “you can’t eat prestige” by Harvard’s support staff of lab techs, secretaries, and others in the 70s and 80s. Workers are tired of being told to appreciate what they have when it’s their ever-improving efficiency that enables CEOs to take home massive paychecks.
Some companies are starting to understand that treating workers right can be its own differentiator for this new generation. That’s why I wasn’t totally surprised that Gawker Media CEO Nick Denton said he was “intensely relaxed” about his editorial staff organizing. The companies that embrace young people’s good feelings toward unions will have tremendous advantages, both with their workers and with the younger consumers who pay attention to how companies act, not just what they sell.