Terrance Wise, 36 years old, stands before a crowd of 200 workers, organizers, politicians and business representatives during the October 7 White House Summit on Worker Voice. President Barack Obama stands at his side.
Wise, a second generation fast food worker, tells the crowd how he’s worked for two decades in the industry, and still makes just $8 an hour working for the McDonalds chain.
“That ain’t right,” he says tersely. His fiancée, a home healthcare worker for 12 years, makes just $10 an hour “caring for some of our country’s most vulnerable population.” Together they raise three children in Kansas City, Missouri.
“We work so hard every day, but the wages are so low we’ve skipped meals,” Wise says. “We’ve been homeless while I worked two jobs, and I barely got to see my daughters.”
He explains that organizing with his fellow workers in the Fight for $15 movement, the mass effort to raise the minimum fast food worker wage to $15, brought a modicum of relief. “Things didn’t improve until I joined fast food workers across America to stand up and build a movement for $15, and create an opportunities to make our voices heard on the job by joining a union,” he says.
“My three little girls will work for more. This movement is about their future,” he adds.
President Obama takes the podium. “Their story describes why we wanted to have this summit. Their story describes why workers need a voice,” he says.
Having worked in the industry since he was a young man, one wonders why Wise hadn’t fought for collective worker voice before—though he’s not alone in that habit. Only 4.5 percent of individuals from ages 16 to 24 are members of a labor union, the most traditional form of organized labor, in which the union collectively bargains wages, benefits, and working conditions for all of a business’s or industry’s employees. Union membership goes up among workers from ages 25 to 35, but at 9.5 percent, membership rates are still much lower than among older demographics, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Jonathan Timm at The Atlantic notes that in 1980, those figures hovered around 15 percent and 28 percent, respectively.
Paradoxically, while union membership rates are lowest among Millennials, rates of union support are soaring. Millennials are the only age group in which a majority views labor unions favorably, according to a study by the Pew Center. That is, 61 percent of individuals under 30 support unionization of the workforce. Michael Hais, co-author of the book Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation Is Remaking America, attributes this to Millennials’ civic-minded tendencies. “They are very group-oriented and look out for the benefit of the group over individuals. They have an ingrained sense of equality and want to find win-win situations that benefit large groups of people,” Hais tells Aaron Sankin at The Motley Fool. So why don’t Millennials unionize?
It may be a lack of access and opportunity, according to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO), the largest federation of unions in the United States. The industrialization of the U.S. economy means fewer private sector jobs are unionized, while “restrictive labor law, a difficult organizing process and widespread employer intimidation make it difficult for new groups of workers to form collective bargaining units,” Sean Savett of the AFL-CIO writes.
Politics may play a role, too. Labor unions have increasingly come under fire in political attacks, Savett says, leading to lower union membership rates than in previous generations. In fact, public sector unions are in the midst of one their greatest challenges yet with upcoming Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.
The case, now due to be heard in court in December, could gut unions of their funding and remove an important set of protections. Public unions function under an “agency shop agreement,” allowing employers to hire union and non-union employees alike, so long as the union can collect “fair share” or “agency” fees from non-union employees who benefit from the union’s collective bargaining on their behalf. The agency fees, typically equal to union dues, prevent employees from free riding on collective bargaining benefits.
In an aggressive reading of the Constitution, plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs, a California public teacher, argues that non-union members paying into collective bargaining violates First Amendment protection from compelled speech. She and her con-plaintiffs ask the Court to invalidate the agency shop agreement in favor of “right-to-work” laws. Should the Court rule in Friedrichs’ favor, the decision would cripple public unions—a blow they might not be able to withstand.
Millennials not joining unions contributes to an overall stark decline in membership that’s been depressing for decades. As Savett writes, “This decades-long decline in union membership has led to stagnant median wage growth and increasing levels of income inequality.”
For young people in particular, joining a union could stabilize the growing tide of low-wage, high turnover and irregular labor that characterizes so many of their jobs. As Timm notes, there is reason to be hopeful. With the recent unionization of Millennial-driven media company Gawker Media, which encompasses Jezebel and Deadspin, among other blog-style publications, the company’s writers and creatives both secured the quality of their jobs and made a statement: Millennials, particularly educated ones, can embrace labor unions. Timm quotes former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse: The decision “will show that unions, which have focused in recent years on organizing low-wage workers, can also attract hip, highly educated workers, many of them Ivy League graduates.”
If Millennials aren’t committed to the idea of unionization, there are a number of alternative ways to organize workers, Savett points out. Among them is Working America, a labor organization that fights for the common interests of employees across the country, including good jobs, affordable health care, education, retirement security, corporate accountability and real democracy. Beyond major organizations, many young people have experimented with small-scale organization within their own workplaces. For more conversations on how people young and old are making their voices heard in the workplace, check out #StartTheConvo.