Millennials and the Labor Movement that Refuses to Die

By Ruth Milkman

Two years ago I focused my ASA Presidential address on social movements led by Millennials, building on Karl Mannheim’s classic treatise on “The Problem of Generations.”  As the first generation of “digital natives,” and the one most directly impacted by the economic precarity that emerged from the neoliberal transformation of the labor market, the Millennial generation has a distinctive life experience and worldview.  Disappointed by the false promises of racial and gender equality, and faced with skyrocketing growth in class inequality, Millennial activists embrace an explicitly intersectional political agenda.  This generation is  the most highly educated one in U.S. history, and indeed it is college-educated Millennials who have been most extensively galvanized into political activism.  My address documented their role as the dominant demographic in four high-profile 21st-century social movements:  Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the “Dreamers” and the campus-based activism around sexual assault (which later helped spark the multi-generational “Me Too” movement).

When I researched and wrote that piece, there was little evidence of a significant Millennial presence in the organized labor movement.  In fact, young workers have  been underrepresented among labor union members for decades, in part because of the scarcity of new union organizing efforts.  But now that may be changing.  In 2017, over three-quarters of the increase in union membership was accounted for by workers under 35 years old, as a recent Economic Policy Institute post noted. (The total number of U.S. union members in 2017 rose by about 262,ooo over the previous year, although the unionization rate was unchanged.)  In addition, survey data show that Millennials express far more pro-union attitudes than their baby boomer counterparts do.

Obituaries for organized labor have been a perennial in both academic and journalistic commentary for decades now.  Indeed, unions have suffered relentless erosion in density since the mid-1950s peak of about 35 percent, clocking in at only 10.7 percent in 2017.  In the private sector, 6.5 percent of workers were union members that year.  And the 2018 Supreme Court decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case will surely lead to a drop  in the relatively high level of public-sector unionization as well (in 2017 that rate was 34.4 percent).

The overall picture is undeniably gloomy, yet labor organizing has blossomed in recent years in a few occupational niches in which college-educated Millennials are in the vanguard of new unionization drives.  For example, graduate teaching and research assistants, as well as adjunct faculty, have joined unions all across the nation in the 21st century, despite vigorous resistance from college and university administrators.  More recently, digital journalists have successfully organized:  over 2,000 editorial staff  joined unions at Slate, Salon, HuffPost, Vice, Vox, The Root, The Intercept, The Daily Beast, and other news websites in the past few years.  Veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse suggests that employers have hesitated to resist these unionization efforts, because they “know that if they fire journalists for supporting a union, Twitter will be ablaze with the news, and their websites and reputations will take a battering.”  The journalists’ contract demands are also marked by a generational agenda; for example, they insist on more gender and racial diversity in hiring as well as equity for LGBTQ individuals.  Union drives have also emerged among journalists and editorial staff in traditional print media – most recently at The New Yorker.  Here too Millennials are the dominant demographic.

That highly educated young people would see unionization as a promising collective action project may come as a surprise to many commentators who have long since written off organized labor as an archaic, ossified entity best suited to the dying traditional proletariat.  But in fact, the profile of union membership has been changing for some time.  In the mid-20th century, blue-collar men without college education dominated union ranks, but today women workers are nearly as unionized as men, and college-educated workers (of all ages) have a higher unionization rate than those with a high school education or less.  This shift in labor movement composition largely reflects the changing balance between public and private sector unions.  While since the late 1970s employers have moved aggressively to eliminate or weaken organized labor in traditional blue-collar sectors like manufacturing and construction, public-sector unionization grew in that period and has since remained intact.  In 2017, the union membership rate of public-sector workers in 2017 was five times that of private-sector workers, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this year.   Women and African Americans are disproportionately employed in the public sector, as are college-educated workers of all genders and racial/ethnic groups.

The largest single group of public-sector workers is K-12 teachers:  in 2017, 33.5% of workers in “education, training and library occupations” were union members, almost three times the average U.S. unionization rate (11.5%) that year.  And a new wave of labor activism among teachers has made headlines in 2018.  The recent wave of teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and other Red states was preceded by a successful strike by Chicago teachers in 2016.  And this unexpected surge of union activism seems to have a strong Millennial inflection.  I have not found any systematic data on the demographics of participants in this year’s strikes, but media accounts as well as photographic and video images of the demonstrations suggest that young teachers are especially prominent. Their tactical repertoire is further circumstantial evidence:  a private, by-invitation-only Facebook group created by rank-and-file teachers was the key vehicle for the organizing in West Virginia.  Inspired by that pioneering effort, Alberto Morejon, a 25-year-old social-studies teacher in Stillwater, Oklahoma, launched a similar Facebook group to organize teachers there, which became the key organizing vehicle for the massive Oklahoma walkouts that followed.

This year’s Red-state teacher strikes succeeded spectacularly.  They not only won support from students and their parents but also — more improbably — from school administrators, who (like the teachers themselves) strongly opposed the austerity budgeting for public education in their states.  Having buy-in from management is a unique feature of the teacher walkouts and one that is unlikely to be replicable in other sectors.  Still, this strike wave is evidence of the potential for Millennials to reinvigorate the ailing labor movement.  With all their warts, unions remain the single largest organized entity that is squarely challenging ever-growing inequality, and an infusion of energy from this generation could make a difference.


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