Unions in the United States have suffered a significant decline since the early 1980s. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 20% of workers belonged to a union in 1983 (the first year for which data is available). By 2022, that number had been cut in half.
The decline – which many experts attribute to policy changes favoring employers, a rise in right-to-work laws that weaken employees’ organizing and collective bargaining power, and a trend toward outsourcing – has left USA with one of the lower union densities among the main economies.
But even with the reduction in membership, worker support for unions has increased.
In August 2022, Gallup recorded the highest levels of support for unions since the 1960s, the 71% of Americans approve of unionsand one in 10 non-union workers say they are “extremely interested” in joining one.
High-profile union efforts have dominated the headlines: In recent years, workers at Amazon, Starbucks and several universities have organized.
The US screenwriters and actors union continues to strike over demands for increased wages and benefits, as well as greater protection against the development of Artificial Intelligence.
And among those on the front lines are the younger workers who are leading the renewed push for unions. The Generation Z (born between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s) is, according to the Center for American Progress, “the most pro-union generation that currently exists.”
“I think there’s a better understanding that if you have a job, you need a union,” Jaz Brisack says. The 26-year-old was an early leader of union struggles at Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, in 2021.
Gen Z’s participation and support for organized unions makes sense when you consider the context of their experience, explains Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research and professor at the School of Industrial and Union Relations at Cornell University, USA. US
“First of all, they grew up hearing that they were going to be better off than their parents,” he says. “The fact is that they had difficulty finding work, and the jobs they found were not as good as their parents’.”
“They and the generation that followed them are saddled with college debt. “They are looking at a world in which they have to think about whether or not to have children because of climate change.”
“Are concerned about other social issues broader issues such as reproductive rights or gun control and plan to hold the government and employers accountable for these issues,” he adds.
The practices of some companies during the pandemicBronfenbrenner continues, increased Gen Z workers’ enthusiasm for unions: Low-income employees, service workers, and those without educational degrees had difficulty obtaining personal protective equipment, health care, and paid sick leave.
Reports from the Economic Policy Institute show that in 2020, just over 10% of workers considered “essential,” including those in the sales sector, were protected by a union contract.
On the other hand, workers who were represented by a union had more possibilities of accessing internal and external mechanisms to defend themselves on health and safety issues.
“Many of these workers were on the front lines,” he says. “When they asked for something as simple as personal protective equipment or time off to care for their families, or not going to work when they were sick, their employers told them no. The workers are willing to tolerate a lot, but putting their lives and their families at risk is too much, and I think that was the “It’s a straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Brisack says their job at Starbucks — amid pandemic-related job shortages — made them feel “like no one was coming to save us.” That inspired them to try to find their own solutions, and was key to their attempts to organize, which involved many of Generation Z and other supporters of the cause.
Brisack now believes in the power of unions to create equality in what he sees as an inequitable power structure. “I think people are looking back and seeing that what really created a better standard of living in the past was union density and are more open to the idea of organizing.”
Baby boomers had a lot of things that united them, Bronfenbrenner says, as the generation became “very involved politically with civil rights, the women’s movements and the anti-war movement.”
But towards the end of the 1970s, “the situation changed dramatically and the focus became more on taking care of oneself and making money.”
Researchers generally consider that Generation is significantly more independent and self-sufficient; and the millennials, according to empirical research, they are the generation more individualistic of all. The Generation ZHowever, it seems to be the collective generation.
A Stanford University research project found that the group born between the mid-1990s and 2010 is highly collaborative.
Brisack believes that because Generation Z feels that society has let them down collectively, many see it as necessary to act as a group to make things better.
Gen Z-driven unionizing efforts also tend to be marked by this generation’s passion for social causes, and their demands reflect this, Bronfenbrenner says.
“There is the phrase ‘organize for the common good’”, says. And he mentions several moments that allude to this, such as the teachers’ strike in California that demanded sustainable initiatives and better care for homeless students.
“Starbucks workers were demanding their employers take a stand on LGBTQ rights,” he adds.
But Gen Z organizers not only have new demands, they are also organizing new industries, including hourly wage positions, that were not traditionally covered by union protections.
“When we started to confront Starbucks, many people in the union world told us “this is not a good objective. “It’s not reasonable,” Brisack says.
“Large corporations can also launch large-scale anti-union campaigns and messages, which can be difficult for a small-scale organization to counter.”
But while many Gen Z organizers like Brisack have realistic expectations about what unionization can or cannot accomplish in service industry jobs, they still believe it’s worth it.
Source: La Opinion