Home Fall 2017 (Dis)organized labor: why millennials don’t unionize

(Dis)organized labor: why millennials don’t unionize

(Dis)organized labor: why millennials don’t unionize

Fewer than 5 percent of working people ages 16 and 24 belong to a union. Is that because they can’t get into one – or because they think they can do better as sole operators?


Labor unions once had a stronger presence in the United States, as many frustrated employees demanded improvements in the quality of their work, and pay.  But times have changed, and union membership has plummeted.  The workforce is aging, and fewer young people are joining unions.  Millennials are unionizing less often  —  and this seems to stem from the lack of information about the benefits of unions, and what to expect in the workplace.

Numbers support this.  Union membership has dropped from 20.1 percent of the workforce in 1983 to 11.3 percent in 2013. Just 4.5 percent of employed people aged 16 and 24 are members of a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Nearly 10 percent of employees who are aged 25 to 35 today end up joining a union.  Despite the increase in numbers in this age group, though, there are still fewer millennials – a term applied to those born roughly between 1982 and 2004 — joining unions than ever before.

Barry Albert, a teacher in the Westwood Regional School District, has been an active member of his union, the Westwood Education Association, for more than a decade.

“In 2000, I was a building representative, as well as the social chair,” he said.  “In 2004 I became vice president, and in 2006 I became the president until 2016.”  He has been an employee of the district since 1996.

“I could see myself being in a teachers’ union,” said Kyle O’Brien, a junior at Rutgers University.  O’Brien was recently admitted into the Rutgers Graduate School of Education’s five-year master’s program. “In about two more years I’ll be graduating with a masters and teaching in the classroom.”

Photo of the Rutgers Labor Education Center.
The Rutgers Labor Education Center. Photo by Keith Haas.

General knowledge, or lack thereof, is a big reason people believe there is a decline of unionization among millennials.

“I don’t see that [millennials] are actively not joining unions; there just seems to be an indifference, also due to the lack of education that the unions should actually provide,” Albert said.

“I’m pro-union,” said Stephen Dalina, a Rutgers University student studying history and public administration.  “[Unions] keep workers from being exploited by businesses and the government.”  He was speaking of unions’ traditional role.  Today, millennials may feel less exploited by the government and management.

“The federal government stepping up and creating laws to protect employees has replaced some of the need the unions were once responsible for,” said Patricia Reynolds, an employee in the Accounts Payable department at Rutgers University, who belongs to the AFSCME Local 1761 union.

Reynolds is also studying labor relations at Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations.  More government oversight in the workplace means that employees are more protected in some cases, giving less of a need for millennials entering the workforce to unionize, he said.

“Millennials are sort of moving around a lot more than, let’s say, the baby boomers were, because a lot of baby boomers were working through college,” said O’Brien.  “They had to have a steady job while they were in college, and lots of millennials aren’t working while they’re at school, from what I’ve noticed, or there’s a lot of work study programs.  I feel like in general millennials aren’t working as much as the baby boomers were.”

“I believe that there is a decline among millennials unionizing, because many of their parents were not in unions, and they are simply not aware of them,” said Albert, noting that chances are their parents entered the workforce around the time unionization started to decline in the 1980s.

“The decline over the past six or seven years has been in the trust and faith that the state-level union is truly looking out for people in the trenches,” said Albert.  “Part of the decline has also been due to the political attacks of the current New Jersey state administration view of public workers, and the spreading of information.”

“I believe that Millennials believe that unions hold them back.  Millennials like immediate gratification.  More money in the now, but with that comes less security, less or no pensions or retirement, and little to no benefits.”  —  Accounts payable worker and union member Patricia Reynolds

When looking at teachers in unions, Albert said, “people think we get a free pension, summers off and the day ends at 3 PM.  The reality is we contribute over 7% to our pensions, have to work in the summers because there are no paychecks, and we don’t leave the buildings for at least 30 to 60 minutes after the school day.”

“I honestly think that many individuals — young, right out of college — do not seek out union jobs,” said Reynolds.  “I believe that much of the young workforce does not value the benefits to a union until later in life, when they appreciate job security, medical benefits, retirement, etcetera.”

Millennials “might not believe that unions can actually help them, especially considering that there is not much protection for those in their first four years of the job as a non-tenured employee,” Albert said. “Perhaps there is also entitlement, and they don’t know what others went through to get the terms and salaries of the current contracts.”

Reynolds shares some of those views.

“I believe that millennials feel entitled to ‘more….’  They don’t want to be held to a contract that someone else has negotiated, because ‘they could do better’ for themselves,” she said. “I believe that millennials believe that unions hold them back.  Millennials like immediate gratification.  More money in the now, but with that comes less security, less or no pensions or retirement, and little to no benefits.”

“They are not aware of the consequences of non-unionization,” Reynolds continued.  “They did not grow up during a time when employees were made to work 16-plus hour days for little pay.  Millennials just don’t understand this.  It is not conceivable to them.  My analogy: I compare this a bit to the decrease in immunizations.  Many individuals now choose not to immunize because there may be risks, but these individuals did not live in a time when the diseases they are choosing not to protect themselves from were killing babies, children, men and women by the thousands.  They make decisions based on the circumstances they are familiar with, without realizing the constant fear that those before us had.”

Many people have a negative outlook on of the future of labor unions.

“Sadly, I think we may end up with an entire generation hitting rock bottom before they realize the importance of unions in the workplace,” said Reynolds.

Today’s work environment makes it difficult to promote unionization, but that doesn’t mean workers will never re-embrace unionization.

Dalina considered circumstances under which labor unions might be needed in the workplace. “A problem that requires unions would have to arrive, like mass cuts or firings,”  he suggested.

Historically, most unions formed simply because employees were frustrated at their management, and demanded change.  As unions weaken, fewer employees are demanding change.

“I guess the best way to promote [unions] would just be to make sure that they have the opportunity, and make sure it’s clearly laid out for them,” said O’Brien.  “Millennials are very much attached to gathering information, and I feel like a lot of previous generations joined unions mostly because ‘oh, my father was in a union, my mother was in a union, my friends are in unions, may as well,’ whereas a lot of millennials, since that pressure isn’t really present with them, maybe they just don’t have enough information to make a judgment call.”

Albert agrees with O’Brien that spreading information among Millennials would probably increase union membership.

“Education through social media, having group chats, Snapchat, Instagram would be useful.  They also need to have evidence that the union is working for them in some way.”


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