Could Gen Z bring unions back into the mainstream?

December 14, 2021, 1:25 PM UTC

Forty years ago, one in five American workers was a union member, according to Pew Research. By 2020, that figure had dropped to just over one in 10, and among workers in Gen Z—those born in 1997 or later—it’s even smaller, just 4.4%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But that stat doesn’t tell the full story. Gen Z may not yet be unionized in significant numbers, but it is overwhelmingly in favor of organized labor. A recent Gallup poll found that approval of labor unions is at its highest point since 1965, with nearly four in five (77%) of adults ages 18 through 34 supporting them. That’s a cohort that includes millennials as well as Gen Z, but there’s good reason to believe that younger adults are at least as pro-union as their late-twentysomething and thirtysomething counterparts. Supporting organized labor is a historically progressive cause, and, according to Pew Research, Gen Z is more progressive on social and economic issues than any other generation. 

On a more anecdotal level, Gen Z workers have been at the forefront of some of the recent high-profile efforts to unionize, from digital media companies to Fortune 500 companies like Starbucks. 

In the U.S., pro-union sentiment has steadily ticked upwards since the 2008 crash, says Stephanie Luce, a professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. Younger workers have been a big part of that rebound, says Luce, who points toward unions’ increasing willingness to take bolder stances on issues affecting the whole population, such as health care and immigration reform. 

“Some unions were willing to go to the front lines to fight for a higher minimum wage, even if it didn’t benefit them directly,” Luce notes. “And growing distrust of corporations [among younger workers] has left unions as perhaps the antidote.”

Gen Z’s pronounced interest in organizing might also be spurred by the formative generational experience of witnessing the impact of the 2008 crash on their parents, Luce says. Now, those same young people are in a labor market that, in some senses, never really recovered from the crash, she adds. 

That’s how it feels for Batia Katz, 24, a research analyst at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit think tank she has spent the past year and a half helping organize.  

“If you grew up with the peak horrors of capitalism, and you can kind of have a romantic view of unions and worker power,” Katz notes. “I think a lot of people our age feel the same way—like we have less to lose. The prospects aren’t awesome.” 

The unionizing effort was difficult, Katz says, “and that’s from someone who has had a relatively easy road to recognition.” Even so, she found it extremely rewarding. “It’s probably what I’m most proud of so far in my career.”

Soli Alpert, 24, a legislative assistant for a council member on the Berkeley City Council, feels similarly. 

“In a lot of senses, our generation grew up in a world that was never not broken,” Alpert says. His organization, the City of Berkeley Legislative Aides Union is part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the second-largest union in the country, representing nearly 2 million laborers. “People who grew up pre-9/11 remember a time that wasn’t perfect, but it was well before the [2008] recession and terrorism. [Gen Z] never knew a country not at war, or without a surveillance state. I barely remember a time before the recession.” 

By virtue of the political and economic climate in which they were raised, Gen Zers have a unique perception of what it means to be employed and what loyalty employee and company owe to one another, Alpert notes. “Our generation is at the head of this trend where most of us don’t work the same job for a long time anymore. Our parents would work one job for 30 years and have a pension.” 

According to a 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, median employee tenure is generally higher among older workers than younger ones. For instance, the median tenure of workers ages 55 to 64 is 9.9 years, more than triple that of workers ages 25 to 34, which is 2.8 years. What’s more, a 2018 study by Edison Research found that people ages 18 to 34 are more likely to work within the gig economy (38%) than those ages 35 to 54 (25%) or 55-plus (11%).

Today, Luce sees pro-union sentiment as intertwined with other kinds of activism young people have taken an interest in, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and climate change legislation, as well as figures like Bernie Sanders, backed by the Democratic Socialists of America. 

Much like their millennial predecessors, Gen Z leans liberal. In a January 2020 survey by Pew Research Center, 61% of Gen Z voters said they were definitely or probably going to vote for the Democratic candidate for president that year, while about a quarter (22%) said they planned to vote for Trump. That same survey found more of Gen Z (70%) said the onus is on the government, rather than business or individuals, to solve societal problems, a sentiment shared by just 64% of millennials and 53% of Gen X respondents.

“Young people are increasingly looking for political solutions to this morass that we’re in,” notes Luce. “The fight for a $15 minimum wage, for many of them, was an expression of saying it’s not even the money; it’s saying we have the dignity to be treated with respect.”

As wages have stagnated and the cost of living has skyrocketed, workers have fallen behind, Alpert says. “I think our generation has never grown up assuming any company or boss would take care of us or treat us well; we don’t expect that. And even when we are treated well, we take it as a luxury, not a guarantee.”

In Alpert’s view, Gen Z is more open to unionizing because they don’t have confidence in systems to begin with, and don’t believe they’ll be treated well by employers in the long run.

Erik Loomis, an associate professor of labor history at the University of Rhode Island, agrees.

“Younger people are facing an economy that’s not fair to them,” he says. “They’re burdened with tremendous debt. Their choices are constrained. It’s hard to live your dream when you have $80,000 of student loans at age 22. You’re forced into jobs you maybe don’t want to take.”

Contingent labor and work in the gig economy are especially bleak, he added. “The minimum wage is obscenely low. Young people are entering the workforce and saying, ‘Why would I want to be a part of this? I don’t like this new America that has been promised to me. I don’t have any economic control over my life.’”

In the Obama years, when the economy was mostly improving after the Great Recession, unemployment was low, as it is today, Loomis notes. But simply being employed is not a guarantee of security or upward mobility. “If you have three jobs, that’s not working for you. A lot of workers have nothing to lose by going on strike.”

“Folks are angry and frustrated,” Alpert says. “We’re both disillusioned with reality and unwilling to accept it as how it is.”

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