The Rise of Millennials and Their Potential Support for Labor Unions

 
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Millennials are an ever-growing portion of the workforce, and they generally have favorable views toward labor unions.  Employers would be well-advised to be attuned to this reality and they may want to consider developing and implementing strategies aimed at heading off union organizing before it starts.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis earlier this year, Millennials now make up more than 35% of the U.S. labor force, making them the largest generation currently in the workforce.  Their numbers are continuing to grow, and it’s estimated that they will make up 75% of the labor force by 2025.

At the same time, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, the number of union members in the U.S. grew by 262,000 in 2017, and 76% of that increase was comprised of workers under age 35.  Many believe that one reason younger workers are joining labor unions is because they are concerned about workforce trends that are increasing work insecurity, including the rise of automation and companies’ increased use of independent contractors.  

Millennials are also generally known to have favorable views toward labor unions.  A 2017 report published by the Pew Research Center showed that adults younger than age 30 view unions more favorably than corporations.  According to that report, 75% of adults aged 18 to 29 said they have a favorable opinion of unions, while only 55% said they have a favorable view toward corporations.  And in late summer of this year, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that 48% of all nonunionized workers would join a union if given the opportunity to do so. 

Millennials have also demonstrated an interest in social activism.  Many younger workers perceive unionization as potentially combating those aspects of jobs that they view as suboptimal, including perceived racial and gender discrimination and a lack of advancement opportunities.  Union organizers are increasingly recognizing that younger workers place a lot of importance on equitable treatment, upward mobility, fair wages, and work/life balance.  Unions are also using new and often informal methods to recruit employees, including social media and text messaging, effectively “speaking the language” of Millennials.

Indeed, the last few years have seen union organizing in industries that traditionally haven’t been unionized, including digital media, nonprofits, and coffee shops.  It almost goes without saying that employees in these industries are often predominantly comprised of Millennials.  

And the recent walkout by thousands of non-unionized Google employees at offices around the world was the first protest of its kind by well-compensated tech employees, many of whom are Millennials.  The stated demands of the brief walkout, which were posted on an Instagram page, included an end to forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination, a commitment to “end pay and opportunity inequity,” to “promote the chief diversity officer to answer directly to the CEO,” and to have a “clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously.”

Although demands such as these fall outside the scope of what the National Labor Relations Board considers to be mandatory subjects of bargaining between employers and labor unions, they shed light on some of the concerns held by the modern workforce.  On this point, in a recent national survey conducted by MIT, a majority of workers said they don’t have as much of a voice as they believe they should on issues ranging from compensation and benefits to protection against harassment.  These sorts of sentiments can provide fertile feeding ground for union organizers.

Even though many employers recognize some of the negative aspects that can come along with union representation, many employees (including managers and supervisors) might not.  For example, union representation can and often does result in a loss of flexibility in addressing employee issues, and it also results in the insertion of an outside third party between management and employees, which can create a counterproductive “us versus them” attitude.

Employers would therefore be well-advised to train their managers and supervisors on these topics, and also to be on the lookout for union organizing activity among their employees.  Employers should also consider providing positive employee relations training for their managers and supervisors, which could head off union organizing activity before it starts. 

 
Cassie Peterson