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Why Are So Many Young People Joining Labor Unions?

For May Day, we talked to young workers—in tech, retail, food service, and more—about what brought them to the labor movement. Those under 35 overwhelmingly approve of organized labor—77 percent.

A striking Starbucks worker uses a megaphone outside of a Starbucks coffee shop on November 17, 2022. in San Francisco, Calif.,Justin Sullivan // The Nation

Agrowing number of young people are joining and forming labor unions. Some call them “Generation U.” The New York Times dubbed the phenomenon the “Revolt of the College-Educated Working Class.”

Coming of age during the Great Recession, Occupy, and Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns, those under 35 overwhelmingly approve of organized labor—77 percent, according to a Gallup poll. Coinciding with a more supportive National Labor Relations Board, this wave has had tremendous consequences, with over 2,500 union petitions filed in 2022 alone.

We talked to some of these young people—in tech, retail, food service, and more—about their working conditions and what brought them to the labor movement. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

PAIGE OAMEK: What’s your earliest memory of hearing about unions?

DAMON, 23, UPS Teamster Local 544, Nebraska: My stepdad. He’s been a blue-collar industrial mechanic my whole life. He’d tell me it’s really important to have a union behind you to protect you.

CARMI, 17, Pharmacy technician, Georgia: I know we learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in school, but nothing really current-day. Then, when I started working at Walgreens, there was a pretty robust community of people on Reddit who work there. I think that’s when I first found out about Walgreens’ being pretty anti-union. We all kind of know that Walgreens is just out to screw their employees in any way that they can.

ELLIE, 18, College student, Vermont: During my senior year of high school, when I was working at Starbucks, the first Starbucks started to unionize, and then it was shortly after that we had a lot of posters go up at my workplace in the break room. They were basically saying “know what you’re signing up for and what you’re paying for,” and that was really the first time that it was brought to my attention. It was a preemptive thing. I remember taking a picture of it and sending it to my family group chat and saying, “Whoa, it almost feels like they’re very close to discouraging us from signing anything.”

ZOE, 20, Retail, West Virginia: I watch the Twitch streamer Hasan Abi a lot. He was doing the “Red Hot Summer” event. That’s when I got involved with the YSDA [Young Democratic Socialists of America] and then I learned more about organizing that way. That’s kind of when I really started to get more motivated. “Hey, other people my age are doing this. They want better rights for themselves and they deserve better rights for themselves.”

JAYE, 24, Blank Street barista, New York: As a kid, I was interested in history and learned about the big labor movements across the 1800s. I just started to develop politics that are very pro-union on principle. These political struggles didn’t start yesterday. “What’s the longer history behind this?” Once you start digging into that, so many of these various progressive movements—the feminist movements or the gay rights movements—build on workers’ movements. Then, during the first week of my undergrad, our janitorial and maintenance staff, who were under the SEIU [Service Employees International Union], were about to go on strike if they didn’t get their contract renewed.

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SARAH, 21, Starbucks, Illinois: I didn’t know that both of my parents worked in unions until my Starbucks store was unionized. My mom retired from American Airlines, she worked at the Miami International Airport for 20-plus years, and my dad used to work for Jackson Memorial Hospital.

HARRY, 25, Google, New York: My mom was a big Obama supporter in 2008, and I remember volunteering alongside unions with the campaign. I feel like my initial interactions with unions were all through electoral politics. In college, I joined a group of Stanford students for workers rights, which was like organizing on behalf of the union workers—janitorial staff and dining hall workers—on campus. That really kicked into high gear during Covid, because Stanford and other universities didn’t support workers and the most vulnerable members of the university community.

JEFF, service industry, Louisiana: My dad is a teacher. He’s been in the teachers union my whole life. I studied sociology in college and worked at a workers center. Something that drew me to labor organizing was always the power imbalance, in any system, in any job. I started organizing at work when I was salting at a stadium.

Where have you worked? Have you been in another union?

JAYE: I worked for Kroger, which is unionized under the United Food and Commercial Workers. That was my first time being part of a union. It was actually a really funny coincidence. One of the UFCW organizers who was a big part of that campaign moved to New York and is now one of our main point people for the Blank Street campaign. If you have a good job, secure that, get a contract, and make sure that you and your coworkers can keep your good conditions.

HARRY: I worked on the Biden general election campaign after I graduated in 2020. That was a predominantly—if not exclusively—unionized campaign. It’s a weird place for organizing because campaigns are so temporary. These unions and these contracts sometimes last for only four months or six months. It can make it difficult to build power because everybody knows this whole thing is gonna dissolve in November. But it almost makes it more important, because they can really push you to work more hours than you should.

DAMON: I worked at Rotella’s Italian Bakery for almost two years. They had no safety stuff in line—nothing to protect you. Working there made me think about joining a union because it felt unsafe. They pay their workers a low wage and work them 60 to 72 hours a week. I saw people lose their hands. I saw people lose their arms. I saw one dude put stuff into an oven and the door shut behind him. He was stuck in a 400-degree oven for like 30 seconds. These are things you might learn about in a history book on the 1800s. This is why people started to riot and fight for labor laws.

ELLIE: I worked at Shaw’s, which is a grocery store in New England. Because I was working in New Hampshire, I got the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Since I was 14, I could only work a certain amount of hours.

At Starbucks, I would find myself being very exhausted from going to school and driving an hour there and back. I’d get home and I would go to work at 7 PM and work until 11 PM. When I worked the weekends, it was normally super-busy the entire time. I was working from 4 AM until 11 AM. If we had staff shortages—which was often—people would be very frustrated.

Tell us more about what it’s like being in a union.

ZOE: I actually messaged someone on the first day of my retail job about unionizing. I’m pretty excited with the progress we’ve been making. It really does build a lot of community. I was talking to someone at the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee about how corporations test out some of their harsher labor practices over here in Appalachia. They are often a bit harsher over here with things like union-busting and slap suits. If you have an additional strike on your attendance record and they hear the words “living wage” come out of your mouth, they are going to fire you. I want to stay here to help break that.

SARAH: I’ve worked at Starbucks for almost three years. I transferred to the Chicago store in February from Florida. A week later, one of the partners came up to me and asked how I felt about unionizing. I was like, “Hell, yeah, more power to the people.”

It was basically a unanimous vote. When we were on strike, our regulars—people that we see almost every day—came out and supported us. They came to strike with us throughout the day. They bought us breakfast, lunch, and dinner, basically. But Starbucks has still not come to the bargaining table. We’re worried about being turned away for new benefits. We’re still being denied digital tips, for example. Any non-union stores got them, and we’re being deprived of $3–4 an hour extra from those digital tips.

JAYE: A bunch of us at Blank Street had been talking about unionizing for a long time. We obviously had problems that we wanted to address, but we also really liked our working conditions. Benefits and pay-wise, this is probably the best coffee job I’ve ever had. “Let’s not wait for it to get bad.” So we preemptively unionized. We had broad support right at the get-go. In a lot of ways, it was kind of an easy union drive.

One of the hardest parts of it was literally just doing the paperwork. You almost need an established union to give you legal advice, telling you every little thing that might invalidate a ballot or cause the whole election filing to get tossed out. Ultimately, the UFCW came and started setting up meetings with those folks. We filed, and won with a single no vote.

DAMON: The benefits that I have right now through the union are absolutely amazing. This is coming from somebody with chronic health issues, who goes to the pharmacy four times a month. As a Teamster, I pay out of pocket max $5 for my insulin. On my other insurance, my meds were hundreds of dollars. I’ve spent my whole life being sick. It’s life-changing to save hundreds of dollars a month on my prescription. I spent four days in the hospital two months ago and paid $0 with my health care. Four days in the hospital with no bill? That’s not America!

If we strike this summer, it’s gonna be wild. Yesterday, I sorted 14,000 packages by myself as one person. Imagine if the entire warehouse is empty. It’s a huge deal. The basic consensus is: If they don’t budge, we’re striking to keep these benefits.

HARRY: We’ve done a lot this year that’s really exciting. We had our first-ever strike. A team of YouTube Music workers in Texas went on strike because of a landmark NLRB case. If they win their election, Google will have to—for the first time—bargain for a contract with these workers.

Unfortunately, software engineers often don’t see themselves as workers. We’re very well compensated. We have great benefits, and we have these fancy offices. But at the end of the day, we are sort of the bottom rung on the ladder, right? We’re not managing anyone. It’s our labor that creates Google Search, Google Docs—all these products. Without our labor, these products don’t run.

In January—for the first time in Google’s history—they did mass layoffs of 12,000 people. For a lot of people, that catalyzed this sort of mental shift. Like “Oh, I am a worker. I am disposable. This is at-will employment and there isn’t much protecting me.” Today, they gave the CEO a multimillion-dollar raise. Those decisions are always made in the interests of the shareholders. They’re not made in the interests of the customers or the workers. The grand vision of the union in my head is giving us workers a seat at the table in those decisions. Google laid off 12,000 people to juice the stock price for a week.

What brought you to the labor movement?

DAMON: I saw Bernie Sanders speak at Iowa Western Community College in high school and got to talk with him. It was pretty hard not to be politically aware in 2016 when everything was on fire. My stepdad was also working 12-hour days with two 15-minute breaks. That’s when I started researching unions and labor law.

ZOE: After getting my autism diagnosis, when the director of my cosmotology school told me that I would be homeless and would never have a job unless I changed in some way. Organizing makes me feel like I’m not as alone. Living in West Virginia makes you feel very isolated. For a while, I was like “Oh, my God, like, the state literally wants me to die. They do not care about me. They’re not going to give me money to live. Nobody’s going to hire me. Nobody’s going to put any regulations in place.” Unless I do something. Unless I gather and organize with my peers.

JEFF: After I had spent a year at the workers center, I was walking past a house that was being worked on by presumably undocumented people from Central America. Somebody had passed out. I knew enough Spanish and first aid, so I performed CPR on this person. This person died under my hands. The lead property manager or contractor told me not to call the police. This was a person protecting his property. He doesn’t care about this person’s life. There are bad people and bad companies in this world. They prioritize property and capital over human lives. The only way to fight that is through labor organizing.

What are the biggest issues facing young workers?

DAMON: Young people grow up in education systems where they never get taught about unions, then end up working at big corporations where talk of the union is hush-hush. Just this week, Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill in Iowa where you can be 16 and work in an industrial plant now. A Tyson-affiliated packing plant got caught having 13-year-olds working sanitation and production in an industrial environment. Coming from someone who has worked in high-paced industrial work, it’s way too hard on kids. They shouldn’t have to do that work. It seems like we’re creeping backward.

CARMI: Many people only qualify for one kind of job, which is pretty unskilled retail work. Unfortunately, a lot of these large retail companies are run very similarly and can get away with abusing their employees. There are so few mom-and-pop places that are hiring—or still exist, for that matter. You’re really forced to work for a large corporation. Their whole objective is to make as much money as possible.

JAYE: The data shows like us young people are—across the board—much more progressive. There’s this exposure to bigger union efforts in the news, like Amazon and Starbucks. Maybe this is overly optimistic—or shaped by the people I’m surrounded by—but I think there’s more pro-union sentiment among these younger generations.

But the tricky thing is knowing where to start. We’ve been told that the world will end and that our conditions will be worse than our parents’ since we were children. We’ve just grown up in that kind of world. Why not fight to change it?

[Paige Oamek is a writer and fact-checker based in New York. Their writing appears in In These Times, The American Prospect and elsewhere.]

Copyright c 2023 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by PARS International Corp

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