There are approximately as many union members under the age of 35 as over the age of 55, each accounting for about 25 percent of union members. Our ability to defend contracts, pensions and retiree health benefits, and to prepare the next generation of leaders and activists, depends on the union’s ability to connect with and integrate younger members with older members. Failure to engage our younger members will guarantee our unions’ decline.
Helping Members Learn About Unions
As a result of the decline in the percentage of workers who belong to unions, far fewer workers come from union households or communities. Much news coverage and casual conversation is pervasively anti-union, from how unions supposedly cause high taxes in the public sector to their so-called responsibility for the loss of private sector jobs to overseas competition. When millennials get a job in a union workplace, many know nothing about the union’s history and may have seen only the results of concessionary bargaining. They may hear older, more experienced members expressing how “young workers don’t appreciate what we fought for.” This context often makes younger members feel put off or unwelcome by the union, and affects their view of the union and their contract.
Keep in mind that what is true for younger members is true for everyone else: they will care about their union if they believe the union is interested in their concerns. How do you find out? Ask them. As a worker once told me, “I don’t care what you know until I know that you care.” Young members have individual wants, needs and experiences that often look a lot like those of other members. Some common concerns are: student debt; childcare costs or flexible scheduling if they’re responsible for young children or aging parents; affordable healthcare; improving their skills. They may be more attuned to how the union shows up in current debates about trade, discrimination and other issues that may affect the workplace and the world.
Like most people, young members are looking for an economy that works for them and fair treatment in their workplaces. They will care about the union—if they see that the union is working on the things they care about.
If you’re a senior steward engaging younger members, a good first step is to listen. Here are a few guidelines to assist with having more fruitful conversations: