Sunday, January 15, 2017

Labor Unions Have More Younger Members Than They Think, And Why This is Important

With Donald Trump joining a Republican-majority Congress in office this week, the U.S. labor movement is braced for adversity. Who knows what lies ahead. At a minimum, labor will face a less sympathetic legal system when the composition of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and judiciary reflect Trump appointees. Bigger changes at the federal level could include a de-funded NLRB and a national right-to-work law, while in the public sector a new Friedrichs case could result in a national public sector right-to-work mandate to go along with continued state-level legislative efforts to weaken public sector unions.

Undoubtedly, labor union strategies to survive and even revitalize in this era will need to be multi-pronged. Any strategy, however, is likely to have limited success if it fails to consider how to represent workers throughout the job switches and other major changes that occur over the full life cycle of workers in the new world of work, organizations, and employment. In many countries, from Asia to Europe to North and South America, workers are most likely to be unionized in their forties. In the United States, there are more than twice as many union members in their forties than in their twenties. Union leaders that want to be responsive to the majority of their rank and file members consequently negotiate seniority rights, seniority-based wage schedules, and health and retirement benefits that benefit middle-aged and older workers more than younger workers. Those interested in the future of collective voice and union representation should be asking whether this middle-aged and older worker bias has
contributed to the decline of unions by ignoring how workers experience unionism over their life cycles.

Taking seriously the role of younger workers in union revitalization efforts requires recognizing when workers are first unionized and how these early experiences affect later attitudes toward labor unions. In contrast to conventional wisdom that associates unionization with middle-age, my research using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 has shown that the average age when workers begin their very first unionized job is 23 years old. Among those who had been represented by a union by the time they were around 40 years old, more than 85 percent were first represented before they were 30 years old. By age 25, nearly 50 percent of the entire sample had held at least one unionized job, and by age 40, nearly 65 percent was unionized in at least one of their jobs, and ex-unionized workers outnumbered currently-represented workers by three to one.

I think this bears repeating. By age 25, nearly 50 percent of a nationally-representative of workers that I analyzed had held at least one unionized job, and among the nearly 65 percent (yes, 65 percent) who had been represented by a union by the time they were around 40 years old, over half were first represented before age 23, and more than 85 percent were first represented before they were 30 years old. Any direct experiences that workers have with unions presumably shape their lasting attitudes towards unions, positively or negatively. So if younger workers are being neglected by their unions, unions run the risk of alienating a larger number of workers than previously expected. Labor unions should therefore adopt a life-cycle rather than job-centric representation strategy. Tom Kochan  has explained how this can work:

Once recruited, the relationship with members could be maintained for life by providing the labor market and educational services and benefits individuals and families need as they move through different stages of their careers and family lives. Consistent with the history of the way many unions began, these types of organizations might serve as mutual benefit societies by providing workers with health insurance, savings programs that build retirement security, life-long education, work-family supports, and the social networks and information needed to find jobs when required. They would also provide quick and effective advice and representation to solve problems and if necessary represent workers in trouble, individually and collectively. (Restoring the American Dream: A Working Families’ Agenda for America, MIT Press, p. 151).

My research on first union experiences reveals that U.S. labor unions have an important, and probably overlooked, opportunity to develop a supportive, firsthand relationship with quite a large fraction of the U.S. workforce. Admittedly, the labor movement faces significant complexities in fully embracing young workers with the goal of developing lifetime support. Workers who first encounter unionization as teenagers do so disproportionately in wholesale and retail trade which means that specific unions might bear the burden of devoting resources specifically to younger workers. Even when these unions realize the importance of workers’ first unionized experiences, high turnover of younger workers can make it difficult to build strong connections. U.S. labor law also favors a job-centric membership model.

Nevertheless, the labor movement and other interested parties should understand when and how workers first experience unionization, and construct representation strategies that fit with the life cycle realities of today’s workers. Given what’s likely to be a hostile legislative and judicial environment for U.S. labor unions in the coming months and years, this is probably more important than ever for the future of the U.S. labor movement.

Additional reading: John W. Budd (2010) "When Do U.S. Workers First Experience Unionization? Implications for Revitalizing the Labor Movement," Industrial Relations, vol. 49, no. 2 (April), pp. 209-225

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