Millennials United: Labor Unions Enjoy a Youthful Surge

Millennials United: Labor Unions Enjoy a Youthful Surge

By Carly Stern

Employees unpack samples of Starbucks' new "everyday" brew, Pike Place Roast, in Bryant Park, New York City.
SourceMario Tama/Getty


They’re recruiting over happy hours and work breaks, staying flexible and giving America’s labor movement a fresh lease on life. 

By Carly Stern

Mark Medina and his coworker John Szalay had spoken about their working conditions before — how hard it was to live on such low wages, the meager benefits they received and the lack of respect they felt on the job at Burgerville. But their conversation one chilly May 2016 evening in Portland, Oregon, was different. Sitting on a bench in their matching black shirts during a 10-minute break, Medina openly brought up the U-word for the first time.    

Szalay didn’t know that the 92nd and Powell branch of Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) was on track to go public in just a few weeks, announcing its membership in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and its intention to speak with Burgerville management. Two years later, in April 2018, the BVWU became America’s only formally recognized fast-food union — the first successful one in nearly four decades, after a brief campaign in 1981 at a single Burger King in Detroit. 

From nonprofits to digital newsrooms, and from Silicon Valley cafeterias to Hollywood writers’ rooms, unions are cropping up across workplaces with little or no history of traditional organizing. These unions advocate for specific goals outlined by their members and speak the language of a generation with a demonstrated appetite for activism. Some, like the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), don’t take direction from the AFL-CIO — America’s largest federation of unions — or any umbrella organization above their local one. Others, like the Starbucks Workers Union, aren’t officially recognized by their employer, but members care more about accumulating benefits than securing this formality.   

There’s no cookie-cutter approach.

Jake Johnston, vice president of organizing, NPEU

These malleable approaches are working. Millennial-aged workers are now leading growth in overall union membership, upending historical stereotypes that younger workers don’t identify with the labor movement. For decades, total union membership numbers were seemingly in terminal decline, coming down from 16.27 million in 1996 to 14.37 million in 2012. Between 2012 and 2017 too, the number of union members over the age of 35 dropped by 1,000. But over this period, the number of union members under the age of 35 rose by 452,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, leading to an overall increase in union memberships over the past five years, by 451,000. That means millennials are effectively offsetting dips in the membership of older workers, and adding tens of thousands more to union rosters — though they comprise less than 40 percent of the workforce. In 2017, workers under 35 made up 76 percent of the growth in union membership. The Ruth Ellinger Labor Leaders School, a Texas-based program that teaches organizing skills and is a part of the Texas AFL-CIO, more than doubled its graduating class just a year after launching in 2016. And NPEU fields a steady stream of phone calls from people who want to learn more about organizing.

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Burgerville Workers Union

Source Courtesy of Burgerville Workers Union

“There’s no cookie-cutter approach because all of these organizations are very different,” says Jake Johnston, vice president of organizing for NPEU. “[The nonprofit industry isn’t a] field that has a ton of history with organizing, so it really sort of demands a more novel approach.” 

A few patterns do stand out, according to Ken Jacobs, chair of the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley. These include an increase in public sector membership, in professional areas and among young workers, he says. Television writers, graduate students, adjunct faculty, technical workers, UPS workers, Maine lobster fisherfolk, contract workers in tech companies and digital journalists make up the growing list of “new economy” workplaces that have been organizing. Unions’ demographics are also beginning to mirror that of the workplace. Traditionally, Whites dominated union membership. Now, about two-thirds of workers between ages 18 to 64 covered by a union contract are women and/or people of color, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s August 2017 report “How Today’s Unions Help Working People.” 


Unions are using innovative and often informal means to recruit, connecting in spaces native to their cultures. NPEU’s outreach is driven by word of mouth, so volunteer organizers like Johnston share information over happy hours in Washington, D.C., bars. At Education Austin, the teachers and employees union for the Austin independent school district, the approach is more personal. As a senior officeholder there from 2012 to 2017, Montserrat Garibay would reach out individually to between four and six promising young teachers each year. The strategy worked. Many have become stewards in their schools, while others have led Education Austin committees, she says. 


It might seem counterintuitive that young people are turning to organized labor — stereotypically regarded as a bureaucratic institution and an arm of the Democratic Party — when trust in most societal institutions remains low. Of 15 major U.S. institutions, a majority of people had trust in just three: the military, small businesses and the police, according to a 2018 Gallup poll report.

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Burgerville Workers Union

Source Courtesy of Burgerville Workers Union

But while there have been decades of fear-mongering around unions, millennials didn’t grow up with as much of that stigma, Johnston says. Instead, younger millennials were searching for their first jobs during the Great Recession and potentially have an understanding of what it means to be economically vulnerable, says Jessica Schieder, an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. And unlike older age groups, adults younger than 30 are much more likely to have a favorable view of unions than of corporations, according to the 2017 Fact Tank report by Pew Research Center. Although the economy has rebounded overall, those gains are concentrated at the top, according to Jacobs.

Jacobs says this is precisely why interest in unions is rising: The growing economy creates some kind of hope, but the fact that it’s not being shared creates recognition of the need for action and solidarity. As the younger generation feels excluded from the system they’ve inherited, they’re seeking new outlets to get involved, Johnston says.  

The name of the game is being relevant to what it is that people need in the workplace of the future.

Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO

These newfangled unions are often very local, and flexible. Members across different regions can dictate their own priorities and adapt to their members’ changing needs. Policy priorities could vary for union members across Starbucks shops, for instance, depending on location and the ages of their workers, says Cole Dorsey, press officer for the IWW and a former organizer for the Starbucks Workers Union. Employees in New York City may focus on improving pay and scheduling stability, while those in Michigan may care more about “bean to cup” transparency, or supply-chain traceability for Starbucks coffee farmers throughout the world. 

Even the giants of the American labor movement aren’t untouched by these shifts in the ways millennial workers are organizing. The AFL-CIO’s May 2018 Commission on the Future of Work and Unions explores how unions can become nimble and responsive as automation becomes more prevalent, says Liz Shuler, the secretary-treasurer of the organization. 

“The name of the game is being relevant to what it is that people need in the workplace of the future,” says Shuler. 


Make no mistake, the future remains uncertain for the labor movement. Traditional bodies like the AFL-CIO face the challenge of reframing a powerful narrative that’s been constructed against unions for decades, says Shuler. Looking forward, she says the AFL-CIO is presenting itself as more issues-focused rather than partisan, particularly in light of the 2016 presidential election. Beyond this stigmatized perception, decreased visibility has also hurt growth. As union density declined, community chatter and awareness of organizing declined with it. Young people weren’t necessarily opposed to unions; they just didn’t know anyone in one, Shuler says.

Unions have their problems, though. Often, they have coercive powers over workers, suggests Patrick Semmens, a vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. Individuals, he cautions, should have the choice of whether or not to associate with a union. Many people who support unions still want dues to be voluntary rather than forced, according to Semmens.

Others point out that the individual, localized organizing that’s shaping this emerging millennial labor movement remains limited by our broken, outdated system of labor laws. The law’s emphasis on the firm level, rather than industry or sector, means small bargaining units have less economic leverage as employers are consolidating, Jacobs says. Having workers on the picket line was a serious problem for owners when their businesses were in only a few locations but is less of a threat to multinational corporations.

Still, despite these structural challenges, young workers are claiming small yet significant wins. After more than five years of lobbying management, the IWW secured time-and-a-half pay on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2011 for Starbucks workers. When a Texas judge in November 2016 halted the Department of Labor’s Overtime Final Rule aimed at raising millions of salaries by increasing the threshold of eligibility for overtime pay, NPEU member organizations like the Center for American Progress agreed to put overtime protection language in their contracts anyway.

And BVWU’s recognition proves that a low-cost, local method can be viable as long as workers care about the cause. “We were at the forefront of our own movement. We didn’t feel hamstrung by anyone above us pulling the strings and telling us to move in this direction or that direction,” Medina says. “We could choose that direction for ourselves.”

It’s gains like these that make Medina optimistic. When he had broached the plans for a union during their break time conversation, Szalay was initially shocked. But by the time they got back to work, Medina witnessed what he described as the “beginnings of determination” in Szalay. “This is not going to change unless we make it,” Medina had told him. “No one’s coming to the rescue.” 

Medina is excited that BVWU’s precedent-setting campaign can be a link in the chain that ends poverty wages in Portland. They’ve shown, he says, that it doesn’t take the gigantic resources of a major union to do this kind of work. He hopes larger unions feel pressured to funnel greater resources into organizing.

“If this ragtag group of low-wage workers can do this,” he says, “you can do this.”