By Paul Almeida, president of the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO
Millennials are the largest generation since the baby boomers and the most populous living generation in the U.S. at 75.4 million. Many of these millennials are entering into professional and technical occupations, the fastest growing segment of the workforce. As the future of the professional workforce, millennials are the future of the labor movement.
Fortunately, millennials are signaling a strong interest in joining together in union. Attitudinal surveys, recent organizing victories, and conversations with young professionals show that millennials want to be to be part of something in both the workplace and society that reflects their values and advocates on issues that matter to them.
In October 2016, the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO (DPE) — where I am president — sponsored a survey of non-union professionals, which included millennial respondents, to learn about their attitudes toward unions. The survey found millennials overwhelmingly support unionization, with 64 percent of the 331 professionals aged 21 to 34 saying they would support a proposal for a union at their current job.
Unions are seen by millennials as a way to improve their work-life balance, salaries, and benefits. The survey showed that millennials believe professionals deserve to have a contract in writing — just like CEOs — that guarantees pay and benefits, protects their professional integrity, and cannot be changed without their approval. Millennials see the strength that comes from standing together to bargain with employers.
Successful organizing of digital newsrooms, television networks, and graduate employees provide further evidence that millennials and other young professionals see value in union membership. Writers Guild of America, East, a DPE affiliate, has had success organizing the editorial staff at digital publications like Gawker (now Gizmodo), The Huffington Post, and recently The Intercept. Many of the professionals who have elected for a formal bargaining system work for publications that are millennial-focused — for example, VICE, MTV News, and Thrillist — and are young themselves.
Young professionals in the television industry have also been eager to join together improve their wages and working conditions. In March 2017, performers at the Spanish-language network Telemundo were successfully organized by SAG-AFTRA. Many of the Telemundo actors that supported unionizing were both young and female.
Graduate employee unions at colleges across the country further demonstrate millennial professionals’ interest in unionizing. In recent years, graduate students — who tend to be young — have formed unions at over 20 institutions, including at Portland State University in Oregon, Northwestern University in Illinois, and Princeton University in New Jersey. DPE affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, has been one of the unions leading the effort.
Conversations with young professionals also reveal their desire to join and become involved in a union. At an event DPE hosted in March, young members from our affiliate unions stressed that young members want to be involved, but their unions may not be communicating effectively about how they can become active in their union.
Almost all of the young panelists agreed that customary union meetings are not the best way to engage with millennials — because let’s face it, they’re boring. Young professionals are far more interested in networking, social, and community service events. According to the young professionals at our event, aligning union activities with social justice, political, and other issues of interest to millennials will increase involvement.
The panelists also dispelled myths about what millennials want from their job. Some have suggested that millennials like to constantly switch jobs and are not interested in retirement benefits, but most of the young professionals in attendance agreed, and research has shown, that these are often mistakenly held beliefs. Young professionals, like most employees, want stable employment and a secure retirement, which is exactly what joining together in union offers.
As millennials join the workforce in larger numbers and jobs in the professional sector continue to increase, the labor movement must focus on recruiting and activating young professionals. Survey data, successful organizing campaigns, and conversations with young professionals demonstrate that millennials want a union — but the labor movement still has to do its part. In order to bring in young professionals, we must engage with them on their terms. Once established as union members, millennials will be a powerful collective voice in the workplace.
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“Professional Millennials: the Future of Work and the Labor Movement” was originally published in the AIL/NILICO Labor Letter & Agenda.