Gen Z and Millennial workers overwhelmingly support unions, and they’re at the forefront of the current organizing upsurge. Labor can take advantage of this opening — if union leaders get off the sidelines and devote massive resources to new organizing.

Starbucks workers stand in solidarity with striking SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America members on the picket line outside Netflix studios on July 28, 2023, in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

Why are most national unions doing relatively little to meet the current opening for new organizing? One overlooked reason is the deepening generation gap within organized labor.

Consider this: the current AFL-CIO Executive Board’s average age is sixty-one. In contrast, the average age of worker-organizers involved in recent worker-led union drives is twenty-seven (and the median age is twenty-four), according to the initial results of a large-scale survey I’m conducting.

Because labor’s top summits are so disconnected from younger workers, it’s not that surprising that most national unions continue to underestimate their as-yet-untapped potential for revitalizing the labor movement. While it’s heartening that Gallup finds that 77 percent of eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds support unions — the highest rate of any age group — unless unions start putting far more resources towards new organizing, it will be hard to turn this enthusiasm into action at scale.

The problem here is not just demographic distance — it’s also deeply strategic. Whereas most national unions continue to defer to the Democratic establishment, over half of the young worker-organizers in my survey identified as “radical.” Young workers tend to be leftist and willing taking serious risks. No such orientation prevails at labor’s upper echelons.

The 2018 West Virginia strike, for instance, was initiated by two millennial teachers in Charleston who first met in a Democratic Socialists of America study group of books by Labor Notes and Jane McAlevey — as well as young teachers in Mingo County, who came from coal-miner families. Along the course of their mobilization and strike, they had to challenge and overcome the risk aversion of their (older and more moderate) union officials. The rank-and-file teachers that led the subsequent strikes in Arizona and Oklahoma tended to be even younger, with strike leaders as young as twenty-three years old — and, again, these young, rank-and-file-led efforts were instrumental in pressuring the official unions to eventually support the strike movement.

To be fair, this age/militancy gap is not only a problem with labor’s top-ranking leaders. It’s also been a key dynamic on the ground in many recent unionization drives. A gap between younger and older workers at Staten Island’s JFK8 warehouse was noted by Angelika Maldonado, the twenty-seven-year-old packer who chaired the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) Worker Committee: “One of the main divisions was age. Keep in mind that the average age of an ALU organizer is about twenty-six — many older workers tended to be more skeptical of the union.”

What explains why young workers are at the fore of so many unionization efforts today? This partly reflects a common pattern in high-risk social movements: having less familial responsibility tends to increase the personal daring and free time necessary for risky activism. But because this degree of youth initiative in labor organizing in the US is a new phenomenon (unions until recently frequently lamented youth disengagement), we need to supplement timeless sociological factors with historical ones.

Put simply, young people today came of age in a period marked by neoliberal stagnation and crisis. To quote Vince Quiles, a North Philly native who attempted to unionize his Home Depot:

So I’m twenty-seven, I graduated [high school] in 2013, off of the heels of the last major recession, the rise of the gig economy, and the exploitation of the education system by private colleges and student debt collectors. Statistically our generation — you know, millennials, Gen Z — we walked up into an economy where we were shafted, right?

Economic concerns, combined with understaffing during the pandemic’s peak, were also front and center for Thanya Cruz Borrazás — a twenty-two-year-old barista who started working at Starbucks as a high-school senior. Deciding to unionize her store was no small decision because she and her family were immigrants from Uruguay:

It was definitely scary. Especially because it’s Starbucks, it’s like a giant, antiunion corporation. You know, when I first started and I would come home, I talked to my parents about it. They were really scared for me because, being international, they think we’ll get deported for anything.

Nevertheless, Cruz Borrazás persisted: “It seemed like it’s worth the risk because if we win the benefit will be worth it. Honestly, I felt like this was the only way out — joining a union seems like basically the only ticket for people like me to join the middle class.”

It can be tempting to explain the recent unionization uptick simply in reference to bad workplaces and poor economic prospects, but this fails to sufficiently account for the mediating role of subjective expectations. Cruz Borrazás, for instance, explained that her parents’ jobs in construction and cleaning services are significantly worse than her own — “they desperately need a union.” But because “they believe in the American Dream, [they think] ‘just be grateful for everything’ even though they’re treating them like garbage.” Put differently, their daughter’s expectations were higher. So too was her interest in recent social movements — around abortion, immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, and Black Lives Matter in particular.

Like Cruz Borrazás, most worker-organizers I surveyed cited recent movements as a major source of their political development, as well as an important factor in pushing them to unionize. Among political influences, Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter ranked highest — further evidence for the deep interconnection between economic and racial justice struggles in the United States.

For a not-untypical snapshot of the politics of today’s young labor militants, we can look at the political development of two young Lansing, Michigan, workers who unionized their Chipotle in 2022. Twenty-two-year-old Atulya Dora-Laskey was already an organized democratic socialist — radicalized by the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign — when they decided to start talking about unionizing with their coworkers. For her part, seventeen-year-old Sam Smith, still a high school student at the time, describes her political background in the following words:

I had basically zero background in organizing. I had seen TikTok videos of people getting unfairly laid off at work, I had seen Black Lives Matter, and then recently with the push to overturn Roe v. Wade, I got really angry. I also had seen what my parents went through during the pandemic — and I knew that me and everybody I grew up with were probably going to get stuck in dead-end jobs for the rest of our lives. So even before getting involved, I knew I wanted to make some kind of difference in the world.

Today’s youth politicization should be a boon for organized labor in general, yet it also specifically boosts DIY organizing in a number of ways. Not least importantly, it has increased the number of workers who are willing, on their own initiative, to risk their livelihoods for the sake of building a union. As was the case in the 1930s labor upsurge, fears of getting fired can be outweighed by a deeply felt commitment to social transformation, even in the absence of the backing and training of a national union apparatus.

Take the case of Jamie Edwards, who initiated the successful independent unionization drive of Trader Joe’s workers in Hadley, Massachusetts. Edwards explains that they knew “people get fired doing this. But if I were to not do it for that reason, it wouldn’t sit right with me. To be honest, I wouldn’t feel like I was actually a legitimate socialist if I were to back down because of that.”

And though most young leftists have organized at the place they already happened to work, a minority consciously chose to get a job with the goal of initiating or supporting organizing efforts — a form of self-initiated “salting.” Inspired by Chris Small’s militancy and antibillionaire bravado, twenty-three-year-old Cassio Mendoza moved in 2021 to New York from Los Angeles to work at JKF8 and support the organizing, as did twenty-eight-year-old Brett Daniels from Phoenix and others. Radical salts also played a major role in the initial Starbucks union wins in Buffalo, as well as in a variety of lower profile drives across the country.

A perception that union leaders have long been pursuing suboptimal strategies, both regarding workplace organizing and electoral politics, is common among today’s young leftist workers. Their resulting push in a distinct direction is evident not only in independent unions, but also in those DIY drives working within existing unions.

To quote one east coast service worker who asked to remain anonymous, “We first of all have to stand up to our employer. But when needed, we also have to push unions as an institution.” She had initiated a drive that, after interviewing different national unions, ended up affiliating with one of the largest of them because her organizing committee understood that it needed resources and legal support to win a first contract against a powerful private employer.

Upon winning their NLRB election, however, members of their organizing committee found themselves having to press within the national union to directly connect with other workers at their company, to try to better scale up the lessons and methods they had effectively used at their store. “It’s up to us as workers to challenge the status quo, including within our unions,” she concluded.

Let’s hope that labor starts taking its lead from these young workers before it’s too late.

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