Thursday, November 27, 2008

Will the Youth Movement Save the Labor Movement?

By Dick Meister, AlterNet. Posted November 19, 2008.

Joining a union would not only help young workers improve their own status, it'd halt a steady decline in union strength.

There's good news for unions attempting to attract the young members that they must attract if they are to grow. It comes in recent studies showing clearly that younger workers do better as union members and that increasing numbers of the workers agree.

The basic figures, compiled by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, certainly are convincing. Unionized workers aged 18 to 29 averaged about $15 an hour -- more than 12 percent or about $1.75 an hour more than non-union workers of the same age.

What¹s more, 40 percent of the unionized workers had employer-financed health care, while only 20 percent of those outside unions had such benefits. Almost 30 percent of those in unions had pension plans, while only 11 percent of those outside did. Most of the unionized workers also had such other benefits as paid holidays and vacations.

The contrast was even greater for workers in the 15 lowest paid jobs, including kitchen helpers, housekeepers, laborers, security guards, stock clerks, teachers' aides, child- care providers and others. The median pay of young unionized workers in those jobs was about $11 an hour, nearly $2 more than their non-union counterparts. They also were much more likely to have health and pension benefits.

Whatever the occupation, and however they were measured, unionized young workers did better ­ unionized men better than non-union men, unionized women better than non-union women, unionized African Americans and Latinos better than non-union workers in those categories.

Economist John Schmitt, the study's author, noted that younger workers, who have "the weakest foothold in the labor market," have been the age group hit the hardest by stagnant and declining wages over the past three decades.

After adjusting for inflation, the wage of a typical young worker has decreased by about 10 percent. Earnings have remained low even while there¹s been a marked increase in the number of younger people earning four-year college degrees and a decrease in the number leaving high school without diplomas.

Yet despite the obvious advantages of union membership that has brought better pay and benefits to the younger workers who¹ve joined, younger workers generally have had the lowest unionization rate of any age group. Only about 7 percent are in unions, compared with the rate of about 12 percent for workers in general.

Other recent studies indicate that the economic situation for younger workers is worsening. They say that young people are so heavily hit by declining incomes, growing debt, and the high costs of home ownership and health care they could very well be the first generation not to surpass the living standards of their parents.

But well over half the workers say they hope to avoid that by unionizing. Joining a union would not only help them improve their own status and help reverse what¹s been a steady decline in union strength. It would also bring new strength to union efforts in behalf of important social, economic and political reforms.

As the studies show, a high proportion of young workers support much greater government spending on health care and education, for instance ­ even if that requires higher taxes ­ and more government services generally.

Unionization should be especially attractive to the young workers who feel that way, since union members are assured a greater voice in political affairs and community activities, given organized labor¹s prominence in such matters.

The most important thing the young workers can expect from unions is a guarantee of dignity -- ­ the promise, as one union organizer noted, "of being treated like a man or woman, with rights and abilities that management must respect."


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Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website,

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