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Young People Are Driving a New Labor Movement

On the 125th anniversary of Labor Day, support for unions is at a nearly 50-year high, thanks to young people, women, and minorities.

by Lauren Kaori Gurley
Sep 2 2019, 2:00pm

Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

This Labor Day is a great time to talk about worker power. Support for labor unions is close to a 50-year high, according to a recent Gallup poll, at 64 percent. And the United States is in the throes of the biggest strike wave since the 1980s. Nearly half a million Americans went on strike last year. From coast to coast, work stoppages and labor protests keep coming.

Last week, 20,000 AT&T workers struck in nine states across the southeast. In August, coal miners in Kentucky blocked a coal train and built a tent city along the railroad tracks in protest of unpaid wages. In May, thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers from San Francisco to New York City went on a one-day strike before Uber’s IPO to demand higher wages, increased benefits, and transparency from the rideshare giant. In January, airport workers’ called for a general strike that helped end the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. New England cashiers, Los Angeles teachers, and Pennsylvania transportation workers have also walked off their jobs this year—all receiving major concessions from employers.

Enthusiasm for unions is complicated by the fact that union membership has sunk to a historic low, at 10.5 percent. Millions of workers in the United States are not eligible to form unions—let alone authorize strikes. Today, 60 percent of employers threaten to shut down operations or move their businesses when workers vote to form a union. “The fact that 64 percent of Americans say they approve of unions and only 10 percent have a union is a huge disconnect,” Lane Windham, a labor expert at Georgetown University told Motherboard. “It’s not okay. It means people cannot actively exercise their right to free association.”

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Young people, women, and minorities lead the country in their support for organized labor, according to Gallup. Sixty seven percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 support unions, the highest of any demographic group. “The strike wave and high union approval are part of a larger trend that we’re seeing now that is being driven by young people, especially young women and people of color,” Windham said. “Young people are redefining the movement itself. A lot of workers are prohibited from forming unions. They’re temps, independent contractors, low level supervisors. They work for franchises.”

Successful unions drives and strikes can be contagious, labor experts say; they build momentum and inspire other workers to take action. In other words, enthusiasm for unions in 2019 has a lot to do with successful strikes and union drives in 2018.

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