At a pivotal juncture for organized labor in America, the stakes could not be higher. With union membership plunging to a record low of 10.1% in 2022, on the surface it appears that the once might bastion of the worker is diminishing. However, the situation is far from binary. Approval ratings for unions have pushed upwards since 2012, painting a picture of a complex relationship between Americans and labor movements. Most intriguingly, on the horizon is Generation Z – a politically engaged group entering the workforce with fervent pro-union tendencies, poised to radically reshape the future of organized labor in the country.
Gen Z has expressed their stance towards labor unions unequivocally. As per the 2020 American National Election Studies survey, they have an approval rating of 64.3% for unions – more than any other demographic. This is a generation that is mobilizing and engaging with student workers unions on campuses nationwide, organizing baristas in multiple Starbucks outlets, and generally seizing upon every opportunity for pro-union rally.
Their profound support of unions reflects their bias towards political activism. It is a tendency observed by John Della Volpe of the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, who notes that Gen Z has shown a willingness to consistently “fight and try to change the system,” on numerous issues, including climate change, gun control, and foreign policy.
Indeed, the moral compass of Gen Z tilts towards Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies – with an impressive 74% considering it to be a top priority. This attitude is pervasive, and we foresee them using the power of organized labor to implement DEI policies in an increasing number of workplaces – setting a course similar to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second-largest teachers union in the country.
However, this youthful enthusiasm for transforming unions into vehicles for progressive political causes has a price. As politics occupy the center stage, representation for individual union members is dwindling. Labor unions such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have been noted to spend more on political activities than on actual representation for their members.
Union leadership is becoming intertwined with partisan politics and the Democratic allies, allocating more resources towards unrelated political aims than towards the well-being of the workers they represent. Amidst the clamor for progressive policies, the individual worker – who deserves focused representation and attention to their needs – is being side-lined.
As members of Gen Z exert greater influence within labor unions, the trend will likely intensify. There is a worrying tendency to pursue political agendas without considering the practical implications for workers. Members of Gen Z’s support in favor of policies such as a calculated four-day work week risks undermining constructive collective bargaining because these policies prioritize ideological preferences over pragmatic solutions for workers.
Looking ahead, it is quite clear: the American labor movement has to reassess its priorities or risk alienating the very workers it is meant to represent. Currently, Gen Z’s propensity for political activism over workers’ rights is steering unions down a dangerous path. It is a cause for concern when, instead of championing their members’ needs, labor unions are becoming conduits for partisan politics.
Yet, there are reasons to be hopeful. Across the United States, many workers are resisting this trend and fighting for their individual rights. Among them are members of Americans for Fair Treatment, an organization dedicated to educating public employees about their rights in union workplaces. These are the individuals standing up to unions and demanding a representation that addresses their specific needs rather than jumping on a political bandwagon. Despite the overwhelming threat of inequity, it is these workers that remain the guardians of the true spirit of the labor movement, relentlessly pushing against the tide.
As such, the future of labor unions hangs in the balance. Caught between rapidly declining membership and shifting political allegiances, the road ahead is paved with uncertainty. But amidst this doubt, one thing is clear: a battle is looming, a battle to reclaim the labor movement for the people it was meant to represent – the American worker.