Gen Z Loves Unions, But Do They Understand Them?

by | Sep 6, 2023 | Labor Relations Ink, Legal, NLRB, Strikes, Union Leaders, Union Organizing

We previously detailed how unions target Gen Z within the rising trend of organizing at progressive companies by Workers United. Old-school unions like the UAW also target younger-skewing higher education workers to shore up flagging membership.

Marketplace recently analyzed the grim financial data that often explains why younger workers turn to third-party representation. Likewise, the BBC concluded that Gen Z has “about 86% less buying power than Baby Boomers did at the same age.” It’s no wonder that their ears are open to flashy union rhetoric. They also have yet to discover the crushing disappointment of a sellout deal or realize the lack of meaningful results that a union can bring even when corruption isn’t present.

This age group, born after 1997, hasn’t yet experienced those downsides of union membership, but they do grasp their own economic frustration. They realize that their Millennial parents struggled during the Great Recession, have been criticized for not buying diamonds, and are overall financially worse off than Baby Boomers. Gen Z has similarly faced criticism for not taking part in the American rite of home ownership and for allegedly pioneering the decline of birth rates.

Yet for Gen Z, it’s not clear where that money will come from for houses and children. These workers tend to be more educated than their parents and grandparents, yet many young adults have mortgaged their lives to student loans, not home ownership. They were also told to “learn to code” and fell prey to mass layoffs of software engineers. They felt the double whammy of a pandemic recession and inflation.

What we do know for sure is this: Union density sits at an all-time low, but union petitions are up, and recent NLRB decisions will make it easier for workers to unionize. However, other associated statistics are contradictory.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2022 figures confirmed that only 10% of workers belong to unions. Yet an AFL-CIO poll finds that 88% of Americans under 30 “support” unions’ existence. A Center For American Progress poll further reported that workers who straight-up call themselves “pro-union” skew by age. Gen Z slid in with 64.3% as the “most pro-union generation alive,” with Millennials at 60.5% and Baby Boomers at 57.2%

Then there’s the BLS report that aimed to prove that union workers are better off – by hundreds of dollars per week than their non-union counterparts. Yet the data crumbles because no “apple-to-apples” comparison feasibly exists. For example, older workers will generally have higher wages due to experience or industry, not union membership. The data shows that workers younger than 25 can benefit from union wages, but that gap closes to $28 with age. That small sum evaporates into dues and unions’ profit.

Does Gen Z understand unions? Currently, no, but they’re looking for some solution. They will someday learn the truth about third-party representation because these things are cyclical. More Starbucks decertification petitions might move that cycle along, and unions will break promises to workers, as they always do.

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