Imperfect Unions

Does organized labor make sense for young Americans?


Deena Karagianes got her first taste of the labor movement five years ago when she helped organize the workers at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. "That was an interesting battle, organizing a cooperative," recalls Karagianes, who was 20 at the time and working for the co-op as a data-entry clerk. "You would assume that they are better, but they are not. It's just the way the power structure works between a boss and an employee."

Her efforts paid off. Lower-paid workers got raises ranging from $.50 to $1.50 an hour (the pay scale ranged from $6 to $10 an hour), employees no longer picked up any co-pay for their Kaiser health insurance, and merit-based evaluations were scrapped. "They were based on whether your supervisor liked you," says Karagianes, who seemed troubled by this reality. One of the higher-paid employees, Karagianes didn't get a raise—the focus was on equity—but that didn't bother her. It was a good experience and good training. Today, she pulls down $36,000 a year as a full-time organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Karagianes and her compadres are the new faces of labor: young, bright, articulate, and committed to progressive politics. They work long and hard—up to 18 hours a day, as long as 26 days straight—and see labor organizing as the best means to work for progressive social change. "The thing that drives me to the labor movement is that everybody works," says Elizabeth Kennedy, a 1999 graduate of Smith College who turned down a chance to attend the prestigious UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law after a year of labor organizing. "Trying to organize around other issues is a lot easier in the workplace because it's the one thing everyone can relate to."

Karagianes and Kennedy provide evidence that labor, with its union summer internships, university-based anti-sweatshop campaign and effort to organize graduate students, is growing roots among young Americans.

Or is it?

While twentysomethings are putting in long hours organizing, both Kennedy and Karagianes admit that their college-educated contemporaries aren't too interested in joining unions. "What the fuck do I want to be in a union for?" says Brian Montgomery, a 27-year-old accountant, who's had three jobs since he graduated from the State University of New York, Brockport, in 1995. "You go to a place where they give you what you want. If they don't, you go someplace else."

These prosperous times provide both opportunities and challenges for labor unions. The tight labor market provides them with leverage over employers, points out Managing Generation X author Bruce Tulgan, who writes about the role of unions in his forthcoming book, Winning the Talent Wars. But as Montgomery's attitude indicates, the good economy means they have less leverage over their membership base.

There's a lot of talk about labor-union decline, but it's not clear that organized labor is going away. Unions stopped the membership decline last year through intensive, and expensive, organizing drives. (Unions boosted private-sector members by 112,000 people, although as a percentage of the workforce unionization did drop from 9.5 in 1998 to 9.4 in 1999.) And they've been generating cash. Total receipts from private-sector unions jumped, in real dollars, from $4.8 billion in 1960 to $10.4 billion in 1997, according to data from the Department of Labor. A portion of this money finds its way into politics—at least $300 million in 1992, according to Rutgers University economist Leo Troy– where any political pro will tell you labor is still a force. Still, unions, like cigarette companies, car manufacturers, magazine publishers, and anyone else who sells a product or service, must attract new blood to prosper.

That's where the challenges lie. "The traditional role of labor unions is going to be hard to maintain in the new economy," warns Tulgan. "The defining characteristic of the new economy is the free market for talent." And talent likes to be rewarded for its individual contribution to the overall product—not what the average worker contributes. That's why Michael Jordan got paid millions more per year than those sweeping the court, even though they both made Bulls basketball possible. "There's a tremendous emphasis on individual autonomy," Tulgan says of the twenty- and thirtysomething workers. "There's a fierce independence, a tremendous sense of competence and a reluctance to throw one's fate in with a group of others. If what labor unions have to offer people is come work here and we'll fix it so that you can work here for decades at the same company and get treated like everybody else, young workers will say, 'no thanks.'"

Labor-union officials know this. A survey conducted for the AFL-CIO by pollster Peter D. Hart Research Associates found that 52 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds prefer opportunity for advancement while 42 percent look for job security.

Yet unions' biggest pitch is centered around the ideas of job security and sharing a common fate. "A Teamster contract is attractive to a young person because in most of our contracts there are pension benefits where if you put in 30 years you have full benefits," says Rob Black, a spokesperson for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Black says the Teamsters are targeting neither younger workers nor sectors of the economy they think will thrive in the new economy, although they have broadened out considerably from truckers, representing bakers, flight attendants and even public defenders. "The organizing strategies we have apply for all workers," he says. "The benefits of a Teamster contract with its pensions, wages, health insurance benefits are really attractive to a worker who is 21 or 41."

Unions face other barriers as well. Karagianes and Kennedy may see union organizing as a means to a more progressive—i.e. leftist—policies. But most Americans, including those in their twenties and thirties, aren't leftists. A poll by Zogby International, for example, found that 30 percent of respondents agreed with the NRA and Religious Right positions on issues all or most of the time while only 21 percent of people said the same for labor unions. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, the latter number dropped to roughly 15 percent. Many people are fundamentally opposed to having to join a union in order to work. Others just don't see unions furthering their interest, which isn't surprising since unions in non-right-to-work states can command the equivalent of dues from all employees whether or not they choose to join the union and therefore need not be overly attentive to the interests of workers. This is the situation in which 28-year-old Brian Taylor, a soon-to-be high-school social studies teacher, finds himself. Taylor, who says unions are "job security for bad teachers," would rather not join, but feels he has no practical choice. "I was told by a principal at a local high school that if I don't join the union I will be ostracized from day one, that teachers won't share materials with me, that I won't get tenure, that I will get fired and won't get another job," explains Taylor. "And you have to pay anyway."

Interestingly, a strong future for unions may lie in their proud past. "A hundred years ago craft unions had something to offer a young person," says Michael McMenamin, a 30- year veteran of employment law in Cleveland. "They had genuine apprentice programs that led to journeyman status. It was a credential," he adds, before asking. "What kind of unions are out there for computer technicians?"

Tulgan agrees, saying unions could become high quality temp agencies. "Assuming that people are moving from job to job and company to company and that there is a tremendous burden on people to fend for themselves, labor unions could reinvent themselves as anchors in an otherwise fluid world," Tulgan says. "They could become a reliable hub of resources, which could include health care, investment services, and even pension funds, job training and retraining, and job placement."

That would require a retooling. But the unions certainly have an enthusiastic workforce of organizers to help.