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Labor’s Outreach


Never have the nation's younger workers been more in need of unionization. And never have the nation's unions been more in need of the membership growth that recruiting younger workers can bring them.

 

Here's how it looks, and it's not a pretty picture for labor: Last year, unions lost 10 percent of their members in private employment -  the biggest drop in more than 25 years.  That cut union membership by 834,000 workers, down to 15.7 million workers.

 

Which means that overall, counting public as well as private employment, unions now represent only a little more than 12 percent of the country's workers. Just 20 years ago, 20 percent of all workers were unionized.

 

So, how can organized labor add significantly to its numbers and thus add significantly to labor's political and economic strength.

 

The answer should be obvious, and it certainly is to union leaders: Sign up the younger workers aged 18 to 29 who are especially hurting economically. They need unions as much as unions need them.

 

A recent survey commissioned by the AFL-CIO shows that fully half of the young workers surveyed said they had only enough savings to cover their living expenses for two months should they become unemployed, as of course many workers of all ages have in recent months.

 

Many of the young surveyed also were concerned that whatever the jobs they find, they'll do worse than workers of other generations have done when they retired.

 

Unions hope to attract such workers to their ranks in part with recent academic studies showing that unionized workers invariably do better than non-union workers when they retire and in virtually all other ways.  For instance, studies show that the average wage of unionized younger workers is about $15 an hour – more than 12 percent or about $1.75 an hour more than non-union workers of the same age.

 

 Forty percent of the unionized younger workers had employer-financed health care, while only 20 percent of those outside unions had such a benefit.

 

Whatever the occupation, and however they were measured, unionized younger 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.

 

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

 

But that could very well change. Other new studies indicate that the economic situation for younger workers is worsening, and that well over half the workers now say they hope to avoid that by unionizing. Joining a union would not only help them improve their own status and help reverse what's been a steady decline in union strength. It also would bring new strength to union efforts in behalf of important social, economic and political reforms.

 

The AFL-CIO has established a program aimed at recruiting the younger members that its affiliated unions badly need – as badly as the younger workers need unions. And as badly as we need the benefits that a strong labor movement can bring to all of us, whatever our age.

 

 

Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based writer, has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.

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