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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Meyerson: Young Workers, Social Media Key to Reviving Unions in U.S.

Harold Meyerson shares some provocative insights in his article “What Now for Unions?” in The American Prospect, including:

Today, both the Gallup and the Pew polls show public support for unions at its highest level in years: 61 percent at Gallup; 60 percent at Pew, a good 20 to 35 percentage points higher than the approval ratings of President Trump and the Republican Congress. Among Americans under 30, unions’ approval rating is a stratospheric 76 percent. As was the case in the 1930s, pro-union sentiment has grown only after the recovery was well under way.

At first glance, young people’s support for unions is puzzling: With union membership down to 10.7 percent of the workforce, and with many states having hardly any union presence, it’s a safe inference that most millennials have had no contact with a union at all. And yet, it’s young workers who are joining unions today, as the successful organizing drives among graduate students and the (disproportionately young) journalists at digital media outlets attest. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, more than three-quarters of new union members in 2017 were under 35.

Meyerson says their support for unions is “rooted in the economic adversities afflicting the young, including employment insecurity, student debt, unaffordable housing, and more. These struggles feed millennials’ apprehensions that the middle class they seek to join is further out of reach for them than it was for their parents and grandparents.” He argues that social media popular with young people, especially Facebook, has been a pivotal asset for energizing union campaigns:

The growing share of union members who are both younger and professional is probably one reason why digital mobilization played such a key role in the West Virginia teachers strike, and is so crucial to similar labor actions in Oklahoma and elsewhere. Nearly all of West Virginia’s 20,000 teachers were signed on to a strike-participation Facebook page leading up to their walkout, and when the two teachers unions in the state struck a deal with the governor to end the strike in return for a promise of a 5 percent raise, it was the spontaneous Facebook-page resistance of teachers—some local union officials, some not—to going back to work before the deal was actually done that prevailed. Both the universal rank-and-file walkout and, then, the universal opposition to returning to work without a deal would have been impossible without Facebook.

Indeed, it’s clear that Facebook provides workers with a form of mobilization that both complements and eclipses unions’ own capacities. West Virginia has only 75,000 dues-paying members in all of its unions, and only a fraction of those are teachers—yet nearly every one of the state’s 20,000 teachers walked off their jobs. In Oklahoma, a state with a unionization rate of just 5.5 percent, and where all unions claim a bare 84,000 members, a Facebook page called “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now!,” started by one rank-and-file teacher, has 55,000 members and has been the key instrument for building support for a strike.

Looking ahead, Meyerson argues, “Should the Democrats recapture the federal government after the 2020 elections, they will need to do something that no Democratic Congress has mustered the will to do in the last 70 years: Change labor law to bolster workers’ right to organize—and, if the Democrats can figure out how to do so, do the same for workers who are independent contractors and temps.”

In meeting this challenge, supporters of the restoration of unions in America’s workplaces will find ample support from young workers. As Meyerson concludes, “The anti-plutocratic, pro-democratic politics of the young in particular apply not just to the polity, but to the workplace as well.”

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