Hannah Middleton argues that young people can and should improve their working conditions by organizing their workplace.
Young people are becoming more and more dismayed with the idea of entering the American workforce. With wealth inequality reaching rates similar to the Gilded Age, how are we as a generation supposed to build careers and lives on poverty wages? The “Great Resignation,” as so many have coined it, is not due to the laziness of an entire generation, but rather the environment we are being forced to work in. Low wages are just the start of workplaces that are hostile toward not only young people, but people as a whole. Inflexible schedules, severely limited benefits of any kind, and overbearing managers have made the concept of working full-time a nightmare for Americans, and it’s time to make changes.
For years, state governments have bemoaned the consistent brain drain of the younger generation. Especially in Republican states and rural areas, many of us feel underrepresented and underpaid in our hometowns. Instead, some have decided to find work and education elsewhere, where our labor is compensated fairly and our voices are heard. Legislators place the blame on inane excuses, like property taxes or an unwillingness to work. When the going gets tough, they say, we leave. They’re right. It’s not an unwillingness to work, however, it is an unwillingness to work for less than we are worth. If we cannot be paid enough to survive, we should be leaving. If we are not paid in accordance with our experience and education, we should be leaving. We cannot continue to accept less than we are due. The United States is the second richest country in the world and home to five of the richest companies in the world. There is enough money to pay us what we are owed many times over.
During my time as a union representative, I have seen firsthand the opportunity for change that exists in every workplace in the United States. In fact, unions are responsible for much of the progress made in the American workplace in the last century. In 1932, the concept of a five-day work week was unfeasible. Not only are unions largely to thank for a five- day work week, but also the abolition of child labor, the improvement of workplace safety, the federal minimum wage, and the development of critical entities responsible for enforcing workplace standards, such as the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board.
In recent decades, however, this progress has stalled. The rising cost of a college degree has burdened millions of students with unconquerable debt. This debt has massive consequences for our generation: we are tired, we are poor, and we are dismayed by the lack of action and broken promises from our government. Meanwhile, as students continue to be belittled and abandoned, the strength of the labor movement has also been chipped away. Today, the top 1% has more wealth than they did just before the Great Depression, and they are gaining this wealth through the exploitation of the working class and, importantly, Gen Z. We have re-entered a robber-baron system of economics. Inequity has compounded on itself for decades, putting students and the working class in a more and more precarious position between paychecks. Many of us are a doctor’s appointment or medical emergency away from falling into poverty or massive debt.
We have reached a tipping point in the American labor movement and the only way to finally enact real material change is to organize our workplaces and stand together. As of 2020, 11.6% of the workforce is made up of people born between 1997-2012, meaning more than one in ten American employees identify as Gen Z. This number will only grow as the Baby Boomer generation retires. Now, more than ever, is a critical time for Gen Z workers to organize and fight for change and our power exists solely in numbers.
Labor unions serve to improve our working lives through negotiations with employers, which can only be accomplished when we stand together. While companies and employers maintain massive wealth and seemingly unlimited resources, we have our own leverage. With Gen Z making up almost 12% of the workplace and growing, our time to organize for change is now. We should be standing together and demanding our fair share, especially as those in power who have never once worked in manual labor or the service industry continue to disregard our cries of inequality. Unions are the only way out of this oppressive environment.
When all of us stand together as one voice, they have no choice but to listen. Their only alternative is to lose 12% of the workforce. We must recognize our value in the labor movement, because who will replace us? Those who have retired? Those who have died at their desks? Children? Being in a union is an essential first step toward having your voice heard and improving your material conditions at work. There is a reason that Starbucks and Amazon are scrambling to stop the formation of unions in their facilities: they’re terrified of the power that unions hold. One strike led by a strong union could dismantle their entire company.
Union solidarity offers a critical asset to the workplace: protection. Many aren’t aware of what due process can look like in the workplace. Joining your local union and organizing your workplace is an essential first step toward understanding your rights at work, which are integral to maintaining an equitable playing field. Due process allows you to fight discipline and termination at work and can protect you from being exploited and unfairly treated by management. If you’re fired for looking at your supervisor wrong or any other unjust reason, a union will help you fight back. Stop allowing mistreatment from your boss and start organizing.
Unions negotiate directly with employers. When a workplace unionizes together those in the workplace then collectively bargain for a contract that addresses the entirety of their work life. This includes wages, benefits, working conditions, holidays, overtime and more. Union contracts are legally binding, thus allowing workers who are members of the union to pursue legal action when a violation occurs. Contracts are also decided on collectively, allowing you and every other worker a direct say in how you want to be treated. I currently serve as a union representative for state employees. I legally represent almost everyone who works in the public sector and keeps our state running. Many of these people are severely underpaid and work incredibly essential jobs. Our union is bargaining a contract this summer. We anticipate increasing wages, and maybe even offering both paid maternal and paternal leave. As we grow, there is a massive opportunity to bargain with our employers and demand our fair share.
Moreover, unions offer an extremely valuable tool for ensuring equity: the grievance process. Under union labor contracts, management is prohibited from malpractice, such as harassment, overworking and exploiting employees, or even assigning work outside of a job description. A grievance process can help identify contract violations and pursue proper legal action. Once again, being part of a union allows you to fight back against powerful corporations, and often win. As a part of union staff, we have won 84% of our cases presented to arbitrators, allowing employees to be reinstated after wrongful terminations, providing hundreds of thousands of dollars in backpay for misassignments, and even stopping contract violations before they happen.
So much more is possible if Gen Z finally decides to stand together and start to organize. In fact, our union, in a notoriously Republican state, managed to raise the minimum wage for our employees statewide last summer, and did so with less than 20% membership. Despite the challenges we face, such as union-busting tactics, unfriendly legislators, and low membership, our union has been incredibly successful in the last three years. Since last summer, we have grown to 24% membership, and the best is yet to come. Almost 80% of our membership is over 25. Gen Z needs to step into the power vacuum that has begun to form in American workplaces. Support local strikes and picket lines. Organize your workplaces, and take advantage of your human right to be part of a labor union. It’s time to unionize.