Generation Z’s War is The Class War

Young people today face a bleak economic situation as they move beyond college age. This makes Generation Z uniquely open to class-based and socialist politics. 

This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 print issue of The Activist, which can be found here.

Our generation was raised under the injustices of the New Gilded Age. Barely a year after I was born, the World Trade Center was attacked, marking the beginning of the ‘forever wars’ that have been going on most of our lifetimes. Our lifetimes have been defined by rising inequality and rising temperatures — not to mention rampant gun violence and unchecked bigotry. Shaken awake from the ‘American Dream,’ the nightmare of American capitalism has been one of the few constants of our lives.

However, in 2021 and 2022, for the first time in a long time, working people are on the march — and the young have been leading the charge. In the service industry, built on a business model of hyper-exploiting young workers and long considered inviable for organized labor, the past year has seen the birth of Starbucks Workers United. In logistics, the lifeblood of globalized Capitalism, Amazon workers on Staten Island voted to unionize last April led by a group of young organizers. Last November, the University of California bore witness to the largest strike of academic workers in US History with the large majority of strikers being graduate students in their 20s. These struggles have perhaps been as limited as they’ve been inspiring. If we’re going to win the fight for racial justice, a democratic economy, and ultimately avert a global climate catastrophe, our generation will have to learn how to organize and how to win.

Why Workers?

For the past forty years or more, the American Labor Movement has been rotting away: union density is down to nearly half of what it was in 1983. This isn’t because of a lack of people deeply invested in fighting the foundational injustices of our society. In fact, we have had at least three mass movements in the past decade – Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns – all of which sought to cure us of various symptoms of American capitalism, and all of which have failed to do so

American labor has been in freefall for decades not because there was no one to organize it, but because the last generations of American socialists and left-leaning radicals largely decided it wasn’t worth their time. Instead they devoted themselves to other projects – careers working for liberal NGOs and politicians, law schools and graduate programs, and youtube channels and podcasts. The Left has little to show for these endeavors.

Unprecedented numbers of Americans have taken both to the streets and to the ballot box in hopes of creating a brighter future, and have been met with bitter disappointment. For nearly all of living memory we have neglected our strongest weapon – the extraordinary power of ourselves as working people. We glimpsed this power in the pandemic through societal dialogue around “essential workers.” Even the wealthy and capitalist-owned media were forced to contend with the fact that our society cannot operate without the cooperation of millions of working people who are poorly paid and poorly treated. The fact is that without workers of all stripes, there would be no classes taught or deliveries made, no online shopping or pumpkin-spice lattes.

It doesn’t take a global pandemic for that power to be recognized or for it to be leveraged. Historically, the role of the labor movement has been providing a means through which workers can organize to shut down entire industries until our demands are met. While union membership is only one metric of worker-power, it is not a coincidence that historically union membership rates in the United States have a strong negative correlation with income inequality: as union member membership has declined since the 1980’s, income inequality has skyrocketed.

Organizing labor is not just an economic campaign – it’s our best vehicle for achieving broader social justice as well. The 2019 United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) strike saved LA’s public school system, which primarily serves communities of color. There’s also the mostly forgotten union drive led by Black and Latino workers at the Smithfield packing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina in 2008, which shut down the company’s active collaboration with ICE to exploit and deport undocumented workers and won $15 an hour for workers of color in one of the poorest parts of the country. Nor can we forget the critical role organized labor played in advancing Civil Rights both before and during the time of Martin Luther King Jr. It is critical to remember that a focus on the labor movement does not mean economic reductionism. Organized labor gives us the opportunity to tangibly change the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans in the many multifaceted ways which the Left has been struggling to achieve for generations. 

A Giant Stirs?

Over the past year and a half, we have seen some of the highest profile labor wins in decades – with still more on the horizon, including a potential UPS strike this summer. This could be a new beginning for mass politics in the United States and open up previously unthinkable possibilities for the American left.

Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York led the first Starbucks location in the country to unionize in December 2021. They were followed shortly by thousands of their coworkers in the formation of Starbucks Workers United (SWU). A year later, over 1,000 Starbucks workers – including many rank-and-file YDSA members – at 100 stores held a three-day strike, and more than 264 stores across the nation have voted in favor of unionizing. Hundreds of stores in the service sector managing a successful unionization campaign at all is historic – in stark contrast to the decades of stagnation or decline faced by the rest of the labor movement. 

But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. The working class derives its power from strength in numbers – the over 275 unionized stores are a narrow sliver of the over 9,000 stores that Starbucks operates in the United States alone. Even a 100% participation strike among unionized locations would not significantly threaten Starbucks as a business or its bottom line, and new election filings for Starbucks have slowed to a trickle over the past year. To survive, SBWU will have to find a way to spark another burst of organizing that vastly expands the number of unionized stores and work to broaden the scope of their negotiated contracts to cover regions or larger areas rather than individual stores – developments which would greatly strengthen their position at the bargaining table in the future. Whether or not such a development is even possible remains to be seen.

Meanwhile on Staten Island, Amazon workers unionized the JFK8 Fulfillment Center – a critical win in the heart of Amazon’s growing empire and in one of the most structurally powerful sectors of the economy. Much like SWU, the burgeoning Amazon Labor Union (ALU) successfully established a beachhead for the labor movement in a company that has traditionally been stalwartly anti-union and exceptionally difficult to organize but has failed to expand beyond its initial victory. Just a month after ALU’s initial victory, they lost an election at a warehouse just across the street from JFK8 and have yet to unionize any other locations. Nearly a year later, ALU and Amazon still have not entered into contract negotiations – a process that will likely take years in of itself. The road ahead for ALU is long, but there is a road.

This past year,  I – along with many other YDSA members – helped organize the historic UAW strike at the University of California first-hand. Cumulatively representing around 48,000 workers, the UC strike was the largest in the US in 2022 and the largest strike of academic workers in US history. On top of a laundry list of other victories from childcare subsidies to anti-bullying protections and doubling paid time off for TAs, we won a $10,000 raise for the lowest paid graduate students over two years – a minimum raise of 46%. This is a massive victory that not only provided immediate material change to academic workers in the UC system, but has also sparked a wave of higher-ed organizing across the country. Even so, our final settlement fell dramatically short of winning $54k a year to end rent-burden for academic workers – the central demand of our campaign.

These victories have all been inspiring. However, while they have begun to lay concrete foundations for a new mass movement, we’re going to need a lot more worker-power to fundamentally end racial injustice or address climate change. If we’re ever going to get the labor movement back to the point when inequality was falling and New Deal politics were the norm, something will have to give. Our generation must be prepared to organize.

The Fight of Our Lives

The victories at Amazon, Starbucks, and the UC system were all driven by young people, as were Occupy, BLM and the Bernie campaigns. The young have always been front and center in movements for social justice, but our generation has especially been left behind by our elders – in every sense of the phrase.

Outside of class – the largest wealth gap in the country is generational. As of 2020, ages 55+ held 70% of the nation’s wealth while being barely 40% of the population, with an average wealth per person of about $834,270. Meanwhile the average wealth of millennials clocks in at $68,871 and people under the age of 40 have barely 5.9% of the nation’s wealth – less than half of what our parents had when they were our age. It’s not an illusion that the economy ‘isn’t what it used to be.’ 

Where did their fortunes come from? If we’re honest, selling our futures down the river. The oil and gas driven prosperity of the 1970s and 80s has come at the cost of increasingly frequent climate disasters in the 2020s and likely global climate catastrophe by the end of the century. We have been told by our parents for decades that our generation will have to be the one to fix their apocalyptic mistakes – yet the average age of a congressperson is just under 60 and we just elected the oldest president in American history. Our parents and their parents are still the generation that holds all the money and the reigns of power. They are using their power to slam the accelerator towards the cliff of climate collapse.

If Gen Z has to get humanity out of this hole, it’s going to take a whole lot more than registering to vote and ‘Pokemon going to the Polls.’ We cannot vote our way out of this mess anymore.

Historically, the only viable option is putting together mass organizations of the working class, rooted in the workplace and ready to take the mass collective action necessary to materially change people’s lives. Only then will we begin to make progress on all the social ills we’re worried about and on capitalism itself.

Generation Z: whether we like it or not, our war is the class war — and we are fighting for our lives.