Traditional unions still face an uphill battle when trying to expand their ranks in the face of overwhelming employer opposition and weak labor laws. But alt-labor groups such as the Restaurant Opportunities Center and the Workers Defense Project and movements without fixed membership rosters such as the Fight for $15 are more easily able to rally millennials to their cause. The labor movement would make a lot of sense for a generation caught on the edge of the new perilous economic order and sympathetic to collective action.
Moreover, the movement’s rhetoric and political action exhibit a more racially inclusive mindset. Black Lives Matter and the minimum-wage-focused Fight for $15 have cross-pollinated, to the benefit of both movements, ignoring calls that they limit themselves to their separate issues.
“We see a real national trend of younger workers really pushing the labor movement to the left in a number of ways,” says Katy Fox-Hodess, a former campus chairwoman of graduate student union UAW 2865, in an interview with Timm. “We have to stand up on issues of racism, xenophobia, women’s issues, LGBT issues, foreign policy issues. We have to have a broader politics.”
The lamentable state of labor law, in which employers always hold the upper hand and can fire worker activists with impunity, has prevented this activism and favorable attitudes toward unions from directly benefiting labor as much as it should. Even though the Service Employees International Union is the biggest supporter of the Fight for $15, few millennials are union members. In the case of Gawker, the union drive of the workers at Gawker faced unusually weak management opposition to their organizing campaign.
Nevertheless, there’s a new sense that the challenges millennials are facing — from increasing debt loads to stagnating wages to a lack of job prospects — can be tackled only by collective action. Organized labor and young people who have recently entered the workforce have common cause. By championing the issues millennials care about most, unions not only promote a more just economy for a new generation; they also chart a course for their own revival.