Since the 1980s, union membership has been on the decline. These downward union membership trends are driven by a variety of factors, including a drop in manufacturing jobs, increased outsourcing and unfavorable political environments in some states. A Pew Research Center survey found that 51% of Americans believe the decline in union membership is bad for workers. But there is some cause for optimism. The largest generation in the workforce — millennials — are joining the labor movement in droves. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 75% of new union members in 2017 were under age 35.
Unions can harness this knowledge to enhance their member base by effectively targeting and communicating with millennials about the benefits of union membership.
Union Membership Trends
In 2018, union membership in the United States hit a record low of just 14.7 million individuals, or 10.5% of wage and salary workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than three decades earlier, in 1983, 17.7 million Americans were union members, or 20.1% of the workforce. The most heavily unionized labor sectors today are protective services (33.9%) and education, training and library (33.8%). Each of these groups is primarily made up of government employees, who are unionized at a higher rate than their private sector counterparts, at 33.9% to 6.4%, respectively.
Despite the overall decline, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) tweeted that "2018 was one of the best years in history." Their optimism is inspired by a recent uptick in unionization among professional workers, and much of that has been propelled by millennials. "The millennial and Gen Z generations are more civic minded and acutely in tune with the power of collective action," Liz Schuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, told the Guardian. "A union card helps them leverage their power."
Changes in Recruitment
Millennials entered a different labor force from generations before them, with more part-time and gig economy jobs, depressed wages and less robust benefit packages. This is where a union can leverage its power to turn the tide and build its member base. To do so, it's important to understand how best to reach this generation.
Millennials look to technology first for information, so an effective recruitment strategy must consider messaging on smartphones and via social media. Union websites should be updated with easy-to-locate information and optimized for mobile devices.
Millennials have a largely favorable view of unions, according to Pew. What a union offers in terms of collective power and a seat at the table reflects other high-profile movements driven by young people, such as the push for a $15 minimum wage. Knowing this, your communications should be personal and align union values with millennial values. Describe how the union gives millennials a voice, how they can get involved in union activism and the changes they can effect.
Benefits as a Recruitment Tool
Like every generation, millennials are looking for good jobs that provide both income security (an easy benefit for unions to sell, given that nonunion workers earn only 82% of union wages, on average) and benefits. For millennials, these benefits include a schedule that provides work-life balance, opportunities for ongoing development and training and retirement accounts. Considering that 44.7 million Americans owe a collective $1.56 trillion in student loan debt, according to Student Loan Hero, many millennials are also seeking student loan repayment programs.
And just like generations before them, millennials want affordable health care options that cover both medical and mental health needs. Especially at a time when health costs are growing exponentially, showing millennials how the union exercises its collective bargaining power to provide robust health insurance benefits is critical. Marketing these benefits effectively should include data points on union versus nonunion benefits or on benefit enhancements the union has achieved.
Personal member stories can go a long way toward illustrating the union's strength. Encourage members to come forward with their experiences of how the benefits gained through union bargaining impacted them. Share these testimonials and any data visually on your website and social media accounts. There's no need to publish lengthy reports — rather, make the personal connection through short, consistent communications.
Addressing union membership trends by shifting union recruitment efforts to target millennials should not be a daunting task. Unions already have many of the benefits millennials seek, and when coupled with the opportunity to leverage their voices for change, the partnership between unions and millennials is natural. Communicating these features requires a greater focus on technology and storytelling, and letting millennials know that they can be involved from day one.
Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather also blogs for two government-focused publications, GovLoop and NEOGOV, covering issues of importance to federal employees. Heather is the author of the book Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.