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Monday, September 2, 2013

How Different Generations View Unions

Rob Parsons, a steelworker from Merrillville, Ind., screams during a union workers protest on the steps of the Statehouse after the Senate voted to pass the right-to-work bill in Indianapolis, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. The governor is expected to sign the bill later in the day. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Rob Parsons, a steelworker from Merrillville, Ind., screams during a union workers protest on the steps of the Statehouse after the Senate voted to pass the right-to-work bill in Indianapolis, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. The governor is expected to sign the bill later in the day. (Michael Conroy/AP)

Union membership across the country has long been falling. Only about 11 percent of workers are unionized, compared to a peak of 35 percent during the 1950s.

According to the tech website Quartz, only about 4 percent of young workers are unionized.

Choosing Not To Join

Michael Tonsmeire, a 30-year-old federal government employee, opted not to join the union.

“I think unions are a terrific thing, I think that they’re a really good balancing factor to management,” Tonsmeire said. “But that doesn’t mean that I think my marginal $500 is going to change what the union is able to accomplish.”

He acknowledges that he and people his age might feel indifferent about unions because they are already reaping the benefits unions wrought many years ago.

“Maybe we haven’t seen what unions have accomplished, or haven’t personally witnessed the changes in workforce dynamics that happened over the past 20 or 30 or 40 years,” Tonsmeire said.

Perspective From A Longtime Member

Wes Epperson, a UPS truck driver who has belonged to the Teamsters Local 41 in Kansas City, Missouri, since 1972, thinks unions have become “victims of their own success.”

“Over the years they’ve negotiated better working conditions, unemployment insurance, health and welfare benefits, safety articles in their contracts, eight hour days, weekends off,” Epperson said. “All these things, the unions have fought for over the years, and a lot of these thing have become the law.”

However, Epperson says workers cannot take these benefits for granted.

“If somebody’s not there to defend these, these things can go away,” Epperson said.

Generational Differences

Tom Kochan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says young people need to take an interest in the labor movement because they have the most at stake.

“Today, young people are inheriting from our generation the fact that their standard of living is going to be less than what their parents’ standards of living were, and what it was growing up,” Kochan said. “The only way to reverse that is if they work together, with each other, with new strategies to build a labor movement that makes sense for this economy and for their future.”

Kochan adds, though, that unions needs to revamp their strategies to appeal to the new economy that young workers inhabit — one that is more mobile and aspirational.

“The reality is we have to speak to young workers’ interests as they find them, and not try to reinvent the labor movement in its mirror image,” he said. “The numbers will continue to go down as long as unions only try to organize within the constrains of a failed labor law. Today, the only way to organize is outside of that law.”

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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