Unionization in US workplace hits historic high for this generation

(CNN) – Staff at more than 800 companies are launching collective bargaining in a campaign that follows a move to lift the labor minimum in the United States.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics says the labor minimum is $7.25 in all 50 states, and $10.15 in the District of Columbia.

Increasing that nationwide minimum could have a big impact on some of the country’s biggest employers. More than 1 million employees now make less than the national minimum wage. The American Legislative Exchange Council estimates that nearly 500,000 Americans work full-time and for hourly wages less than $12 an hour.

The organizing effort comes from a new generation of “millennials” or young workers who came of age during the Great Recession, a group members say is more likely to be unionized now than any other generation.

More than one-fifth of Gen Z and 16- to 24-year-olds who will enter the workforce in the next decade are already union members, according to a survey of millennials conducted by the Union Institute & Training and released earlier this month. The percentage of millennials who joined unions jumped from 9% to 17% from 2010 to 2015.

“The least unionized age group is now the most unionized age group,” says David Madland, senior fellow with the Center for American Progress and a Democratic former congressional staffer.

When unemployment dropped to 5.8% in July, the lowest in 17 years, younger workers were encouraged to join unions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week that membership in labor unions rose slightly in July.

“This sign that unionization is still on the rise is a shot in the arm for organized labor,” said Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME, the largest public sector union.

Organized labor has long struggled with its relationship with millennials, who were born after the recession and are more technology-savvy. Young workers have traditionally viewed unions as relics and disconnected from the fast-paced workplace. Younger workers are also more likely to prefer equal pay for equal work, and companies that treat workers well are more likely to attract younger employees.

Union leaders argue that unionized workplaces provide a safety net for workers and advocate for pension plans, health insurance, minimum wages and employee protections. However, these benefits vary widely from industry to industry.

“The biggest challenge (for unions) is that most industries have undergone a giant, unorganized restructuring over the last 25 years. Unions themselves are in shambles,” Madland said.

The modern workforce is much more mobile than it was in the past. Young workers are more likely to start out at a small company and move on to bigger companies, often without a traditional union contract, says Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Federation of State Employees, which is involved in the new organizing campaign.

Gen Z workers are more likely to pursue STEM careers — science, technology, engineering and math — that don’t offer the traditional path to a traditional union job. In fact, it was just last year that the BLS stopped defining full-time, year-round workers in professional, technical and design fields as automatically covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

Union leaders are arguing that allowing companies to hire and fire based on wage is discriminatory, and an outdated practice that could make it hard for younger workers to gain a foothold in the middle class.

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