Why Millennials Can’t Save Unions

November 9, 2017

Why Millennials Can’t Save Unions. The decline in union membership has been going on so long it is as certain as the sunrise. The percentage of American workers who belong to unions is about half of what it was 35 years ago. The only thing that has kept organized labor from fading into obscurity is the public sector, whose unionization rates have been relatively steady over the same period.

Observers see both crisis and opportunity in the new generation of workers. Some note that millennials tend to support group effort, are more politically liberal, and have a generally positive attitude about unions. Others point to age group figures that show unions have almost three times as many members over 35 as under.

Consideration of both points of view together yields a three-dimensional picture, but when we add a fourth dimension — time — we discover something unexpected about how union membership and age interact.

Using Bureau of Labor Statistics historical data, we find that the unionization rate of all employees under 35 is 7.4 percent. For those 35 to 64, it is 12.9 percent. But ten-year trends show that the unionization rate of the younger cohort has barely changed. It was 7.8 percent in 2006. It is the older group that has dropped significantly, down from 14.8 percent in 2006.

Raw numbers make the difference plainer. There were 16,000 fewer young union members in 2016 than in 2006, but there were 1.1 million fewer older union members.

So while many commentators and union leaders have emphasized the need for outreach to younger workers (myself included), unions have generally maintained their membership levels. The unions’ loss of so large a share of the older workforce, however, comes as a shock.

The available statistics cannot tell us if the trend holds for both public sector and private sector employees, or if teacher unions alone have had this experience. But should the U.S. Supreme Court ban agency fees, a tidal wave of millennials would have to join the labor movement to offset old losses and new. The problem for unions is larger than any combination of charter school teachersgraduate teaching assistants and digital media reporters can solve.

Recent Intercepts. EIA’s daily blog, Intercepts, covered these topics November 2-8:

* IRS Auditing NEA. Right now, that’s all I know.

* What’s Going On at the Chicago Teachers Union? Couldn’t muster a quorum to vote on “a necessary step for the future of public education.”

* Washington Education Association’s School Funding Campaign Is Being Funded by NEA. $400,000 grant includes money for opposition research.

* A Good Election Day for Teacher Unions, Marred Only by Wasted $5.3 Million. The full dues of 6,000 members failed to elect a pro-Trump Republican.

* Updates on Nevada/Clark County Union Dispute. This is going to take some time.

Quote of the Week. “The labor movement might have disappeared entirely were it not for the postwar rise of government employee unions.” – Timothy Noah, employment and immigration editor at Politico. (November 7 Politico Magazine)

This throwaway line is one of the most underappreciated facts of American politics and economics.