Unions, Millennials, and Their Ostensibly Liberal Elders

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The Library at Columbia University

Young people like and want unions. Both the Gallup and the Pew polls released this summer show public support for unions at its highest levels in many years, and in both polls, it’s the young who give unions their highest approval ratings. In Pew, 68 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 had a favorable view of unions; in Gallup, 65 percent of Americans aged 18 to 34 approved of them.   

But given the risks of being fired that most young workers (like all workers) face if they attempt to unionize (and given the failure of the much-weakened National Labor Relations Act to protect them), few young workers have a realistic opportunity to form or join unions. The exceptions to this rule are increasingly found in newsrooms and on university campuses, where highly skilled workers are not easy to replace. Journalists and graduate student teaching and research assistants have been unionizing in droves over the past couple of years. Just yesterday, the staff of New York magazine voted to unionize with the NewsGuild of the Communications Workers of America. 

Even at some of the most liberal publications and colleges, however, the young unionists often find that management exhibits a hostility to unions worthy of the Koch brothers. Earlier this week, writers and editors at the recently unionized Slate voted by a 52-to-1 margin to authorize a strike. In their efforts to bargain their first contract with management, they’ve come up against an unexpected wall. As Josh Eidelson, Bloomberg’s terrific labor-beat reporter, has chronicled, the company is insisting on making union dues optional—in essence, implementing the very same “right-to-work” policy that Slate writers denounced when the five Republican justices on the Supreme Court mandated it for all public sector employees. How management—which is the Graham Company, formerly the owner of The Washington Post—thinks it can credibly force through a policy that runs directly counter to Slate’s specific positions and overall political orientation is anyone’s guess. “We just felt that it’s a total and absolute betrayal of Slate’smost fundamental values,” Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern told Bloomberg

There are plenty of Graham equivalents, alas, at the helms of colleges and universities. Over the past couple of decades, the National Labor Relations Board has gone back and forth on the question of whether students employed by their colleges can unionize. Not surprisingly, the Board has said yes when it has had a majority of Democratic-appointed members, and no when it has had a majority of Republican appointees. The Obama-appointed board said yes, and the Trump board has yet to revisit that decision. 

Grad student organizing has also been sweeping the Ivies of late, and a number of those institutions have agreed to bargain with the unions their students had voted to join. Until recently, my own alma mater, Columbia, had refused, appearing to wait for a decision from the Trumpniks on the NLRB that denied students their right to bargain. But a few weeks ago, perhaps sensing that its stubborn opposition had won it few friends either on campus or across the Upper West Side, and that its teaching assistants were prepared to strike during final exams week, the administration reversed field and agreed to come to the table. 

Now, however, another storied liberal college, Grinnell, in Iowa, has appealed to the NLRB a ruling from the board’s Minneapolis region that required the college to bargain with its student employees, who’d voted overwhelmingly to form a union. Columbia having taken a pass, it’s now Grinnell that seeks to inflict Republicans’ denial of democratic rights to workers.

What we’re seeing at some media institutions and otherwise august institutions of higher learning is a political, cultural, and generational clash. Media boards of directors and university boards of trustees are disproportionately populated by older, wealthy social liberals who seldom have given much thought to workers’ rights, or who have thought about it and haven’t liked the idea. Now, they’re up against a millennial generation economically battered by the Great Recession and that correctly believes that only through collective action can they win what’s rightfully theirs. 

Over the past few days, we’ve even seen a version of this in Congress, where the redoubtable Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called out her elders (which term describes every single member of both the outgoing and income Congress) for either underpaying their interns or not paying them at all. 

This is one woke generation, Senator Schumer, Chairman Graham, and Distinguished Grinnell Trustees. Deal with them over the bargaining table, and pay them what they’re worth.   

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