Young and Organized: The pandemic and the gig economy are drawing Generation Z to unions.

AuthorJohnson, Sharon

Destiny Violet Richards, a twenty-two-year-old security guard in Chicago, has managed to do what many young people cannot: advance toward the American dream, thanks to her membership in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, which represents 50,000 workers in six Midwestern states.

"I don't walk on eggshells anymore because I have the union behind me," says Richards, who became a member last year. The wages negotiated by the union enable her to keep up with inflation. She has health care benefits that her friends in the gig economy can't afford. "But best of all," she says, "is the security of knowing that I have somebody I can talk to about the rules and how I should be treated in the workplace."

Richards is a loyal employee who, during the pandemic, worked twelve- to sixteen-hour shifts that left her exhausted. "I paid a significant price," she says. "I dropped out of college because I didn't have the energy or concentration for my studies in information technology."

But meeting other union members who were facing the same challenges "decreased my sense of vulnerability," Richards says. "It also gave me a sense of being part of a movement to bring about positive changes in the workplace that will benefit all security guards."

The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, found that only 15.8 million Americans were represented by unions in 2021, a decline of 581,000 from 2019.

Historically, younger workers have been less likely to join unions than older workers, says Marquita Walker, interim chair and associate professor of labor studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

"But that is beginning to change in the twentyfirst century because of the growth of the gig economy, which has ushered in temporary positions, unstable pay, and a lack of benefits," Walker says in a phone interview. "Corporate decisions to downsize and close factories have also highlighted power imbalances in the workplace and the need for workers to be represented in negotiations that affect them and their families."

Walker, author of The Daily Grind: How Workers Navigate the Employment Relationship, says the 2008 recession forced many young workers to rethink their assumptions about their place in the economy. Unemployment skyrocketed, depriving young people of income to pay their school loans, buy homes, and acquire savings as their parents had done early in their careers.

Then the pandemic further exacerbated the...

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