Austin millennials lead recent labor union drives

Millennials love Austin. They also love unions.

Local union leaders report increased interest from Millennial and Gen Z members, while employees at a number of Austin companies – including JuiceLand, the Austin American-Statesman and BookPeople – have recently organized themselves.

This trend isn’t limited to Austin. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than three-quarters of those who joined a union in 2017, the last year for which data is available, were under 35, even though they represented less than 40% of total employment.

In the past, younger workers were less likely to join unions, but current trends in the workforce – increasing job insecurity and the ubiquity of part-time, contract and unpaid positions – have resulted in demographic change, according to the Economic Politics Institute .

Paul Steiner, 25, is co-chairman of the Austin Chapter unions of the Democratic Socialists of America (and a turn of the millennium). He believes millennials are interested in unionizing for the same reason they are buying fewer wedding rings and houses. “To be honest, we are poorer than any other generation in a long time,” he said. “All of this is the result of a deterioration in material conditions for everyone in America.”

The Benjamin Button Effect

When Ken Zarifis, 57, became President of Education Austin in 2010, membership of the ISD Austin salary union turned gray. To ensure the union’s longevity, he began meeting with its younger members and asking them why more of their peers weren’t joining together. “They said, ‘No longer relevant,'” he said. “That wasn’t easy to hear.”

Union profits like weekends and the eight-hour workday were an old story for millennial workers. In response, Education Austin became increasingly involved in social justice issues that were important to younger workers, including hosting a number of DACA clinics to help eligible dreamers apply for work permits and advocating fairer break policies.

These efforts have paid off. “I can’t say we’re not a bit gray-haired yet,” said Zarifis. “(But) we’ll see each other grow young, like Benjamin Button.”

Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie also noted a slight change in attitudes among incoming members. “There is excitement about the identity of being in a union rather than annoying us about the specific benefits of being a member of the union,” she wrote in an email to Austonia.

Next generation requirements

Recent Austin labor movements have focused on social justice issues alongside wage increases and working conditions.

The United Front of Juice Crews, a group of JuiceLand employees who got organized earlier this month, have urged the Austin-based company to acknowledge allegations of racism, sexism and sexual harassment. “Management has consistently refused to acknowledge their role in maintaining a racist and sexist structure,” the group’s media team wrote in a statement shared with Austonia. JuiceLand’s leadership denies these allegations.

The Austin NewsGuild, which represents journalists from the Austin American-Statesman and its six community newspapers, was granted the right to negotiate a union agreement in February. His demands include an anti-racist action plan that includes the revitalization of the Spanish language newspaper ¡Ahora Si!, Diversification of attitudes and disclosure of wages to enable an equity study.

While these demands may reflect the leadership role of millennials, they must also appeal to workers of all ages to ensure business success. Austin DSA skews more millennia, Steiner said, but its growth in recent years has been based on the dedication of longtime members who “held down” the fort over the decades when the unions were less popular. He referred to BookPeople United, recognized in 2018, as an example of a union with a mixed-age membership. “It must necessarily cross generation lines,” he said. “Otherwise you will fail.”

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