Here's the Secret to Getting Young Workers Involved

It's good that unions have begun holding summits for young members or forming local committees, but more important is fighting two-tier contracts that sell young workers out. Photo: AFGE, CC BY 2.0. Cropped from original.

“How can we get young workers involved?”

That’s the question on everyone’s lips, with union density at near-record lows. Many unions have begun holding summits for young members or forming local committees, which is great.

But too often they’re missing a step that’s more essential: don’t sell young workers out.

When you settle a two-tier contract that puts new hires on a lower wage scale or trades away their pension, it sends a message: “This union is for us, not for you.”

Everyone who gets hired these days at UPS or on a postal delivery route can see they’re on a slow track to nowhere. No matter how many years they put in, they’ll never get where their co-workers are. That’s a mark against the union from Day One.

Unless these concessions are reversed they will eat away at unions, alienating incoming workers until they’re the only ones left. That’s obvious, right? Yet so many national union leaders seem to have missed the memo.

So it’s heartening to see union members who get it—and who put themselves on the line for future co-workers they haven’t even met yet.


That’s the reason gas workers at National Grid in Massachusetts have endured a lockout for five months and counting. The company’s offer “for the current people in the local was reasonable,” said Steelworkers Local 12003 President Joe Kirylo.

But National Grid wants to eliminate the pension for new hires, and reduce their vacation and sick time. “The people in this local chose to defend the next generation,” Kirylo said.

I heard the same from Kaiser health care workers who went to the brink of a strike to block a two-tier pension. “Members were very adamant—you just don’t do that,” said local president Adrienne Enghouse. “It would be the demise of our union.”



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Other workers have rolled back two-tier even after it was implemented.

Jim Beam distillery workers in Kentucky did it a couple years ago by walking out on a strike, the first one in the company’s history. Truck-plant workers in Indiana pulled it off without having to strike—they just showed they were ready to, even hauling burn barrels to work in their trucks. The employer blinked.

That kind of action will do wonders for your union’s credibility with young workers.


Beyond that, the best way to reach young co-workers is to listen to them.

Young workers aren’t a different species who can be reached only through Twitter or an app. Talk with them. They’re worried about their wages and daily life on the job, just like anyone else.

In a Minnesota public employees union, one young bargaining team member was fired up about paid parental leave. She hosted a meeting for input—and 75 people showed up. Boom! Turns out this issue mattered a lot to younger members who were starting families.

The union wisely offered plenty of organizing support for what became a two-year campaign. In the process, many younger members got involved for the first time.

You can even think outside the workplace. A couple years back the young workers committee in a Chicago nursing home union turned to Black Lives Matter activism, because that’s what young members were most fired up about.

It’s often suggested that we need to educate young people about unions and labor history. That’s great too.

But the main thing is to give young workers the tools they need to organize a campaign on an issue they care about. They’ll pick up the rest along the way.

Alexandra Bradbury is the editor of Labor