Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Unions seek ways to link with younger workers

By NYSSA RABINOWITZ
Capital News Service

LANSING – Union activism has dropped among younger workers, a trend that may bring innovation into union management.

“We don’t communicate the way our parents did,” said Sean Egan, 32, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers West Michigan Local 275. “Leadership needs to be more accessible.”

Most of the executive board of Egan’s local, based in Coopersville, is between 26 and 35, and its volunteers are about 35, so it has more participation from this age group than most, Egan said.

Egan became president of the local when he was 25 and served in that position for four years.

Egan is an example of a young union member who actively participates, said Mark Gaffney, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO.

Many, however, don’t because they don’t see anyone in union leadership who looks like them – all the leaders are older.

For example, most unions still publish newspapers or newsletters to communicate with their members instead of using social media like Facebook, Gaffney said.

And that’s not how much of the younger generation communicates, he said.

The drop in union activism isn’t uncommon, said David Reynolds, a labor historian at Wayne State University.

Union activity regularly goes through cycles, Reynolds said.

When unions’ influence is ebbing, they have less of a presence in new industries and jobs, which is where the majority of the younger workers are, he said. When unions grow, they generally grow in the same new areas and with a strong young worker presence.

The Great Depression is a great example, Reynolds said.

At the end of the Depression, young workers mobilized the union movement and began unionizing quickly. Once people saw that unions could benefit them, it encouraged others to try the same thing at their own workplaces, and within three months, three million workers were organized, he said.

That seems to be happening now, Reynolds said predicting that younger workers will become more involved in the future.

But that won’t happen without some help, the AFL-CIO’s Gaffney said.

The drop in active participation is a challenge for unions across the country, Gaffney said, but those in some states are doing better than others in attracting younger workers.

New York, California and Colorado unions all have more participation among younger workers, Gaffney said, and have done a more effective job marketing themselves to younger members.

Now Gaffney is taking up the charge to move Michigan in that direction.

He plans to reach out to younger leaders for advice on how to inspire younger members.

Egan said younger workers are important because they bring new perspectives and they have a better understanding of work-life balance than older colleagues.

If they don’t become engaged, the role of unions may diminish, Egan said. Unionization rates are going down, and it’s up to the young workers to find a system that works well.

Having someone who looks and talks like them will help spark their interest, Egan said.

For example, his local is moving toward monthly or quarterly webcast meetings so all members can take part, regardless of where they are.

There needs to be more communication between leaders and young workers and e-mail and texting could help bridge that generational gap, Egan said.

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