Younger folks start to realize that unions may give them much-needed bargaining power

  • In 1954, nearly 35% of the American workforce was unionized.
  • Today, the number of union workers in the United States hovers just over 10%.
  • Multiple polls now show union approval is high -- and growing –– among the youngest workers.
Food service worker Sheree Allen poses at the Raise Up offices, a branch of the Fight for $15 union, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Durham, N.C. After decades of decline, U.S. unions have a new reason for hope: younger workers. Sheree Allen was hoping for benefits when she joined the food service company Chartwells last August. Chartwells says it offers health care, paid time off and a 401 (k) plan to its workers, but Allen says she has never been given information about those benefits despite asking her superiors. When she tested positive for COVID in January, she had to stay home without pay. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

The two decades after World War II are often looked back on fondly as a golden age for the American middle class.

For many, the dream of earning a living wage, owning your own home, being able to send your kids to college and enjoying a secure retirement became a reality in the 1950s and 1960s.

There are several factors that helped middle class Americans thrive in the post-war period. Social Security, the GI Bill and the construction of the interstate highway system all played major roles.

One factor that often gets overlooked, however, is that the union movement reached its peak in the mid-1950s — at the exact moment in time when the middle class was growing at its fastest.

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We don’t think that’s a coincidence.

In 1954, nearly 35% of our national workforce was unionized. Today, that number hovers at just over 10%.

Not surprisingly, as union membership dwindled, so did the middle class. The investment class, meanwhile, thrived, often on the backs of the struggling middle class. The wealth gap grew exponentially.

Unions contributed to own demise: Unions, of course, contributed to their own demise in some ways.

There were well-publicized issues involving corruption, alleged ties to socialists or communists and the perception that union chiefs were nothing more than paid shills for the Democratic party.

Still, it’s clear that unions, despite their faults, should have a strong role to play in our economy.

Before the union movement took hold early in the 20th century, employees were often treated brutally by owners. Thankfully, unions helped to change that.

With the decline of unions in recent decades, the treatment of workers, especially younger and poorer workers, has again deteriorated.

Benefits were slashed while mandatory overtime became a normal fact of life. A decent work-life balance became increasingly harder to find.

It didn’t help that an increasing number of right-to-work states (now at 27) made union organizing terribly hard and union busting frightfully easy. An unfriendly Supreme Court has also chipped away at unionization.

Unions may be making a comeback: Now, however, it appears as if the union movement may be making a bit of a comeback.

More:Unions see new strength, hope as young workers take the lead

According to an Associated Press story, workers in their 20s –– and even in their teens –– are leading ongoing efforts to unionize companies large and small.

Multiple polls show union approval is high –– and growing –– among the youngest workers. And U.S. union membership levels are even ticking upward for workers between 25 and 34, even as they decline among other age groups.

The young workers seem to get it. They view unions and the power of collective bargaining as their best bet to combat wage inequality and poor working conditions, just as their ancestors did a century ago.

Those young workers also seem to realize that they must take matters into their own hands. They know they can’t rely on our government, which hasn’t raised the pitiful minimum wage of $7.25 per hour since 2009.

Those young people have lived through the Great Recession and a pandemic. For them, economic insecurity is very real, and the economic power that collective bargaining can give them is very tangible.

After a long period of decline, there are signs that unions may again become an economic force for good.

That’s good news for the many folks — especially the younger folks — on the lower end of the pay scale, who have been taken advantage of for far too long.