Since the beginning of the recession in 2009, unions have been a favourite scapegoat for politicians and business interests alike. Mercilessly (and unjustly) blamed for the financial woes and the decreased competitiveness of employers, unions had been seeing support leach away since the recession began, with a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center indicating that only 41% of Americans held a favourable view of unions. The economic downturn caused by corporate irresponsibility and fiscal malfeasance on Wall Street had transformed into grim times for unions. But the tide is turning.
In a thoughtful article in the American Prospect, Harold Meyerson notes that the most current Pew poll reports that from 2011 until now the public’s favourable view of unions has increased by 10% to 51%. A Gallup poll conducted in the summer of 2012 reported that public support for unions was slightly higher at 52%. The relevance of the 2012 Gallup is striking, as it was a Gallup poll conducted back in 2009 which found that over half of Americans felt that unions were hurting the economy.
While these polls are good news for unions, when broken down into demographics they also reveal another benefit - a largely untapped source of potential strength for unions: young people. The Pew poll found that 61% of people under the age of 30 hold favourable views of unions.
As reported in The American Prospect, there was another time in American history when things were hard but support for unions amongst young people was high. These conditions ultimately translated into union strength. In the 1930’s, union membership collapsed alongside the economy, but the unions had the support of the young. These youthful union supporters growing up in the bleak 1930’s went on to become “the most pro-union generation in American history.”
By and large, the people under 30 of today are not members of unions, though the polls suggest they’d like to be. But even though they aren’t members, unions can still harness the power of this support by affiliating with causes of pressing importance to the young.
An uncertain future is a major concern for the young. For many young people it’s difficult to identify a particular concern, short of a general sense that the dream of a prosperous future has disappeared. As the young enter the workforce they’re hit with the awareness that the game is rigged against them, that working men and women are often treated with indifference by employers and government. From obscene tuition rates and rising debt levels, to inflation and housing costs which outpace the rate of wages and decent jobs, the dream of a prosperous future has been supplanted by the looming threat of a raw deal. Lost amidst this sea of hopelessness and dismay, young people are beginning to see that there is one constant beacon representing a better life and a real future free from low-wage jobs and crippling debt: the unions. The awareness is there. Now it’s up to unions to make use of that support.