Haag is part of a wave of young workers who have been unionizing in sectors with little or no tradition of unions: art museums, including the Guggenheim and the New Museum, but also tech companies, digital-media brands, political campaigns, even cannabis shops. At Google, around ninety contract workers in Pittsburgh recently formed a union—a significant breakthrough, even if they represent just a tiny fraction of the company’s workforce. More than thirty digital publications, including Vox, Vice, Salon, Slate, and HuffPost, have unionized. (The editorial staff of The New Yorker unionized in 2018.) Last March, Bernie Sanders’s campaign became the first major-party Presidential campaign in history with a unionized workforce; the campaigns of Eric Swalwell, Julián Castro, and Elizabeth Warren unionized soon after. At Grinnell College, in Iowa, students working in the school’s dining hall unionized in 2016, becoming one of the nation’s only undergraduate-student labor unions. Sam Xu, the union’s twenty-one-year-old former president, said, “Mark Zuckerberg was running Facebook out of his dorm room. I’m running a union out of my dorm room.” From: “The Faces of a New Union Movement”
I didn’t grow up in a union home. Didn’t really know anything at all about unions — in part because Idaho, where I grew up, became a Right to Work State shortly after my family moved there. I didn’t understand the people I relied on (my teachers, first and foremost, but also all sorts of other employees who made all of our lives work) as, well, workers. Because one of the most important things that a union does is situate employees, first and foremost, as laborers — you may love and cherish your elementary school teacher, and they may love what they do, but that does not obviate the fact that they are operating in the larger sphere of capitalism, in which work is exchanged for money and some level of security.
When, in the 1990s, it seemed like the state would vote to approve various “One Percent” initiatives (which promised to cut property tax, the primary means of funding schools, to 1%) I remember being scared of what that would do for me, as a student in those schools — not for what it would do for my teachers, who would have to operate under that new reality. Part of that is just the typical narcissism of an (American) child, but I have to think that part of it, too, was that I viewed my teachers as fixtures, constants, to be taken for granted. How would that have shifted if I saw them, as a group, on strike, or even just with matching t-shirts on a Friday, advocating against it?
For some, those sorts of visions — labeled with commentary from parents or peers — might make you think of your teachers as ungrateful, or uppity, or some other anti-labor slur. But there’s a reason why, in 2018, Idaho salaries ranked the lowest in the nation, from pre-K through college. Why, when you adjust their pay for inflation, they’re making 6.8% less than they did in 1999. There’s a reason why Idaho schools struggle so intensely to recruit and retain teachers, and often resort to hiring teachers unqualified to teach in their subject area. Part of that reason is the prevalence of anti-“big”government / anti-taxation legislators who control the state. But part of it, too, is that the teachers have had very little means to push back against the way they are treated, and valued, and funded. The message you internalize: If you want to teach in the state of Idaho, this is how it’s going to be; if you don’t like it, you can leave.
And so many do. To other states, where the salaries are higher, where the unions are stronger, or where the animus towards funding education isn’t so strong. But some people can’t leave. They’re bound to a place. That’s difficult for some of us hyper-mobile millennials to understand: that you can’t always just chase the employment opportunity. But sometimes you don’t just “want” to be near your extended family; your extended family needs you there. Or they help provide the child care that makes it possible for you to work. Or your partner has a good job that you can’t or won’t give up. Or you love a community, have loved it your whole life, and want to be part of its future.
That’s another thing a union can do: make it possible to be where you need to be, or do what you feel called to do, without reconciling yourself to being treated, and paid, like shit.
It took having and losing a union for me to understand that. During my Master’s degree, at the University of Oregon, I was part of a robust, powerful union that I appreciated not at all. The fact that, as a TA, I was paid a living wage for the city — the sort of wage that made it possible for graduate students to not take on student loans — didn’t feel remarkable. I was still making considerably less than I had as a nanny in Seattle.
But there were so many remarkable union achievements that I didn’t realize — at least not until I left for my PhD at the University of Texas, another Right to Work state. (If you’re not familiar with the phrase Right to Work, it basically means that Unions are “allowed” but impotent). I left Oregon because Texas was ostensibly a much better program in my particular sub-field — or at least much more renowned. But I was conceptualizing of “better” uniquely in terms of “chances that it could eventually land me a better job.”
I didn’t even consider what it meant that there would be no union. That even though, like every PhD student, I would ostensibly have a tuition waver, I would end up paying thousands, every year, in student “fees” (technology fees, building fees, advising fees, bullshit fees) — the sort that the Oregon union had rightly identified as a backdoor means of charging tuition. That the health insurance would be cover significantly less. That I’d barely make enough to cover my monthly rent in Austin, and would need to take out loans to pay for everything else. That there would be no opportunities to teach in the summer, thus forcing me to take out even more student loans. That there was no way to get tuition wavers for classes over the summer. That I’d have to pay a fee just to use the gym in the summer. That my department, despite being one of the most popular on campus, would pay significantly less than so many others on campus. And most importantly, that there was absolutely nothing that I could do about it.
I graduated from a “better” program and, like so many PhD graduates, cobbled together a series of jobs until leaving academia altogether. I might have done the same if I had finished at UO. The difference would’ve been about $80,000 less in student debt. So which program, ultimately, is “better” in this job market? Which is why, when people email to ask me about going to graduate school, my answers stipulates that you should only go if: 1) you’re fully, fully funded and have no illusions that you will get a tenure-track job and 2) if at all possible, you can attend a program at a university with a union.
The modern public university, left to its own devices, will exploit labor in whatever way it can. As its longtime primary funding source — aka, taxpayer dollars — continues to disappear, universities have turned into classic capitalist enterprises: charging as much as it possibly can for the “product” of an education, while paying the employees who create that product as little as possible. A union, like all forms of regulation, simply puts guardrails on that capitalist drive. It protects workers in small but meaningful ways from reconciling themselves to the lowest common denominator of treatment and payment. It forces capitalism to treat its workers as humans instead of robots.
Which is why it makes so much sense that millennials and Gen-Z are embracing unions, the labor movement as a whole, and the politicians who support both. As Steven Greenhouse points out, “A Gallup poll last summer found that sixty-four per cent of Americans approve of unions—one of the highest ratings recorded in the past fifty years. The highest rate of approval came from young people: sixty-seven per cent among eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-olds.”
Part of that support, I think, is a natural, cyclical resurgence. Unions became so strong in the mid-20th century that they were taken for granted — and/or framed as “greedy,” or responsible for work going overseas. That’s the sentiment that allowed so many states to pass Right to Work legislation, and that sustains the sort of anti-union sentiment that prevails in workplaces all over the country — most vividly in this year’s Oscar-winning documentary American Factory (streaming on Netflix, can’t recommend it highly enough).
The predominant conservative messaging, from the mid-‘70s onward, was that it was unions who were responsible for the loss of your job, the decline of your community, your family’s fall from the middle-class — unions who hampered the free market, unions who made Americans uncompetitive. Forget about the role of tax cuts, or the rise of stockholder activism that demands massive profits. Forget about the role of consultants in the sloughing of the labor force. Forget about the innovation and competitive edge that was lost in the eagle-eyed pursued of profits. Forget the long-term ramifications of defunding the education system at every level. Within this worldview, everything bad that’s happened to the workforce over the last 30 years is the fault of the workers who demanded security, and safety, and the means to support a family, and not live in constant fear of what would happen to you when your body can no longer work.
That message resonated for decades. For so many boomers, it was a convincing explanation for the decline of the middle-class. But Millennials and Gen-Z, we’re not buying it. Maybe it’s because that line of thinking hasn’t, in fact, restored the middle-class — it’s just decimated it even further. Some of us are students of history, and see that it’s not a coincidence that the post-WWII period understood as the “Golden Age” of American capitalism was also the golden age of unions. Some of us, like me, came to realize what a union had provided them only when they were suddenly without one. And many of us, reared on the idea that you should “do what you love,” no matter what it takes, or how you suffer, or who profits from that suffering, are understanding ourselves as workers for the first time.
It doesn’t matter how cool our job is, how flexible it promises to be, or how much we dreamed of making it our career if we can’t survive on what it pays us, if we’re riddled with anxiety about covering medical bills, if we’re sleepless and scared and exhausted all the time. As we continue to age into adulthood, we don’t want good snacks or a ping pong table or fucking visits from therapy dogs. We want a modicum of job security, a moderate amount of severance if the event of layoffs, pay raises that keep pace with inflation, the promise that some white guy won’t get paid $15,000 more to do the same job that we do simply because he’s grown up with the confidence of a white guy, and the ability to report abuse without fear of retaliation.
That’s not greed. That’s not a symptom of being coddled, or over-indulged. That’s understanding yourself as a worker, not a robot — a citizen within capitalism, but not a slave to it.
So many of us were reared on the idea that hard work would, ultimately, provide security — and happiness and everything else would flow from it. It didn’t work out that way. Which is why you can trace a sometimes straight, sometimes meandering line between millennial burnout and the new labor movement. We’ve seen what happens when we rely uniquely on ourselves, and our capacity to work. So we’re trying something incredibly novel: looking around, recognizing each other, and also recognizing that the way things are doesn’t have to the way things will be. You could call that a burnout cure. Or you could just call it solidarity.
Things I Read and Loved / Been Compelled By This Week:
The Very Best Thing I’ve Read on Preparing for Coronavirus and its relationship to civic duty
I loved this Longform interview — and frank discussion of money — with my pal Ashley Ford
Fat Women Onscreen Deserve Better Than Crappy Love Interests
God Tressie is so damn good
God Sarah Miller is so damn good
One of the best pieces of criticism I’ve read in months — even if you have no feelings or investment in West Side Story
When did (bourgeois) snacking become so bleak?
Runner up “just trust me”
This week’s “just trust me”
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