Labour: the new US trade unionist is young, educated and ethnically diverse

The popular stereotype of an American trade unionist is of burly, older white men. You see them working on building sites or climbing from the cabs of trucks in Teamsters T-shirts.

Now a new breed is emerging: young, better educated and more ethnically mixed. Surging inflation, falling living standards and a Democratic president have fostered unions in workplaces where they were previously seen as irrelevant. These include Apple stores, Starbucks coffee bars and Amazon warehouses.

What does the new US unionist look like? Employers and policymakers need to answer that question.

Strikes and other evidence of labour organisation in new economy workplaces are a recent phenomenon. Statistics lag behind the trend. But they still provide pointers.

Union membership fell to new lows last year. The percentage of unionised workers stood at just 10.3 per cent in 2021, compared with 20.1 per cent in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But approval of unions has soared. A Gallup poll from last September showed that 68 per cent of Americans approved of labour unions. That is the highest since 1965.

Support is particularly firm among the young, minorities and college graduates. About 77 per cent of adults aged 18 to 34 who were surveyed supported unions. Among non-whites and graduates, approval was about 76 per cent and 70 per cent respectively.

Grandpa might have joined the union in a foundry or car plant. Junior may do so in an ecommerce warehouse or fast-food restaurant. The drivers are the same as they have always been: frustration with stagnating wages, financial inequality and the lack of affordable housing and healthcare.

The percentage of people aged 16-24 who are represented by unions inched higher from 5 per cent in 2011 to 5.3 per cent in 2021. It is one of the few categories to see growth. The figure for those aged 45-54 fell 2 percentage points.

The National Labor Relations Board reports that it received 1,174 requests to be represented by unions in the six months to March 31, a 57 per cent year-on-year increase.

It would be premature to diagnose a reversal in the decline of US trade unions, however. The recent surge of activity partly reflects a labour shortage that has increased collective bargaining power. A recession will test whether America’s new trade unionists have the cohesion and toughness to persist.

The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please tell us what you think of US unionisation in the comments section below.

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