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The Future of Unions Is White-Collar

Blue-collar jobs are disappearing. But a powerful new wave of organized labor is taking its place.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by oatawa/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced her bid for the White House, she showed her loyalty to unions by selecting the backdrop of Everett Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the site of the 1912 Bread and Roses strike by textile workers.

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The strike is considered by union activists to be a watershed moment in labor history. It was sparked by a Massachusetts law that curtailed the hours permitted in a workweek, prompting the bosses at Everett Mills to respond in kind. They cut the pay, no doubt thinking there wasn’t much that the workforce of children, women, and ethnically divided immigrants could do about it.

They were wrong. Workers tore apart the machinery, smashed windows, and, over the next few weeks, tangled with scabs, police, and security guards. In the end, they won pay raises for themselves and textile workers across New England.

Warren’s summoning of a tableau of old-fashioned union power—symbolized more often now with hard hats and power tools—isn’t unique among Democrats. Beto O’Rourke parachuted into Michigan soon after launching his candidacy to chat up union carpenters and dutifully take notes. And Dems nominated no less than Randy Bryce, a literal ironworker with a non-ironic moustache, to run in the district recently represented by a union villain, former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. (The ploy failed.) Despite ruptures over trade policies such as NAFTA, Democrats still consider unions to be a primary constituency.

The problem is that the hard-hat worker is rapidly disappearing from unions, making blue-collar employees less and less emblematic of the reality of organized labor in the United States today. If politicians want to win over the next generation of union workers—Americans’ support for organized labor is at a 15-year high, according to a new Gallup poll—they’re talking to the wrong folks. That should matter to politicians looking to score popularity points with young voters. Of all demographics, it’s millennials who are really feeling the feels for unions. Workers under age 35 are outpacing every other age group in new union membership.

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That tracks with numbers released this year by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that show the slow takeover of collective labor by the professional and technical classes. Think schoolteachers, health care workers, skilled utility workers, journalists, screenwriters, college faculty and graduate students, media and entertainment professionals, and nonprofit employees.

This group also includes federal and state employees—the largest organized sector in the country. Unions representing government workers took a hit last year after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which released non-union government employees from paying dues to the unions that work on their behalf. Since then, more than 200,000 of those employees have taken advantage of the new law and stopped paying. That’s hurting the pocketbooks of unions. Still, among those government employees who were already members, union support is largely holding strong.

All in all, more than 1 million professionals have joined unions in the past two decades, reaching an all-time high in 2018 of 6.18 million. The numbers of their blue-collar brethren, meanwhile, have plummeted by 3 million over the same period, according to numbers provided by the AFL-CIO.

AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees
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At the University of Arkansas, where I work and serve as president of AFSCME Local 965, union membership has about doubled in recent years. Although the local was started by the university’s maintenance crew in the 1960s, nearly every new member has been a professor or professional employee. Their concerns: campus safety, a living wage for all employees, collective bargaining rights, and gaining more influence over campus policies.

Lane Windham, a labor historian at Georgetown University and the author of Knocking on Labor’s Door, has been immersed in the movement for 25 years. “There is more interest among white collars now than at any time I’ve seen,” she says. “You see it among faculty and graduate employees at universities; you see it among journalists. We also saw all the Google workers walk out. That’s not a union, but it’s white-collar workers who engage in collective action for worker power.”

One reason for the shift is the evolution of the American economy. Manufacturing jobs have disappeared as service jobs have increased. That means fewer opportunities for blue-collar workers to join unions if they wanted to. (And employers don’t want them to.)

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The professional class is by no means offsetting the country’s net loss of union members, but how the newbies are behaving shows they understand exactly how collective action is supposed to work: They’re leaving their manners at home and making demands. It was kindly teachers in rural West Virginia who flexed their muscle in a strike that put the country on notice—kind of like the textile workers in 1912, but without smashing any windows.

The furor is catching. Underpaid graduate students at Columbia University have played hardball with administrators sitting on an endowment of nearly $11 billion. In 2016, the university took the dispute to the National Labor Relations Board, where it lost. Still, it wasn’t until after a weeklong strike in 2018—and perhaps the news that rival Harvard was about to unionize—that Columbia University came to the table. Now, the grad students are pushing a progressive agenda that includes such basics as higher wages and timely pay but also concerns significant to a new generation of workers: access to abortion services, sexual harassment safeguards, and the protection of international students.

“A union is classically a place where you can fight for workplace rights,” says Noura Farra, an organizer and Ph.D. candidate in computer science at Columbia. “But workplace rights and social justice are interrelated.” Race is at the forefront of the Columbia grad students’ concerns. Farra wants the university to subsidize legal fees for international students facing deportation and to provide housing in America for international students who can’t return to their home countries.

Columbia is one of several schools where contingent faculty and grad students are organizing. But the activity now goes beyond campus rabble-rousing. Last year, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra was the latest in a cascade of orchestras to unionize in recent years. In Seattle, the staff at radio station KUOW organized to get better pay. So did employees at Hawaii Water. Al-Jazeera English voted to join a union, and Telemundo talent landed their first contract.

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In particular, the Writers Guild of America has been on a tear. The union’s eastern branch most recently organized the newsroom of Fast Company, the podcasting company Gimlet Media (a first for the industry), and, in full disclosure, Slate. It also threatened television and film work in the state of Georgia if the state enacts a strict abortion law. The Writers Guild of America West, meanwhile, is in tough negotiations to enact a new policy that would prevent talent agencies from collecting money from studios for packaging their clients and from launching their own production companies that could create a conflict of interest.

Employers love team-building exercises, and nothing brings the staff together like the comradeship of labor organizing. In some ways, the workplaces brought this new wave of unionizing on themselves. It’s the result of an economy that is no longer serving professionals, just as it previously stopped serving the working class. Windham calls this “compression,” a shortening of the pay divide between classes of workers. It’s not that low-wage workers are moving up the ladder but that the middle class is moving down and growing disillusioned with its prospects.

“What’s new is basically a realignment of how people see themselves,” says Karen Nussbaum, the founding director of Working America, which canvasses communities to connect workers to appropriate unions. “The people who are most likely to organize are not the ones with the worst jobs. It’s people who are most disappointed in what their jobs turned out to be, people who had expectations of their work life that have been trashed.”

Those trashed expectations help explain the sudden cachet of socialism. Once used as an American epithet, it’s now nothing short of a brand. When Sen. Bernie Sanders (whose current campaign is unionized) injected socialism into a major presidential campaign two years ago, he was sidelined by the Democratic Party establishment. Now, he’s contending with Democratic rivals who have borrowed most of his platform. Meanwhile, New York magazine just gave a fawning cover story to the Democratic Socialists of America, which counts among its members the biggest brawler in insurgency politics, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

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The DSA supports the working class, of course, but its leadership doesn’t seem too preoccupied with representing the proletariat. While its labor commission consists entirely of union activists, they overwhelmingly come from the professional ranks—nurses, teachers, writers, and researchers. Some carry degrees from elite schools like Stanford and Middlebury.

No one is saying the professional and technical classes are going to bring unions back to their old strength. But the emergence of the professional class in the centuries-old struggle over capital and labor has altered the old pattern of class struggle. Unions are often born to fight for social justice, the result of an onslaught of oppression the likes of which professionals, frankly, haven’t felt—which explains why black Americans are more likely than whites to be union members. (Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while in Memphis supporting the strike of predominantly black sanitation workers.) The infusion of the middle class into the labor movement means a shifting sense of where social change is most desperately needed. What hasn’t changed is that unions are an effective tool for changing priorities. That’s because locals decide the priorities of their contract—as the grad students at Columbia University did—not the national organizations behind them.

Presumably, professionals have more education, which may translate to innovations in collective bargaining, media messaging, and organizing tactics. When Vox employees wanted to get the attention of management, they engaged in the equivalent of a brief work slowdown by logging out of the newsroom’s instant-messaging platform, Slack, en masse (to some derision). Ultimately, Vox won collective bargaining rights. Also, the bargaining units typically have their own Twitter feeds and show solidarity with each other through retweets and threads, helping to ramp up pressure in a very public way.

Jennifer Dorning, the president of the Department for Professional Employees at the AFL-CIO, points out that a lot of professional union workers today have been in the ranks for some time, so future growth will build primarily on existing organizations. Unorganized sectors like finance, architecture, and physician practices are tougher to crack. A 2016 survey conducted by the department, however, showed that 56 percent of professional workers would support a union in their workplace.

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Dorning’s team is making flirtatious advances like a millennial—online. It used cheap Google and Facebook ads to target young professionals in progressive nonprofits in the D.C. area. Dorning says it generated 100 leads by “letting non-union professionals know there is a union for you and it’s made for people just like you.” She rebranded an existing local just to cater to their needs. Rather than representing a particular workplace, the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union represents a particular type of worker, regardless of the employer.

“We’re seeing that folks want a union,” she says. “It’s on us, the labor movement, to make sure those folks know our door is open to them.”