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Whitecollar workers millenials inject new life into unions

Issued: 2018-03-11

The ranks of organized labor have been shrinking for decades, and an upcoming Supreme Court decision involving the ability of public-sector unions to collect fees from nonmembers is expected to further sap the movement of much-needed funds.

But signs of life are flashing in unexpected places.

Millennials and professionals are bringing new energy to the movement, especially in New England, where more than half of union members are doctors, lawyers, teachers, architects, and other white-collar employees.

Last year, a third of the 262,000 new union members nationwide were in professional or technical occupations, mostly in the public sector. And more than three-quarters of new members were under age 35, part of a five-year trend of growth among younger workers, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Workers across many industries are increasingly banding together and standing up against management as part-time and contract work grows, automation amps up, and wages barely budge, labor observers say. Silicon Valley tech workers have started a coalition to unite. Journalists from the HuffPost to the Los Angeles Times have organized for the first time. And campaign workers are bargaining collectively with several congressional campaigns in what may be a first for national politics.

In Boston, graduate students at Harvard and Northeastern are seeking to unionize — following recent success at other schools — as are teachers at two Roxbury charter schools. Language teachers at EF Education First in Boston just approved the firm’s first US contract, staffers at Emerson College are working out details of their inaugural agreement, and public defenders are holding rallies to demand collective bargaining rights.

“I really believe this is a fulcrum and that the labor movement is really shifting,” said Tom Juravich, interim director of the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “What we’ve seen in the last couple of years are young people saying, ‘You know what, I’m tired of being a contingent worker with no benefits and no job security.’ ”

Lawyers and financial investigators at the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers, which investigates complaints about lawyers, are expecting their first contract to be ratified this week. The workers were driven to act after their vacation days and retirement fund payments were reduced and health care contributions went up, said Al Nolan, a longtime financial investigator at the organization.

The workers and their Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 6 were able to combat some of those cuts. Nolan said the biggest hurdle wasn’t management but convincing the department’s 65 employees that they were “union people.”

“Many of us had no experience with unions,” he said. “We viewed a union — and I hate to say this, and in some ways it sounds condescending — as people who worked in factories, and that it really didn’t apply to people who did the type of work that we did.”

But it turned out the type of work they do — analyzing data and drawing up contracts — is suited to negotiating a union agreement. And as the economy shifts, it’s people like Nolan who are increasingly driving union membership, and changing the nature of unions to fit the jobs in today’s economy.

Organized labor may never have the power it did in the 1950s, when more than a third of workers in the country were unionized, compared with 10.7 percent today. And if the Supreme Court rules it’s unconstitutional for public-sector unions to charge nonmembers to cover collective bargaining costs, it would cut into unions’ revenues, leaving them with fewer benefits to offer workers.

But this infusion of young professionals is helping to stanch the bleeding. In 2003, 34 percent of union members nationwide were in professional and technical occupations; by last year, it was 42 percent, according to the Department for Professional Employees at the AFL-CIO. In New England, such professionals now make up 51 percent of union members.


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