This article first appeared in In These Times.
Like so many other recent college graduates of Gen Z who are trying to enter the workforce, become financially independent and grow our families, we’re seeing the promised “American dream” drift further and further out of reach.
The economy our generation enters today is defined by rising inequality and stagnant wages. Debilitating student debt and astronomically high costs of living in metropolitan areas have dwindled our chances of achieving the same economic prosperity as previous generations. Our parents worked jobs that didn’t require a college degree and allowed them to purchase homes at a fraction of today’s price. Now that dream feels more like a fantasy for our cohort of younger workers.
Today, Millennials and Gen Z collectively make up 40 percent of the U.S. workforce but own only 5.9 percent of household wealth, while Baby Boomers account for just 25 percent of the workforce but own 53 percent of household net worth. When Baby Boomers were Millennials’ age, they owned more than double the wealth of Millennials today. Our generations won’t have the same stability as our parents and grandparents unless systematic changes are made to reinvigorate a key tool in the workplace that helped generations before us enjoy more economic security: labor unions.
Congress is currently devising a solution that makes it easier for workers to organize and collectively bargain through unions. In March, the House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a bill that would allow gig workers to unionize, legalize solidarity strikes and ban various union-busting tactics that keep workers underpaid and overworked. By expanding access to unionization, the PRO Act strengthens avenues for workers to improve their wages and working conditions. It’s a necessary long-term policy for Millennials and Gen Z to remedy endemic economic inequalities.
Union membership used to be far more common in America, with unions helping workers bargain for fair wages and expansive benefits. But, as union membership declined from 27 percent in 1979 to 10.3 percent in 2019, income inequality soared with the top one percent increasing their income by 160 percent during this period, compared to just a 26 percent increase for the bottom 90 percent. While the average CEO salary has grown by 940 percent since 1978, worker pay has only increased 12 percent over the past 40 years. Our Boomer parents and grandparents aged into the workforce when unions had high levels of membership, giving them power to hold employers accountable for living wages, safer conditions and robust benefits.
Today, meanwhile, Millennial and Zoomer integration into the workforce is characterized by low union membership and stagnant wages, making it significantly harder to afford an education, buy a home and start a family. Even as Millennials and Zoomers become America’s most educated generations, research shows that real wages for high school graduates are 5.5 percent lower than in 2000 and the wages of young college graduates are 2.5 percent lower. These trends raise the stakes of younger workers in the fight to pass the PRO Act.
The PRO Act would help offset weak labor laws that have historically stifled labor organizing. A full 48 percent of non-union workers say they would join a union, but less than 11 percent of workers are unionized because many employers utilize aggressive tactics to squash any organizing efforts. Employers can legally bar union organizers from talking to workers in the workplace and during union elections, nearly 90 percent of employers require workers to attend captive audience meetings where they deliver anti-union messages. The PRO Act would prohibit such tactics, making it far easier for workers to organize.
But what difference would unions make? Examples of organized labor’s successes are all around us. Striking teachers’ unions in West Virginia won a 5 percent raise in 2018, and teachers in Los Angeles won a 6 percent raise in 2019. During the pandemic, when large corporate grocers reaped record profits while refusing to pay their workers hazard pay, UFCW locals led the fight across California to pass $5 hazard pay mandates for essential workers in cities like South San Francisco.
Now is the time for Millennials and Zoomers to demand that the Senate follow the lead of the House and pass the PRO Act. Make calls, send emails, and organize your community. No senator from either party can claim to care about young people or working Americans if they don’t support this bill. A version of the PRO Act is reportedly included in the $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package that Democrats plan to pass through budget reconciliation, meaning it could be closer than ever to becoming law. We can help make that a reality.
The fight to pass the PRO Act is not just about democratizing the workplace, it’s our best shot at building a fair economy and reviving the American dream — for our generation and all those who follow.