Fair pay, safe working conditions, health care, retirement plans—the standard features many of us take for granted in the modern workplace were forged more than a century ago by labor unions, which hit their collective peak in the United States during the 1950s. To many, the notion of unionizing is unfamiliar and unnecessary in the post-industrial age, which explains why Gawker Media employees made headlines this past spring when they successfully bargained the first union contract for a digital media company. “We would like to ensure that things like pay and raises are set in a fair, transparent, and unbiased way,” wrote Hamilton Nolan, who led the campaign, in a blog post. “We would like to have some basic mechanism for giving employees a voice in the decisions that affect all of us here.” Similar efforts by other outlets soon followed, including Salon, BuzzFeed, and VICE, with varying degrees of success.
But the push to bring unions back has moved beyond the rarefied world of media into the rarefied world of academia. Graduate students at New York University recently negotiated a historic union contract granting them improved benefits and better wages. Prior to the contract, NYU didn’t cover dental insurance, paying Polytechnic Engineering students $10 an hour. Adjunct teachers at multiple universities and colleges around the country are also unionizing for higher salaries and job security. Even interns are pressing for improved options: The American Federation of Teachers formed the first union of non-medical interns in the U.S. in June 2015.
It’s no coincidence that the popularity of self-declared “democratic socialist” and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders coincided with the revival of union organizing. This generation of workers suffers from greater financial burdens—including higher levels of student debt, poverty, and unemployment—than the two generations that came before. A Pew Research Center survey found that 57 percent of millennials view unions more favorably than Gen Xers (42 percent) or baby boomers (41 percent). For young, disenfranchised workers, labor unions are the sole mechanism for holding employers accountable.
Building a union is a frustrating process and can be a full-time job. To start one, you need to find an organization to represent your workplace. (Gawker, for example, organized under the Writers Guild of America, East. A California-based marijuana dispensary recently unionized with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.) Then you have to rally the workers. You will need at least 30 percent of employees to support unionizing just to trigger an election (which must be sponsored by the National Labor Relations Board, an independent government body) and then more than 50 percent of the total votes to win. This process takes about six weeks, which is plenty of time for employers to campaign against the union, should they be so inclined. Union-busting, it should be noted, is a multi-million dollar industry—employers can choose from a veritable buffet of techniques, including management consulting and labor law specialists who are equipped to help out with “HR problems.” But if you can survive the Norma Rae-style crusade, you can sit at the table to negotiate a fair contract.
Some organizations have tried to fill the benefits vacuum. The Freelancers Union is a nonprofit that provides health insurance to its members and lobbies for policy changes that will help protect freelancers—they currently represent 300,000 freelance workers from around the country. Unfortunately, the union can’t take on the grievances of individual members. Freelancers often work for, and run into issues with, many organizations at the same time—there is no single entity with whom the union can negotiate. This dilemma betrays the weakness of our contemporary workforce infrastructure. Unions will either have to adapt or we will have to find a disruptive alternative. Our other option? Anonymously writing negative Glassdoor reviews about our employers in the hopes that they’ll amend their business practices. It may not change anything, but it sure feels good.