Millennials Bring New Hope to Besieged Unions

As a PhD student and graduate employee at the University of Connecticut, Cera Fisher was on her way to a successful career. But she and her colleagues were having a hard time making ends meet. Their stipends were swallowed up by fees; their healthcare was cut back; and they were required to teach more courses without extra pay. “We felt they [the administration] could change our conditions on a whim,” she recalls.

“Norma Rae Moment.” In what Fisher calls their “Norma Rae moment,” more than 2,100 research and teaching assistants organized with the UAW and won improved pay, healthcare, and fee policies.

  • They’re among tens of thousands of “millennials”—America’s largest living generation, aged 22 to 37, who account for three-quarters of unions’ membership gains.
  • Young people are joining together across the economy from academia and digital media to fast-food restaurants and retail outlets.
  • Millennials’ energy, ideas, and numbers are needed more than ever now that unions are besieged by a Supreme Court case to weaken public service employees, “right-to-work” laws that cost workers $6,109 a year, and the Trump administration’s attacks on job safety, overtime protections, retirement security, and other crucial issues.

Historic Support for Unions. Americans are supporting unions in record numbers, and young people are leading the way.

  • Sixty-one percent of all Americans hold favorable views of unions—the highest approval in a decade-and-a-half.
  • Among Americans under 30, unions’ approval ratings are soaring to 76 percent.

Security in an Uncertain Economy. Having come of age during the financial crisis and the recent recession, millennials are joining and organizing unions in order to gain strength and security in an uncertain economy. As we have previously reported, younger workers face numerous challenges, including:

  • The part-timing of jobs;
  • Stagnant wages;
  • Unpaid internships;
  • Contract work;
  • Shrinking healthcare coverage and vanishing pension plans; and
  • “Noncompete” clauses that make it more difficult to move to better jobs.

New York & New Jersey Airport Workers Win Big Raises

It isn’t easy cleaning cluttered aircraft at a busy metropolitan airport. But now, Gertrudes Lopez-Ortiz, a cabin cleaner at Newark Liberty International Airport, is getting a well-deserved, long-overdue raise. “Now is a dream come true for me and my co-workers,” she said. “I was here when the Port [Authority of New York and New Jersey] originally promised this in 2014.”

Robust Increases in a “Raise-Less” Economy. Lopez-Ortiz is one of 40,000 cabin cleaners, restaurant staff, and other low-wage workers at New York’s three major airports who are getting substantial pay increases. That’s all too rare these days, especially for workers like these who are employed by contractors and subcontractors for airlines, terminal operators, and concessions.

  • These workers will get raises every year through 2023, when they’ll be paid at least $19 an hour.
  • The raises will lift salaries at these airports to $35,000 a year. For the lowest-paid workers, that’s an average annual increase of 13.5 percent.
  • Currently, typical wages at Newark International Airport are $10.45-an-hour. In New York, which enacted a state minimum wage in 2016, typical wages at JFK International and LaGuardia airports are $13 an hour.

Bargaining, not Begging. Having organized with SEIU (Service Employees International Union), about half of the workers at these airports negotiated their first contract in 2016, with health and safety protections, fairer scheduling and disciplinary provisions, and recognition for years of service.

  • Fighting for their raises, these workers kept attending meetings of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. They testified about how hard it is to feed their families, pay rent, and afford basic healthcare while living on low wages.

Elections Matter. While New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo supported pay raises, New Jersey’s Republican former Governor Chris Christie was a roadblock. Soon after newly elected Democrat Phil Murphy took office in January, the raises were approved.

Facing Outcry, Trump Backs Down from “Tip-Stealing Rule”

Restaurant servers, hotel workers, car-wash employees, and other tipped workers just won a big victory. As part of the $1.3 trillion spending package that President Trump signed on March 23, he backed down from a proposed federal rule letting bosses pocket workers’ tips.

Public Overwhelming Opposes “Tip-Stealing Rule.” While Trump’s Labor Department said the rule would let restaurants share servers’ tips with untipped workers, it would have let employers take the tips themselves.

  • As the Economic Policy Institute estimated, the rule would have cost servers and other tipped workers $5.6 billion, with women losing $4.6 billion.
  • Fighting back, workers and their allies submitted more than 200,000 public comments opposing the rule.

Trump Allies Buried the Bad News. The Labor Department’s economists found that workers “could lose out on billions of dollars in gratuities.”

  • Seeking to suppress these findings, Trump appointees at the White House and the Labor Department tried to change the research methods. When the study still showed workers losing, they tried to bury the study altogether.
  • At a hearing on March 6, Democratic Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Katherine Clark of Massachusetts grilled Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta about the suppressed study.
  • Stung by the public criticism, Acosta reached an agreement with Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington to scrap the rule.

Compromise Spotlights Need for “One Fair Wage.” Under the agreement, any restaurant setting up a tip pool must pay all its tipped workers the full federal minimum wage—$7.25 an hour.

  • That’s a big increase from the federal subminimum wage for tipped workers—only $2.13-an-hour.
  • This highlights the need for “one fair wage” for all workers. Seven states have eliminated the sub-minimum wage. Michigan and Washington, DC, will vote on the issue this year, while New York is considering the idea.

Debt “R” Us: Corporate Takeover Kills 33,000 Jobs

The Toys “R” Us mascot—Geoffrey the Giraffe—is streaming tears down his long neck.

A Sad “Toy Story.” Once the nation’s leading toy retailer, Toys “R” Us has remained profitable, selling one of every five toys purchased in the U.S. last year.

  • The superstore brought in $460 million in operating income before making its debt payments.


  • But now, it’s filing for bankruptcy, closing its 730 U.S. stores, and laying off 33,000 American workers.


  • Parents and kids are asking: Why?

Buying the Company with Its Own Money. Don’t believe the easy explanations—that Amazon and online commerce are solely responsible for bankrupting this iconic company.

  • The real culprits are the corporate-takeover specialists, including Bain Capital (co-founded by former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney), which bought Toys “R” Us for $6.6 billion in 2005.


  • In an all-too-typical Wall Street maneuver, these investors bought the toy store with its own money. Bain and its partners paid only 20 percent of the cost out of their own pockets. They borrowed the rest, sticking Toys “R” Us with more than $6 billion in debt.


  • In short, “Toys R Us” went bankrupt because it had to fork over $450 to $500 million a year in interest payments, eating up its earnings as a successful retailer.

Workers, Consumers Suffer from Sending Call Centers Overseas

Last fall, workers at Wells Fargo’s call center in West Bethlehem, PA, were called into the company cafeteria for an important announcement. The bank was closing the facility and eliminating about 460 jobs.

The company didn’t explicitly announce it, but the workers already knew: Their jobs weren’t vanishing so much as they were moving beyond America’s borders. While cutting back in the U.S., the scandal-ridden financial-services company has been expanding its call centers in low-wage countries around the world, including India and the Philippines.

Global Race to the Bottom. Call centers are an important sector of the American economy, with more than 2 million customer-service representatives working at facilities throughout the country.

  • But about a half-million American call-center jobs have been sent overseas, mostly to India and the Philippines.


  • The bottom line: Offshore operations can get away with paying workers only about $1 an hour and making them work 12-hour days or even longer.

Workers and Consumers Suffer. Consumer safeguards, as well as worker protections, are weaker in low-wage economies.

  • American customers have lost millions of dollars—and had their financial information imperiled—because of scams and fraud at far-away call centers.


  • For instance, 15,000 Americans had $300 million stolen by a fraud ring that included customer-service centers in India.

There Ought to Be a Law. Democratic Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania are actively supporting legislation to slow down this race to the bottom. The U.S. Call Center Worker and Consumer Protection Act would:

  • Give preference for federal contracts to companies that haven’t relocated call-center jobs overseas;


  • Require U.S. companies to identify the location of a call center and customers to be transferred to call centers in the U.S. on their request;


  • Require companies to notify the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) before they relocate call centers overseas; require DOL to create a public list of those job-exporting companies.

Despite Outsourcing, Manufacturing Jobs Still High-Paid, Worth Saving

Manufacturing matters. “Big time.” Among other things, these jobs:

  • Make modern life possible
  • Protect our national security
  • Encourage and apply new technologies
  • Hold the key to reducing our trade deficit
  • Contribute to the growth of the service industries, public services, and professional technical sectors

High-Paying Jobs. Most important of all, manufacturing still provides the high-wage, family-supporting, community-sustaining jobs that built the middle class.

  • In fact, manufacturing workers earn 13 percent more in hourly pay than comparable workers elsewhere in the private sector.

Need to Expand & Improve Manufacturing Jobs. That’s why, as the Economic Policy Institute’s Larry Mishel concludes in his report: “We should not give up on U.S. manufacturing, which is still a source of better-paying jobs. But, because there is less of a pay advantage in manufacturing than there used to be, policies to expand manufacturing employment should be coupled with policies that make those jobs good jobs.”

Down but Not Out. Manufacturing workers’ wage advantage has fallen from 16.9 percent in the 1980s to 13.0 percent today. More from the report:

  • Up against competition from low-wage economies abroad and cut-throat companies at home, American manufacturers are paying lower wages and using low-paid temp workers from staffing agencies.
  • These temp agencies lowered the pay premium in manufacturing by 4 percent in the 2000s.
  • But, compared to other workers, manufacturing workers’ benefits—especially insurance and retirement—have improved.
  • Another hopeful sign: Union membership in manufacturing increased last year.

Delta Tells Workers: We Talk, You Listen

When Delta’s cargo and ramp workers began to organize with the Machinists union, the airline posted an anti-union video on YouTube, Facebook, and other online media.

  • Boss-splaining. The video features executives explaining to workers why a union could interfere with their “direct relationship” with the airline as well as disrupt “the very culture that makes Delta different.”
  • Shut Up, They Explained. But, apparently that relationship is a one-way street—as in, the company speaks, and the workers listen. When the video was first posted to YouTube, comments were permitted. However, after workers started commenting, Delta shut down the comment section altogether.
  • Silencing Social Media. Delta also issued a Social Media Policy for employees forbidding posts that are “inappropriate” or have “the ability to harm Delta.” The airline advised employees that concerns about “pay, job duties, coworkers, issues with company policy or general criticisms about Delta are best directed to your manager.”
  • High-Flying Airline. While Delta seeks to silence them, its cargo and ramp workers would benefit from the stronger voice that a union provides in decisions about the future of their airline. Notably, the company made $5.5 billion in profits last year, and their stock value is soaring, enriching executives and investors.
  • Unions Improve Consumer Service. Airline travelers will also benefit from improved services because unionized airline employees have less turnover, more training, and access to more resources than their non-union counterparts.