by Phil Wilson

What’s The Plan?

We’ve had a string of interesting campaigns over the last couple of months where a big issue has been how to educate younger workers on the realities of unions. I’ve never really bought into the whole “you have to communicate different to [insert group name here]” especially when it comes to a topic like unions. Let’s face it - the realities of collective bargaining and what unions (don’t) deliver haven’t changed much in decades. 

Union organizers are experts at selling union membership.  In a world where very few people actually belong to unions, organizers know the best approach is to sell the idea of a union, not the reality of union membership. The big flaw of that approach is the reality is so different from the idea. Most of the time you just point this out and the answer becomes obvious: joining a union is a bad deal for workers.

But younger audiences just don’t seem concerned at all about the reality of unions. At the same time they are VERY sold on the idea of a union. Probably more than the people trying to organize them. That creates a difficult communication challenge.

As I’ve wrestled with this problem my admiration for this younger generation has grown a lot. It is fashionable to bash so-called “millennials” (and now “Gen Z”) as lazy, coddled, sheltered and naive. But as I reflect on their formative years and compare them to my own “Generation X” youth, I see a different picture.

While I generally agree with Steven Pinker that comparing today against the last several hundred (or even several thousand years) things look pretty rosy right now. Important measures like extreme poverty and life expectancy have never been better. But if you tighten the frame to the last 75 years or so (post World War 2 let’s say) it is a different picture.

Over this shorter period it is safe to say that younger workers received a heaping pile of garbage from preceding generations. In the aftermath of World War 2 America was tasked with rebuilding most of the world. We had an effective monopoly on making and building things for several decades. Unions became powerful during this time because they had tremendous leverage (and companies could basically agree to anything because they were effectively monopolies). Life was good.

The story gets a little worse during the 1970’s and 80’s. The rest of the world caught up with the US. We suffered through some big recessions and an energy crisis. We eventually won the cold war, but we did it primarily through huge deficit spending (especially on the military and entitlements). Markets opened up around the world and companies started collapsing under the weight of promises they made when they were a monopoly. Unions lost their leverage and begin a several decade decline.

Around the turn of the century - the formative years for today’s younger workers - things really started to unravel. Notwithstanding attempts to protect these kids (former “latch-key” kids are now helicopter parents) the world was a pretty scary place. These kids watched the biggest terrorist attack on American soil live on television. They entered the workforce around the time of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, with unprecedented student debt and no way to repay it. The politicians they’ve watched have done little to inspire confidence. Heck, even the planet they’re left with is heating up with no political will to do much about it.

That’s why I’m inspired to see that this younger generation is so idealistic and has a “get out of our way, we’ll make it happen” attitude. They have very little trust of companies, politicians, or institutions. They are very confident and certain they can do things better (and may have a point - they couldn’t do a lot worse). They have zero tolerance for “the way we’ve always done it” and aren’t waiting for their turn.

Which brings us back to unions. These younger workers have no practical experience with unions (almost nobody does these days). And this lack of practical experience is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because the idea of a union becomes a convenient container for all that idealism about how the economy should work and all that skepticism and mistrust of companies. 

But it’s also a curse. Because younger workers are so confident they can overcome any obstacle you put in their way they quickly dismiss any facts that counter their idealistic views about what a union can do. They just say, “we’ll be in charge, our union will be different.” End of debate. Organizers must love this.

The irony of all this is that labor unions and the labor law that creates them embody just about everything that young workers hate about their situation. There is really no institution (other than Congress) that is so set on “the way we’ve always done it” or waiting your turn. The illusion that “we are the union” or that the members have any say or control doesn’t really set in until it’s way too late.

Unions are all about politics. Not just participation in national, state and local political elections, but internal politics as well. All of the skepticism about government or trusting the people pulling the strings applies more to unions than about any other political group.

The worst part of all this is that the idealism can blind young workers to the stark realities of collective bargaining. It feels great to say “we’ll have a seat at the table” or “we’ll force this big corporation to sit down and listen to our concerns.” But it just doesn’t happen that way. Almost none of the bargaining unit members ever sit at that table. The few who do are told to shut up and wait their turn (or told not to come back). You don’t bargain with the “corporation” - you bargain with people. Often the same local managers you could just deal directly with today.

And while it is easy to confidently say “our union will be different” it raises a really important question. What’s the plan?

I think it’s important to ask an idealistic and inspired person who thinks their situation will be different than others who’ve gone before, “what’s the plan?” We’ve had young workers bring up examples of other inspiring leaders (like Martin Luther King or Ghandi) who would not sit still for the “way we’ve always done things.” They say, “others told them they couldn’t do it too.” And that’s right. But they also had a plan. 

Martin Luther King didn’t just have a dream. King had a plan. So did Ghandi. So does anyone who makes an impact on the world. 

And if the dream is to remake the way labor unions represent workers, you have to have a plan. Specifically, what will you do different to make sure you have a “seat at the table” and the union bosses actually deliver what you want? How will you “force the corporation” to listen or do something different? How will you resolve (the inevitable) situation where the interests of your teammates differ from the institutional interests of “your” union? What’s the plan? 

While I am inspired by this younger generation, I am also a little puzzled about their attraction to unions (and socialism… but that’s an entirely different subject). I feel like this is one case where their confidence overwhelms their natural and understandable skepticism and mistrust of institutions. That’s why I think it is important to ask, “What’s the plan?” Any true reflection on this question focuses attention where it should be - on the realities of union representation. It won’t take much reflection to understand that unions are rarely a good solution for the problems they claim to solve.