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Austin unions see new interest—and social justice demands—from millennials

Education Austin held a demonstration against proposed school closures in October 2019. The union's membership has grown younger in recent years, as more millennial and Gen Z employees join up. (Education Austin/Facebook)

Millennials love Austin. They also love unions.

Local union leaders report increased interest among millennial and Gen Z members, while workers at a number of Austin businesses—including JuiceLand, the Austin American-Statesman and BookPeople—have recently organized.

This trend is not limited to Austin. More than three-quarters of people who joined labor unions in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, were under the age of 35, despite making up less than 40% of total employment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Historically, younger workers have been less likely to join unions, but current workforce trends—rising job insecurity and the ubiquity of part-time, contract and unpaid positions—have led to a demographic shift, according to the Economic Politics Institute.

Paul Steiner, 25, is the labor branch co-chair of the Austin chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (and a millennial cusp). He believes millennials are interested in unionizing for the same reason they're buying fewer wedding rings and homes. "Quite frankly, we're poorer than any other generation has been in a long time," he said. "These are all the result of material conditions worsening for everyone in America."

The Benjamin Button effect

When Ken Zarifis, 57, became president of Education Austin in 2010, the Austin ISD employee union membership was graying. To ensure the union's longevity, he began meeting with its younger members and asking them why more of their peers weren't joining up. "They said, 'Not relevant anymore,'" he said. "That wasn't easy to hear."

Union gains, such as weekends and the eight-hour workday, were ancient history to millennial workers. In response, Education Austin grew more involved in the social justice issues that younger workers said were important to them, including hosting a series of DACA clinics to help eligible Dreamers apply for work permits and advocating for more equitable recess policies.

These efforts have paid off. "I can't say that we're not still a little gray-haired," Zarifis said. "(But) we see us growing young, like Benjamin Button."

Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie has also noticed a slight attitude change among incoming members. "There is excitement about the identity of being in a union rather than grilling us over the specific benefits being in the Association has," she wrote in an email to Austonia.

Next-generation demands

Recent worker movements in Austin have focused on social justice issues in addition to wage increases and workplace conditions.

The United Front of Juice Crews, a group of JuiceLand workers who organized earlier this month, have called on the Austin-based company to acknowledge allegations of racism, sexism and sexual harassment. "Management has continuously refused to acknowledge their role in upholding a racist and sexist structure," the group's media team wrote in a statement shared with Austonia. JuiceLand leadership disputes these allegations.

The Austin NewsGuild, which represents journalists at the Austin American-Statesman and its six community newspapers, won the right to negotiate for a union contract in February. Among its demands is an anti-racist action plan, which includes reviving the Spanish-language newspaper ¡Ahora Si!, diversifying hiring and disclosing pay to allow for an equity study.

Although these demands may reflect millennial leadership, they also have to appeal to workers of all ages to ensure organizational success. Austin DSA skews more millennial, Steiner said, but its growth in recent years is built on the commitment of longstanding members who "held down the fort" during the decades when unions were less popular. He pointed to BookPeople United, which was recognized in 2018, as an example of a union that included a mixed-age membership. "It necessarily has to cross generational lines," he said. "Otherwise you'll fail."


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