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Here’s why Gen Z is unionizing

By Ramishah Maruf, CNN Business

Even among the generally youthful demographic of Starbucks workers unionizing in Buffalo, New York, 17-year-old Maya Panos is younger than most.

In her short stint as a member of the labor market, the high school senior says she lost economic stability — Panos was laid off from her first job as a hostess due to the pandemic.

“It was just a really terrible time,” Panos said. “The structure of my life was falling apart in front of my eyes and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

She joined Starbucks in mid-July, a month before her franchise announced its union campaign, and soon realized that even as a part time employee working conditions could improve.

“You just have customers straight-up verbally abusing you,” Panos said, “You get like a $1 or $2 pay (per hour) increase while you’re taking on way more work… and I felt like they were using us.”

According to Pew Research, in 1983, 20% of Americans were union members — but by 2020, that percentage had fallen by almost half to 10.8%. It’s even lower for workers aged 16-24 who have historically low union participation rates, at just 4.4% in 2020 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since many start out in temporary service or retail jobs where unions have little sway.

Yet some 77% of young adults support unions, according to a September Gallup poll. But that doesn’t mean they will choose to organize.

Across multiple industries, however — particularly the media and service sectors — interest in the labor movement is gaining traction among the economy’s newest and youngest workers.

Gen Z, born between 1996 and the mid-2000s, came of age through Black Lives Matter, the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump presidency. The oldest among them remember the 2008 global financial crisis and the Great Recession, and see echoes of that era’s economic instability today.

“They’ve seen opportunities for their generation disappear and are afraid they are going to be worse off than their parents,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research and a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “They look around and see who is doing something, and they see the labor movement.”

Many of those interviewed by CNN Business say they want to join a movement where social causes are part of their workplace values.

“[Unions] hadn’t crossed my mind, because we learned all these big union movements happened way back,” Panos said. “So you think everything should be set up by now. And everything should be fine.”

Kaitlin Bell, 23, communications chair of Nonprofit Professional Employees Union and a member of CLINIC Workers United, which represents the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, decided that she wanted to organize after seeing TikToks of millennials working in the non-profit sector, making jokes about overbearing bosses and their fears of getting fired.

“I want to be in a work environment where people feel safe and secure,” Bell said. “Those TikToks are funny, but if that’s our reality for the next several decades, it can be a little disheartening.”

Richard Minter, the organizing director of Workers United, a Service Employees International Union affiliate, said he has organized about 300 new members in the past 18 months. Most of them were young people who work in restaurants and service industries.

“In my history of doing this for 27 years, I don’t think I’ve seen that kind of bravery,” Minter said.

Kati Kokal, now a reporter at the Palm Beach Post, was the youngest journalist on the staff of the Hilton Head, South Carolina-based Island Packet when she joined the newspaper at age 22 in 2018.

The Packet’s staff began discussing organizing in March 2020, just before the newspaper’s owner, McClatchy, was purchased by hedge fund Chatham Asset Management in a bankruptcy sale. Kokal, who grew up in the US Rust Belt where her father was a member of a factory foundry union, joined the paper’s bargaining committee. She drove to workers’ homes after hours to have them sign union cards.

“When I was in college, we were not talking about unionizing in newsrooms, and now among student journalists there’s more of this idea,” Kokal said.

Starbucks organizes

When William Westlake, 24, was first approached to organize at Gimme! Coffee in Ithaca, New York, in 2016, he had a list of 140 questions for the organizers before joining the organizing committee, such as what would be the organizing structure and how much the union president would earn. He had learned about labor rights in high school — the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, for example — but he wasn’t sure if large labor movements were still happening.

Now, he leads the organizing effort at his Starbucks location in Buffalo, where workers at three stores are holding union elections and another three have filed petitions requesting an election to join Workers United, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.

“It would be rare to not have a friend that I hadn’t already talked to about unionizing at some point,” Westlake said. “Whether you’re in a coffee job or starting out as a medical professional or engineer.”

Westlake’s store in Buffalo, where employees are mostly young, female and progressive, he said, began mail-in voting earlier in November. Ballots are due early December.

Starbucks is flooding the Buffalo market with top executives who are holding meetings with employees. Former CEO Howard Schultz even spoke in person to employees there before union voting started.

Starbucks says the company is not “anti-union” — they frequently hold listening sessions across the country and send corporate members to locations when there are operational concerns. Starbucks says its workers have received three wage increases in the last two years.

It was Panos’ first time signing a union card, and she said she felt like she was signing an illegal document, and that she felt as if she was being “spied on” by out-of-state company officials. Starbucks said any claims of intimidation are not accurate.

“I’d ask my coworkers, oh, am I going to get fired tomorrow?” Panos said.

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