How Different Generations View Unions

Sep 2, 2013
Originally published on September 2, 2013 2:55 pm

Union membership across the country has long been falling. Only about 11 percent of workers are unionized, compared to a peak of 35 percent during the 1950s.

According to the tech website Quartz, only about 4 percent of young workers are unionized.

Choosing Not To Join

Michael Tonsmeire, a 30-year-old federal government employee, opted not to join the union.

“I think unions are a terrific thing, I think that they’re a really good balancing factor to management,” Tonsmeire said. “But that doesn’t mean that I think my marginal $500 is going to change what the union is able to accomplish.”

He acknowledges that he and people his age might feel indifferent about unions because they are already reaping the benefits unions wrought many years ago.

“Maybe we haven’t seen what unions have accomplished, or haven’t personally witnessed the changes in workforce dynamics that happened over the past 20 or 30 or 40 years,” Tonsmeire said.

Perspective From A Longtime Member

Wes Epperson, a UPS truck driver who has belonged to the Teamsters Local 41 in Kansas City, Missouri, since 1972, thinks unions have become “victims of their own success.”

“Over the years they’ve negotiated better working conditions, unemployment insurance, health and welfare benefits, safety articles in their contracts, eight hour days, weekends off,” Epperson said. “All these things, the unions have fought for over the years, and a lot of these thing have become the law.”

However, Epperson says workers cannot take these benefits for granted.

“If somebody’s not there to defend these, these things can go away,” Epperson said.

Generational Differences

Tom Kochan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says young people need to take an interest in the labor movement because they have the most at stake.

“Today, young people are inheriting from our generation the fact that their standard of living is going to be less than what their parents’ standards of living were, and what it was growing up,” Kochan said. “The only way to reverse that is if they work together, with each other, with new strategies to build a labor movement that makes sense for this economy and for their future.”

Kochan adds, though, that unions needs to revamp their strategies to appeal to the new economy that young workers inhabit — one that is more mobile and aspirational.

“The reality is we have to speak to young workers’ interests as they find them, and not try to reinvent the labor movement in its mirror image,” he said. “The numbers will continue to go down as long as unions only try to organize within the constrains of a failed labor law. Today, the only way to organize is outside of that law.”


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Well on this Labor Day, many Americans are working. According to news survey data from Bloomberg, 39 percent of employers are staying open, requiring some workers to come in, especially in retail, food and police. Meanwhile, the number of workers who are members of a union is at a historic low. Only about 11 percent of workers in the U.S. are unionized. Compare that to a peak of 35 percent during the 1950s.

And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 9 percent of workers aged 25 to 34 are in unions. Those numbers are even lower for younger workers. One young workers who has made the decision not to join the union is Michael Tonsmeire. He has worked for a government agency since 2006. He asked us not to name that agency. But he is 30 years old, and he's with us now from Washington. Welcome.

MICHAEL TONSMEIRE: It's nice to be here.

HOBSON: Well, why did you decide not to join the union?

TONSMEIRE: So the first day that we worked, the union came in, gave us a little spiel, said it would be I think it was something like $20 a pay period, so around $500 a year. And I sort of went, well, I'd rather have the $500 myself.

HOBSON: You didn't see any benefits to yourself from being in the union?

TONSMEIRE: I mean, it's one of those tricky things where the union represents you regardless of whether or not you're in the union or not. You know, everyone sort of is on the same pay scale, has the same benefits. They play it off as, well, if you join the union, and if everyone joins the union, we'll have more bargaining power, we'll be able to fight for more vacation or more flexible hours, those sorts of things.

HOBSON: And have you noticed any downsides of not being part of the union over the last seven years?

TONSMEIRE: I mean, I guess the only sort of disadvantage is that the union members maybe getting an email once in a while that maybe the sequester, you know, was sort of an inside update. But as soon as one person gets it, they're not holding on to this information. They tend to share it.

I had a co-worker who quit the union because he felt like his concerns about the cafeteria weren't being addressed adequately. I mean, it tends to be real small-level stuff. And I'll say, like, I really think that unions are a terrific thing. I think that they are a real good balancing factor to management, but I don't think my marginal $500 is going to change what the union is able to accomplish.

HOBSON: If the union were free to join, would you join?

TONSMEIRE: Yeah, probably. You know, for the most part what they're trying to do is in my best interest.

HOBSON: You know, Michael, there are a lot of people who are hearing this and disagreeing with you vehemently. We're going to hear from one person in just a few minutes who thinks the union has saved his job, negotiated for better safety and health standards. What about that argument?

TONSMEIRE: No, and certainly depending on where you work and the situation - I think it's in the news now that Obama has suggested giving us a 1 percent pay raise. I'm not sure that the union had much to do with lobbying directly to the president to try to get, you know, a 1 percent raise for the first time in three years.

HOBSON: So you feel like the benefits that you're getting are not coming from the union, they're just happening?

TONSMEIRE: At least where I work. I think part of that, too, is as federal government employees, we aren't allowed to strike. We don't have that ultimate sort of union trump card that you can say, hey, if things don't go the way we want, we can really push for them and do something that really has a big impact. Really, all the union can do is discuss things.

HOBSON: Michael Tonsmeire, a non-union member working in a government agency since 2006. He is 30 years old. Michael, thanks so much for joining us.

TONSMEIRE: Thanks for having me on.

HOBSON: Well, let's continue our conversation with Tom Kochan, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management. Professor, thanks for laboring with us on this Labor Day. And just tell us your thoughts on what you just heard from Michael; doesn't want to join a union but isn't necessarily against the idea of unions.

TOM KOCHAN: Thank you, Jeremy, happy Labor Day to you, as well. Well, I think Michael illustrates the problem for the labor movement. There are many workers out there who, in general, as Michael said, appreciate labor, recognize that unions in the past have done lots of good things but don't see what's in it for them.

And so labor's challenge today is to figure out how to reach people like Michael and to get him and his colleagues to work together to move an agenda forward. Now, in Michael's case, you can understand it. He's an employee of the federal government. Federal unions don't - federal government unions don't have the right to bargain even over wages. They have a very constrained range of issues that they can negotiate under.

As he said, they don't have the right to strike so that they don't have a lot of leverage other than their political leverage and the efforts to bargain and to represent people. Now Michael's real problem, though, is that he's waiting for that particular day when he really needs some protection, where there's some discrimination against him at the workplace, or he's treated unfairly, and he wants the union to then step up and represent him.

By law the union has to do that because it has to represent people who are members or nonmembers, and at that point he's going to find that he will appreciate the role that a union can play at his workplace.

HOBSON: So it's almost like the conversation that's going on about health care, where people, younger people who are healthier, decide they don't want insurance, but they sure want it to be there when they need it.

KOCHAN: That's right. And I believe young people themselves have to take the future of the labor movement to heart. They have the most at stake. Today, young people are inheriting from our generation the fact that their standard of living is going to be less than what their parents were - standard of living were, and what it was growing up. The only way to reverse that is if they work together with each other with new strategies to build a labor movement that makes sense for this economy and for their future.

HOBSON: What about the question of upward mobility, though? Is there something to the idea that younger workers don't get the same ability to move up within the workplace as the protection, perhaps, that older workers get by being in the union?

KOCHAN: Well that's right. We're going to need new strategies. Today it's less of moving up within an existing organization. Many older workers benefited from seniority because they stayed employed by the same employer. That's not the case today. So the new tools, the new sources of power, are going to require much more mobility, that is knowing where the good jobs are, having the training and education to move to new jobs, having the supports and access to get the opportunities wherever they find them, whether it's at an existing employer or some other one.

HOBSON: Well, Professor Kochan, stand by, we're going to come back and speak with you in just a few moments. We're also going to talk with a longtime UPS truck driver who is glad he joined a union several decades ago.


And we'll of course keep an eye on our top story, the Obama administration making its case to Congress for strikes against Syria. But back with more of Jeremy's conversation with Professor Kochan in one minute, HERE AND NOW.


HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW. We're back with our look at unions on this Labor Day and how different generations view them. Before the break we heard from a 30-year-old government worker who elected not to join his employer's union because he didn't see any benefit, just a cost of about $500 a year.

With us in the studio is Tom Kochan, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management. And Tom, we're going to hear now from Wes Epperson, a longtime driver UPS in Kansas City. He's also a member of the Teamsters Local 41 union. He's been in that union since the '70s. He joins us from KCUR in Kansas City. Welcome.


HOBSON: So I imagine you are a big fan of unions.

EPPERSON: Yes, yes I am.

HOBSON: Well, what has it done for you personally to be in the union?

EPPERSON: Number one is job security. It gives me a chance to have seniority. I've worked several jobs at UPS during my career. I was a sorter. I've run a package route, and for the last 30 years I guess I've been what we call a feeder driver, which is a tractor-trailer driver.

HOBSON: And what has your union specifically bargained for or done for you that has changed your job?

EPPERSON: Well, they bargained in our contract that when a company wants to hire tractor-trailer drivers, then we have an opportunity, you know, by seniority to go to school and be trained, and then once we're qualified then we can bid on that job.

HOBSON: And I want you to tell us about what happened back in 1972. This was shortly after you joined the union, and you say the union actually helped save your job.

EPPERSON: Yeah, they did. I was a route driver. It was a Friday before Christmas, 1972. And I had actually finished my route, and another driver got behind that day. so they told me I needed to go over and take some work off of him. And I was a newer guy then, so I had a route in could be what you'd call a difficult part of town.

So I went over to the next route, and about halfway through the additional stops I was given, as I stepped out of this lady's house, I walked down her steps, I turned to close the gate, and when I did I had about five or six guys attack me, push me around, hit me in the head. I thought it was just, you know, young guys having a little fun until a guy pulled a gun out and stuck it behind my ear.

He told me he was going to shoot me if I didn't tell - so I told him, you know, there was a safe in the truck, which there wasn't, but I just wanted to get him away from me. And when I did, I ran and got back in the lady's house. Anyway, when I got back to work after that whole thing, of course I had to go to the hospital and see if, you know, I had a skull fracture or whatever.

I went to my manager, and I told him that, you know, there was another area on my route that I had been delivering to, and it was a housing project. It had been in the news about how even ambulance drivers wouldn't go up in those high-rises without a police escort. So I told my boss about that and told him I didn't feel safe unless I had somebody to watch my back, you know, another driver, police officer, security guard or whatever. And he basically said hey, you bid that route, and you're going to run it. So I contacted Local 41, talked to my business agent, his name is Burt Klaus(ph), and he said yeah, I agree with you. You know, you shouldn't have to go up there without somebody watching your back up in the high-rise.

HOBSON: So the union did that for you?

EPPERSON: Yes, he told me, he said, yeah, I'll back you up.

HOBSON: Well Wes, we know that the number of younger workers in unions is down. We know that we just heard from one person who has decided not to join his union because he doesn't think that it's going to be effective for him. Why do you think younger workers do not feel the same way about unions that you do?

EPPERSON: Well, I think one of the problems is is the unions, in a way, are a victim of their own success. Over the years they've, you know, negotiated better working conditions, unemployment insurance, health and welfare benefits, you know, safety articles in their contracts. And so - eight-hour days, weekends off, holidays, vacation, all these things the unions have fought for through the years.

And a lot of these things have actually become the law. And so I think younger people, because some of them don't come from union families, like I did, they don't understand the benefits that the unions have fought for, and I don't think these young people are aware that if somebody's not there to defend these, these things can go away.

HOBSON: Wes Epperson is a UPS driver in Kansas City and a member of the Teamsters Local 41. Wes, thanks so much for speaking with us.

EPPERSON: OK, thank you.

HOBSON: And let's bring back in Tom Kochan, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management. Tom, what do you make of that strong defense of unions from Wes Epperson?

KOCHAN: Well, I think Wes represents the prevailing view of many people who have been in unions for a long period of time. So many of them will have a story like Wes'. Whether it's as serious as being physically attacked and his life in jeopardy is another issue. But almost everyone has had some experience where the union has had to come to their defense to protect them and promote enforcement of their rights.

The other thing that I think he said, which is really instructive, is that most young people today don't understand the history of where a lot of the benefits on their jobs have come from. They have come through struggle over many years. They've come through innovations brought about by the labor movement.

In the 1940s, we got the first wage productivity bargain from the auto workers and General Motors. That's all been lost now today. And young workers just don't see what unions can do for them today. We need to find new ways.

HOBSON: And they may also be in a number of different jobs by the time they're 26, and they look not to the idea of staying in one job and benefitting from the union and what that's going to do for them, but maybe they want to work at a place like Google or Apple, that's going to give them all these other benefits like a free lunch or whatever that they can see.

KOCHAN: Well that's right. Workers are going to move around more. We know that, and the image of Google or employers like that is an aspiration for many, many young people. Now, the reality is that's a very, very small tail of the distribution. Very few firms are as financially able to provide those kind of benefits as Google.

But the reality is we have to speak to young workers' interests as they find them and not try to reinvent the labor movement in its mirror image. And in fact labor recognizes that. They're doing a lot of things to try to now reach out to young people.

Well, do you think that the difference can be made - we've only got about a minute left - but the numbers do keep going down in terms of union membership.

The numbers will continue to go down as long as unions only try to organize within the constraints of a failed labor law. Today the only way to organize is outside of that law, the way the fast food workers are trying to organize now with the help of SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, the way the AFL-CIO is now reaching out and using young workers to find ways to use social networking. All of those are just getting started, and I think they are the wave of the future.

HOBSON: Tom Kochan, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, thanks so much.

KOCHAN: Thank you.

HOBSON: And we'd love to know what you think. What do you think of unions these days? Do they still help workers? Do younger workers have a different view than more established workers, and is there any merit to that view? Go to our Facebook page, You can also go to and let us know what you think. We'll be reading some comments later in the show. The news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.