Exploited twentysomethings: It’s time for a meetup with the labor movement

If you’re a recent college graduate, you may be learning some harsh truths about the job market: Good entry-level positions are few and far between. More than a few employers are willing to take advantage of that fact by offering jobs at very low pay, requiring well in excess of 40 hours of work per week. The worst of them create postgraduate internships, many of which are unpaid, to squeeze out even more while paying less nothing.

In a recent piece for the New York Times about the employment challenges facing many twentysomethings, Teddy Wayne writes:

The recession has been no friend to entry-level positions, where hundreds of applicants vie for unpaid internships at which they are expected to be on call with iPhone in hand, tweeting for and representing their company at all hours.

“We need to hire a 22-22-22,” one new-media manager was overheard saying recently, meaning a 22-year-old willing to work 22-hour days for $22,000 a year. Perhaps the middle figure is an exaggeration, but its bookends certainly aren’t.

Good jobs at good wages

You may have heard the phrase “good jobs at good wages.” It refers to jobs that provide safe working conditions and respectable compensation.

America used to have a lot more good jobs at good wages, but they weren’t created by accident — and they certainly didn’t come about at the behest of benevolent employers.

Rather, it took the labor movement to turn not-so-great jobs into decent ones. How do you think provisions such as living wages, health care coverage, pensions, paid vacation days, and sick leave entered the picture for rank-and-file workers? It took unions engaging in collective bargaining to do it.

It’s how, for example, working in the steel mills went from being a tough job at low pay and few benefits to a still tough job at good pay and decent benefits.

And today?

It’s more than a coincidence that America’s wealth and income gaps are sky high at a time when labor union membership has dwindled to one of its lowest levels ever.

You may have some misgivings about unions. Fair enough. Like any other type of organization, unions are far from perfect, and some do much better by their members than others. And yes, being in a union means you pay dues and “give up” the right to negotiate with your employer individually.

But this doesn’t change the fact that unions represent the best way for many workers to join together and advocate for their interests as a unified, more powerful voice.

Your college education and upbringing may cause you to think that unions are for blue-collar folks who work in plants and factories, or perhaps for cops, firefighters, schoolteachers, and other public servants.

That’s what I thought too when I graduated from law school as a newly-minted, idealistic public interest lawyer working for the Legal Aid Society in New York City. But I would quickly learn that the Legal Aid staff attorneys’ union played a critically important role in bargaining over salaries, benefits, and working conditions. I eventually became an elected shop steward (i.e., union rep for my office) and played an active role in the union’s advocacy work.

Intern Labor Rights

This is why I’m delighted to see an emerging movement against unpaid internships borrowing tactics from organized labor, and adding a few twists of its own. In the process, these advocates are starting to make their case against this widespread, economically exploitative practice.

Intern Labor Rights, for example, is using creative advocacy campaigns and social media to spread the word. While not a union per se, Intern Labor Rights is showing what happens when groups of committed, energetic people come together to push for change that benefits the greater good.

Dilbert vs. Norma Rae

It boils down to this:

On the one hand, you’ve got the cartoon character Dilbert, who makes his humorous, biting observations about cubicle life that are so on target, yet doomed to result in more of the same because one person growsing alone is unlikely to change anything. That’s the case even if you graduated magna cum laude from State U.

On the other hand, there’s Norma Rae, the character played by Sally Field in the award-winning movie of the same name. Norma comes to realize that conditions in the textile plant where she works aren’t going to improve until workers unionize, and so she enters the fray.

Too many younger folks — and yes, I’m now old enough to use that phrase “younger folks” — don’t understand why the labor movement is critical toward improving working conditions for everyone. At the risk of sounding condescending, I say it’s about time for them to get it, for their own good. They didn’t create the terrible job market and exploitative employer practices that confront them, but by organizing on their own behalf they can forge a more promising future.

4 responses

  1. I agree but am at a loss how we grow viable support for unions in our country. One of my great frustrations are the many professionals who vilify unions or poo poo them meanwhile enjoy the ongoing protections and benefits achieved through long standing professional organizations which operate in most ways just as would a union. The new possibilities for collective efforts enabled by information technology would seem a fertile place for a revitalized labor movement but I find hope hard to maintain on this one.

    • Perhaps it’s less about hope than it is about “simply” changing the dialogue about unions one conversation at a time. In that sense, I wish our President would sound that message. For example, he has helped to validate LGBT rights & dignity via express mentions in major addresses. Why can’t he bring himself to praise the labor movement similarly?

  2. Pingback: Top 5 Bestest Workplace Blogs EVER — Plus Special Announcement! HR, Recruiting, Social Media Policies, Human Resources, HR Technology Blogging4Jobs

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