Brittany Anderson may not look like a typical organized labor leader.
However, organized labor news source Union Track earlier this year named her one of the U.S.’s “19 Young Labor Leaders to Know.” Not yet 30 years old, Anderson has already built a lengthy resume of leadership roles including her current role as field director of Southeast Minnesota Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
She is also a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and is a community liaison for Pride at Work, a nonprofit group that represents LGBTQ union members.
Jason Schwingle has been in building trades in the Rochester area for more than a decade.
“Unions are living, breathing things,” Anderson said, adding that new members in organized labor would probably look like her.
Younger people joining unions has increased the number of union-affiliated workers to its highest in more than a decade, labor statistics show. More than 421,000 Minnesota workers were members of or represented by unions in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a small drop from about 428,000 Minnesota workers in 2017 -- which was the most seen in more than a decade.
However, these are small reversals of an overall trend of declining union affiliation in the U.S. Nationwide, union representation is at its lowest percentage of the workforce ever falling steadily from 20.1 percent of the workforce in 1983 to about 10.5 percent of workers in 2018.
The number of workers who are union members dropped slightly in 2017, from 14.8 million to 14.7 million in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the increase in total workers in the U.S. meant the percentage of workers in unions fell more sharply, from 10.7 percent in 2017 to 10.5 percent last year.
The downward trend was interrupted in 2017 when union membership rose slightly nationwide. An influx of 198,000 workers under age 35 offset the loss about 75,000 union workers age 45 to 54.
Anderson said the generational trend makes sense. In the age of a gig economy, younger workers are looking for opportunities that offer security and benefits.
“We see stagnant wages, a shrinking social safety net, unpaid internships, employers that classify employees as independent contractors,” Anderson said. “Unions are a way of getting a fair return on our work.”
Unions also protect vulnerable and under represented workers such as people of ethnic minorities, women and LGBT employees, she added.
“Millennial values are very in line with union values,” she said. “We value fairness … we believe healthcare is a human right; we stand up for gender equality and against racism, homophobia, transphobia.”
For Tucker Scott, the idea of having a job that paid bills and came with benefits was all he needed to hear. Nick Wille, representative at the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, visited Wabasha-Kellogg High School when Scott, who graduated May this year, was a senior there. Wille said the carpenter trade was a booming industry and that joining a union would mean continuous training, regular raises and full benefits right out of high school.
“It seemed too good to be true,” said Scott.
Matthew Hanson, who is attending the same class, said joining a union seemed like an out-of-reach secret society. Despite having carpentry experience from part-time job experience since he was age 15, he thought a union position was out of reach.
“It seemed like some clandestine thing,” he said. “I thought, ‘I have to know something to get in there.’”
Scott said he felt the same way before Wille’s visit to his school.
“It seemed like a high society kind of thing,” he said. “It was pretty surprising how easy it was to get in.”
Scott is attending certification training this month with five other carpenter apprentices at the Rochester Training Center. Each of their unions funded their certification training classes, books and other materials. Their union dues are a fraction of what they would have paid for training individually. Apprentices who stick with the class regimen over four years will earn journeyman status and 40 credits toward an associates degree.
Jason Schwingle, class instructor, said new apprentices continue to come in at a high rate. Training classes are filled through December, Schwingle added.
“We’re bringing in a lot of new people,” Schwingle said. “We’re getting a lot more of a diverse apprentice pool.”
Nate O’Reilly, President of the Southeastern Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, said trades representatives have been doing more outreach to high school students to introduce them to those career options.
“We’ve been doing a lot more outreach and talking to people in general,” O’Reilly said.
O’Reilly attributes that increased engagement and other factors to the upswing in young people joining trades -- union or otherwise. He said students are attracted by the prospect of making high wages and avoiding high student debt right out of high school.
“You get virtually free education along with job placement,” said O’Reilly, who joined organized labor through the ironworkers union.
However, it’s not always the right fit, he added.
“It’s hard, physical work,” he said. “It’s getting up at five in the morning, working in high elevations, working in all kinds of weather.”
Some trades carry heavy seasonal workload. Many require commuting to different places and often not very close to home.
“It’s a two-sided coin,” O’Reilly said. “What attracts some people to the trade is a deterrent for others.”
A robust construction market is also fueling more hiring in a decade. The construction industry was hit hard by the 2008 recession, O’Reilly said. That not only slowed hiring, but also caused some people to steer clear of the trades as a result, he added.
“I think there is the stigma that it can be boom and bust,” O’Reilly said.
However, as young people warm to organizing, workers outside traditional trades and sectors with heavy union representation have been organizing too.
“It doesn’t really matter what sector you’re in,” Anderson said. “It’s about coming together with co-workers to make your workplace better.”