Can Millennials Save the Labor Movement?

Four themes from Tapia, Turner, and Sapre's research on what makes young workers actively engage and participate in the labor movement.

  1. Precarity breeds innovation: When young people have found themselves in precarious job situations, either creative young workers or established unions find innovative and more flexible ways to improve their working conditions.

    In the US, the union for retail workers created RAP – the Retail Action Project – a group for young workers that built a creative, youthful identity while engaging in successful campaigns for young workers. In the UK, the Fast Food Rights Campaign run by the Baker’s union BFAWU, was a grassroots campaign supported by young workers that fought for fair hours and wages. Full article:

  2. Building alliances between the labor movement and civil society organizations: Many of these relations resulted from young leaders' ties to community organizations, resulting in the innovation and transformation of framing, tactics, and organizational structures of unions.

    In France, young graduates set up a new network called ReAct to fight against multinational companies. Read more here:

  3. Balance between gaining union support and allowing for local autonomy: Young worker groups are more likely to succeed when they have the freedom to engage in independent initiatives, knowing they have the backing of an established union.

    In the UK, many unions create specific groups for young workers. For example, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) created a network for young members up to 27 years old. This network focuses on recruiting, representing, and organizing young workers across the civil sector. In Germany, the large service sector union Ver.di created a training program for young workers in the health and elder care sector.

  4. Leadership training for young activists: For training to be successful, it must allow for young worker empowerment, encourage creative thinking beyond the traditional union repertoire, and not attempt to merely socialize young activists into reproducing existing labor movement practices.

    For example, the AFL-CIO/Cornell Leadership Institute has offered leadership development to young people from unions and non-unions since 2001, highlighting the importance of equity, inclusion, and transformative leadership.

In conclusion, labor movements need young members and activists not only to revamp membership, but also for their transformative potential and experimentation. Union leaders need to mentor young activists by bringing them in, teaching them the ropes, while at the same time being receptive to their ideas.

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Maite Tapia

Maite Tapia is an assistant professor at the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University. Her research revolves around mobilising strategies of trade unions and community organisations in the US and Europe, as well as work, migration, and intersectionality.


Lowell Turner

Lowell Turner is a professor of international and comparative labour at Cornell University, in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. In June, 2011, he was appointed as the founding academic director of the new Worker Institute at Cornell and served in this capacity from 2011-2016.


Salil R. Sapre

Salil R. Sapre is a PhD student in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University. His research interests are gender and work; comparative employment relations; informal work; worker mobilisation and organisation; and implications of global supply chains for labour.

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