The terms “empowerment” and “activism” are partner words. Empowerment in the business environment is a state of being in which a person has official authority to do something. Management empowers employees by sharing information, providing appropriate resources, giving opportunities, motivating and developing employee skills so they can experience more satisfaction in their work and careers. Activism is the use of vigorous campaigning to bring about change. People become activists because they see a need for change, and uniting with others to bring change increases feelings of power and control.
For the millennial voice, activism is empowerment; unions represent activism; thus, unions are empowering. Employees turn to unions for empowerment when they don’t feel empowered in the workplace. In some ways, the same factors that drove the growth of unions decades ago are in play again today – large groups of workers feel powerless to influence their wages, benefits, job design, career paths, and employer decision-making processes. The younger generation wants to have a say in their pay rates, work hours, career paths and so on. The difference is that the younger generation of workers also wants to act similar to a shareholder by having a “vote” in decisions impacting social justice like impacts on the environment, diversity in the workplace and even whether a CEO should resign or be terminated.
Expanding Employee Empowerment
Empowering employees is not a new concept, but it is an expanding one. The problem that employers are having today in trying to understand millennials is that they continue to apply old ideas of empowerment to a new generation of employees. Baby boomers formed and joined unions because the unions gave them a voice and people who would stand up for them when it came to settling issues around pay, schedules, and working conditions. Millennials turn to unions for empowerment through activism to gain a voice internally concerning workplace issues and a voice externally (publicly) to influence corporate decisions impacting social justice.
A recent case involving the mega-retailer Amazon is a recent case in point. Employees interested in unionizing have traditional workplace related grievances like low pay, unreasonable production quotas, too few breaks, and poor workplace safety. However, they are also telling Amazon executives that they shouldn’t build a new facility in the Queens borough and should invest in its existing Staten Island facility to make improvements for employees. These are the kind of decisions that a Board of Directors would make, but millennials want a voice in the decision-making process.
Employees at the recently opened Staten Island facility are working with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). It’s the same union that has worked with employees at Whole Foods, now owned by Amazon. Amazon has made clear it doesn’t support unionization and has sent an anti-union training video to all of its Team Leaders at the grocery store chain. Someone leaked the video to Gizmodo.
Warehouses workers have said the video doesn’t present a realistic picture of Amazon’s management practices. For example, Amazon claims it wants a workplace where employees can bring their grievances directly to their managers. The employees who say they tried that approach claim they received retaliatory scrutiny or got fired. Amazon did respond to Gizmodo which promoted the image of Amazon as a slave-driving company that doesn’t care about its employees. The response pointed out the positive elements like the $15 per hour pay, a full benefits package and a Career Choice program.
More than Workers
The fact that Amazon’s employees, even in the lowest positions, see themselves as more than “workers” is apparent in one comment posted on Gizmodo. The person said that Amazon knows who their customers and shareholders are – the employees, the online poster wrote. He goes on to say that forming a union shop is advancement and innovation because unions cut through company politics that hold businesses back.
The employees at the Staten Island fulfillment center have moved beyond discussion and into activism. In December 2018, a group of pro-union Amazon employees, community activists, RWSDU members and even some elected officials held a press conference at City Hall before a city council hearing to protest the Queens fulfillment center as a “bad deal” and to ask what’s in it for the employees. The RWDSU says that taxpayers have a right to demand that Amazon stop its anti-union activities because the company is getting billions in tax incentives. Union representatives have been meeting employees in person and have also been contacting them via social media.
New York is not the only place where Amazon employees are trying to organize. East African employees at a Minnesota Amazon warehouse are organizing around religious rights and lack of support from managers who they believe make unreasonable work demands. The British GMB Union represents Amazon employees in Europe and has joined American Amazon workers during their protests. Unionizing is not a “local issue” any more, meaning employers should never underestimate the ability of employees to get support and assistance locally, nationally and internationally when they decide to form a union. In fact, workers at Whole Foods Markets fully intend on organizing on a national scale because the larger the group, the greater the empowerment of employees.
Hiding Behind the “Facts”
The RWDSU issued a report titled, “What’s Wrong with Amazon?” The expected list of grievances is in the report, along with some surprises. One claim is that Amazon allowed its platform to be used to promote racist and white nationalist ideologies. However, Amazon removed the listings and blocked the sellers once they identified the people violating the company’s policies. The union admitted that Amazon had taken care of the issue, but then proceeded to admonish the company for not apologizing.
When unions want to harm a company’s reputation, they will never have anything positive to say. Most of the report presents “facts” without backup. For example, the description of the employee deaths offers no information as to whether the people who died on the job had failed to follow safety procedures. It’s important to remember that “facts” are often used to hide the truth.
Millennial Voice Organizing for Social Justice
If your top leadership tends to view unions through the eyes of baby boomers, they aren’t getting the full picture. There are similarities between baby boomers and millennials. Both want fair pay, safe working conditions, decent schedules and good benefits. People join unions when they are disengaged at work and believe the employer puts profit-making first. The difference today is that younger workers take empowerment to the next level. They don’t want to work for companies that are disengaged from the world’s issues. The millennial voice wants to have a say in corporate decisions that impact employees, family and community members, and the environment. Millennials expect employers to support social justice, like hiring diverse employees, promoting income equality and addressing issues like immigration and undocumented workers.
It’s millennials, like the Silicon Valley tech workers, who are banding together to take on issues like automation replacing workers, part-time employee contracts and diversity. The State Directors and Choreographers Society is part of a 14-theater collective, and it has experienced an influx of young members. Laura Penn, the executive director of the national union, said the union is a way to engage people, make a difference in the world, and influence “everything from political engagement to equity and diversity to workplace conduct.”
The NEA is another example. NEA teachers and education support professionals began describing themselves as social justice activists who are concerned with much more than things like pay rates. They’re organizing to become the voice of students, addressing issues like class size, resources, family involvement, impoverished neighborhoods, discriminatory testing policies and legislation impacting schools and teacher certification.
The language of unions has changed to match their adoption of social justice. You have learned to recognize union talk when employees use words like grievance and seniority, and terms like unsafe or hostile work environment and fair labor practices. These legalistic terms are now mixed with social justice language. Employees partnering with unions will use social justice words and terms like inequality, economic justice, racism, gender discrimination, sexual harassment, work/life balance, religious accommodation, environmentalism, and civil or human rights.
Social media has played a major role in enabling people to rally thousands or even millions to their cause. Employees don’t have to be formally unionized either. A global walkout by Google workers in more than 50 offices showed the power of online organizing. More than 20,000 employees and contractors walked out of their offices on November 1, 2018 to protest the company’s secret payment of $90 million to an Android co-founder after he was accused of sexual misconduct. The employee demands included things like an end to forced arbitration for issues of sexual discrimination or harassment and more transparency. Of particular note is that the demands also included the appointment of a Google employee representative to the board of directors. Millennials want the power of decision-making at the highest organizational level.
Many employers continue to struggle to understand how to engage millennials and understand the millennial voice so their younger employees don’t turn to unions. The first step is to stop thinking of unions as “trade unions” made up of blue-collar workers who are mostly interested in pay rates and benefits. Unions are now made up of blue- and white-collar workers, and they are increasingly touting their ability to promote social justice.
Learn to Recognize the New Union Strategies
Millennials want to feel empowered in the workplace and embrace social activism as a means to an end. Unions know their best hope for survival is their ability to attract millennials, so they want to become the millennial voice. To stay union proof, you must learn to recognize the shifting union focus, language and recruitment strategies. Unions like seeing organized groups of employees who have already united for a common cause. Half the work of organizing is done. All the union has to do is convince the group of employees that they could accomplish much more as social activists as an official union protected by law.