There are approximately as many union members under the age of 35 as over the age of 55, each accounting for about 25 percent of union members. Our ability to defend contracts, pensions and retiree health benefits, and to prepare the next generation of leaders and activists, depends on the union’s ability to connect with and integrate younger members with older members. Failure to engage our younger members will guarantee our unions’ decline.

Helping Members Learn About Unions

As a result of the decline in the percentage of workers who belong to unions, far fewer workers come from union households or communities. Much news coverage and casual conversation is pervasively anti-union, from how unions supposedly cause high taxes in the public sector to their so-called responsibility for the loss of private sector jobs to overseas competition. When millennials get a job in a union workplace, many know nothing about the union’s history and may have seen only the results of concessionary bargaining. They may hear older, more experienced members expressing how “young workers don’t appreciate what we fought for.” This context often makes younger members feel put off or unwelcome by the union, and affects their view of the union and their contract.

Keep in mind that what is true for younger members is true for everyone else: they will care about their union if they believe the union is interested in their concerns. How do you find out? Ask them. As a worker once told me, “I don’t care what you know until I know that you care.” Young members have individual wants, needs and experiences that often look a lot like those of other members. Some common concerns are: student debt; childcare costs or flexible scheduling if they’re responsible for young children or aging parents; affordable healthcare; improving their skills. They may be more attuned to how the union shows up in current debates about trade, discrimination and other issues that may affect the workplace and the world.

Like most people, young members are looking for an economy that works for them and fair treatment in their workplaces. They will care about the union—if they see that the union is working on the things they care about.

If you’re a senior steward engaging younger members, a good first step is to listen. Here are a few guidelines to assist with having more fruitful conversations:

  • Don’t make assumptions. Take the time to get to know younger co-workers, their stories, experiences, goals and needs. Show the respect you want in return and extend solidarity first.
  • Try not to be defensive. When younger members challenge the contract or speak up about bargaining or leadership, they are struggling to figure out how to make their jobs work for them. Don’t reflexively defend the past – or blame previous stewards. Acknowledge where their challenge is coming from. Work to come together on a vision of positive change going forward.
  • Provide space and support. Lend a hand, a word of encouragement. Seek their participation in actions and meetings. Support them by getting them the information they need to engage fully. Respect their experience.
  • Ask for their help and their ideas. Their skills and energy can help strengthen and build the union.
In-Person Is Better than Online

As the steward, you—not Facebook—are the face of the union. While unions often need more effective websites and a big­ger presence on social media, the most important space for communicating is not the internet—it’s the workplace. Real conversation happens one-on-one, face-to-face, and those relationships are the only way to build a strong union. As you can probably attest, this is true for workers young and old.

Connect Them to Others

The AFL-CIO, nationally and in most states and regions, has created groups to help young workers connect with each other and the labor movement. The Canadian Labour Congress holds a young workers’ summit. Find out if your local or international has a young worker group and help your members connect with it. If there is an existing group, ask them what support they need to function more effectively. If there isn’t one, talk with your local leadership about ensuring that younger members have a space where they can talk and learn. Your union will be stronger for it.

The most important space for communicating is not the internet – it’s the workplace