It’s an incredible time to run a labor union.
The ranks of organized labor have recently been joined by workers at Amazon, Starbucks and Trader Joe’s. The SAG-AFTRA strike, which began this summer, has generated widespread support for their job action and organized labor as a whole. And now, overnight, tens of thousands of United Auto Workers are on the picket line after they failed to reach a deal with the Big 3 automakers.
Yes, the world is changing. Unions are winning on battlefields in plants, jobsites, factories and, perhaps most important of all, in the court of public opinion.
Nationally, the support of unions among all Americans remains strong. Among younger voters, it’s rock-solid. In fact, new data tells us 8 of every 9 voters under 30 now pledge support for unions.
Despite those victories, labor leaders like me stand here today at a crossroads.
Despite significant advances and widespread public support, overall union membership is in decline, and we’re marching into stiff headwinds as we try to attract new members. It’s true at Sheet Metal Workers Local 25, and it’s true with almost all other leaders who share details.
Our recruiting challenges are concerning, especially considering the crucial role unions play in advocating for workers’ rights and ensuring fair wages and working conditions.
However, this crossroads is not a dead end. Instead, it presents an opportunity for unions to reinvent themselves and appeal to a new generation of workers. Young men and women, as well as diverse populations, stand to benefit greatly from union membership. We must tell our story. And we must speak directly to them.
First, unions provide a platform for collective bargaining. This means that workers, as a group, can negotiate for better pay, safer working conditions and more comprehensive benefits. For young people entering the workforce, this collective power can ensure that their rights are protected and their work is fairly compensated. We see the results from collective bargaining in the higher wages, better benefits and better working conditions our members enjoy. We also see our apprentices earning on Day 1 and never being saddled with debt when they enter the workforce.
Secondly, unions offer protection against unfair labor practices. This includes everything from wrongful termination to discrimination in the workplace and wage misclassification. For diverse populations who may be more vulnerable to such practices, union membership can provide an essential layer of protection.
What’s more, unions play a crucial role in advocating for policies that benefit all workers. This includes pushing for increases in the minimum wage, better health care benefits and more equitable labor laws. These policy changes can have far-reaching benefits for all workers, but can be particularly impactful for young people and diverse populations who are often disproportionately affected by inadequate labor policies.
Despite all these benefits, many young people and diverse populations are not joining unions as previous generations did. This may be due to a lack of awareness about the benefits of union membership or misconceptions about unions. If so, it’s crucial that all unions take proactive steps to reach out to these groups and educate them about the benefits of union membership.
Unions must also adapt to the changing labor market. With the rise of gig economy jobs and concerns about artificial intelligence displacing workers, we must find ways to stay relevant and protect workers in these nontraditional roles. By doing so, we can attract a broader range of members and continue to advocate effectively for workers’ rights.
So, yes, unions may be at a crossroads, but we must see this as an opportunity rather than a crisis — just as we must stand with the members of SAG-AFTRA and the UAW.
By appealing to young men and women and diverse populations, unions can breathe new life into the labor movement and ensure that they continue to play a vital role in protecting workers’ rights.
Now more than ever, this needs to be our time.
Joseph Demark Jr. is president and business manager of Sheet Metal Workers Local 25. He also is president of the Sheet Metal Workers New Jersey State Council and vice president of the New Jersey State Building and Construction Trades Council.