Organized Labor’s Growing Class Divide

Why have high-profile organizing campaigns succeeded for white-collar workers and failed for blue-collar workers?

DNAinfo and Gothamist employees rally with the Writers Guild of America in New York.  (Spencer Platt / Getty)

Lately it seems that, every week, a new group of media employees votes to join a union. On Tuesday, a majority of employees at Slate voted to join the Writers Guild of America, East. This came a few days after newsroom employees of the Los Angeles Times voted to join the NewsGuild–Communications Workers of America. Two weeks before that Vox Media recognized the Writers Guild of America, East, as the union representative of their editorial and video staff.

These efforts are the latest in a slew of successful campaigns to unionize educated workers, not the traditional targets for labor organizers. In the past three years, employees of Vice Media, ThinkProgress, HuffPost, The Intercept, Salon, Thrillist, and the now-defunct Gawker have all joined unions. Graduate students at Columbia, Yale, Tufts, and Brandeis have also voted to join unions. Adjunct professors at Seattle University formed a union in 2016, and employees at the legal group Lambda Legal voted to form a union in December.

Labor advocates are declaring the wins for white-collar workers a new front for organizing, and indeed, labor has been making some progress in expanding its reach among educated workers. The number of people employed in professional and technical occupations who are members of unions grew by almost 90,000 last year, according to numbers released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The fields of law, arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media all saw substantial gains in the share of workers who are in unions, ticking up from around 4 percent in 2010 to around 7 in 2017.

But these gains for unions are in stark contrast to the many high-profile failed efforts to organize less-educated workers in other parts of the country, usually outside cities. In 2017, after years of organizing, the United Auto Workers lost a bid to form a union at a Nissan plant in Mississippi. They failed to organize a Chinese-owned auto-glass plant in Ohio in November. The UAW similarly lost a bid to organize a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee in 2014. On January 19, for example, the NLRB announced that media employees at the Los Angeles Times and professional employees at a Pennsylvania charter school each voted to join a union. That same day the NLRB announced that drivers at a bakery in New Jersey, drivers at a freight company in New York, and drivers for the Hy-Vee grocery chain in Iowa all voted against joining a union, according to NLRB data.

And while labor groups trying to organize low-wage workers in industries like fast food and the on-demand economy have made some gains in recent years, they have not created formal unions, but rather established informal arrangements that help workers. The share of workers who were members of unions in production, transportation, and material-moving occupations fell to 13.6 percent, from 16.2 percent in 2010, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In service occupations, that share fell to 9.9 percent from 11 percent in 2010.

The contrast, between the growing numbers of educated workers joining unions and the shrinking pool of blue-collar workers doing so, is yet another dynamic of an increasingly bifurcated American economy. As jobs for educated workers continue to proliferate in this economy, educated workers feel secure, sure that they’ll be able to find more work if they lose their jobs. In some cases, that security may mean they feel they can advocate for a union, or stand up to employer threats to shut the workplace down if a union forms. Blue-collar workers, by contrast, are competing for a smaller and smaller share of jobs in the economy, and thus may feel less willing to commit to labor drives. Of the nearly 12 million jobs created after the recession, more than 8 million went to those with a bachelor’s degree, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. “Blue-collar workers may want a union, but fear defines union election to a troubling degree,” Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley, told me. “You have the same fear among white-collar workers, but they know they have other options. If they lose their job, they’ll have something two days later. That could give them more confidence about turning towards a union.”

This difference in who is joining unions could create further bifurcation in the economy, as workers who are already relatively stable become even more protected by unions, while workers who feel themselves in a tenuous position have fewer places to turn for problems like wage and hour violations, sexual-harassment claims, or unfair termination. Union employees are also better positioned to negotiate wage increases than non-union employees—non-union employees make 80 percent of what union employees do, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Lowell Peterson, the executive director of the Writers Guild, East, who has organized both blue-collar and white-collar workers in his career, said that organizing skilled workers might be easier in today’s economic climate. “If you’re a semiskilled or unskilled worker, your leverage is a little different,” he told me. Skilled employees are hard for employers to replace, and they know it, he said. While employers think they’ll be able to hire another worker off the street to stock shelves for Amazon or work on a car assembly line, they worry about being able to find enough skilled and educated workers to do the white-collar jobs they’re trying to fill. “[Managers in media] can’t just say, I don’t care who does this job, as long as someone does it,” Peterson said.

White-collar workers may also have an easier time doing the work to organize a union. Many Gothamist workers were young and didn’t have children, so were able to go to meetings after work, Scott Heins, 29, who worked full-time as a photographer and reporter for Gothamist for two years and was on the Gothamist organizing committee, told me. Blue-collar workers are often older, and have families to support. And, since white-collar employees don’t work on the factory floor all day, they are less physically exhausted at the end of the day. Additionally, the access to information technology that white-collar workers have can make it easier to communicate with other employees throughout the company.

Of course, white-collar workers still risk losing their jobs if a union forms—that’s what seems to have happened to 115 employees of DNAinfo and Gothamist, two websites owned by Joe Ricketts, a billionaire who founded TD Ameritrade, after 25 New York staff members voted to join the Writers Guild of America, East. But many of those employees have since found other jobs, and Peterson told me that the people who lost their jobs didn’t regret organizing. Heins told me that’s how he feels. “If forced into the same situation, I would do the same thing again,” he said. Heins said he and others knew the risks when they organized, especially when Ricketts, who is vocally anti-union, purchased Gothamist.

But Heins also landed on his feet. He is now working as a freelance photographer in New York, and said that it was going pretty well, in part because of support from groups like the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which established a $5,000 fund to help laid-off reporters from Gothamist and DNAinfo. “I am very fortunate in that photography lends itself well to freelancing,” he told me.

In contrast to Heins’ ability to find work after losing his job, many blue-collar workers can’t afford to risk such a change. They are more likely to be living paycheck to paycheck, and tend to have less savings because their salaries are lower in the first place. “People were really terrified that they were going to lose their job,” Robert Hathorn, a pro-union worker at Nissan in Mississippi, told the website Labor Notes in the aftermath of the UAW’s organizing loss in August.

Part of the divergence between white- and blue-collar workers may also have to do with where union drives are taking place. Many white-collar workers live in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, where workers are likely to be more liberal and supportive of unions than in other places, and where owners (with obvious exceptions) may be less likely to embark on anti-union campaigns because of public pressure. But increasingly, manufacturing and production jobs are located in the South, where anti-union attitudes are most persistent. Boeing located its Dreamliner aircraft assembly line in South Carolina rather than Washington State to reduce the leverage of the machinists’ union, analysts told The New York Times. And the failure of the United Auto Workers to organize plants in Mississippi and Tennessee was closely related to anti-union attitudes there, as I found in previous reporting, attitudes that are less prevalent in automakers’ home turf of Michigan and Ohio.

Educated workers weren’t always as open to organizing campaigns. In the past, educated workers eschewed unions for two main reasons: They had negative opinions about unions, and they felt that they had enough of a voice in their jobs that they didn’t need union representation. Both of those factors have changed in the millennial generation, according to Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Today, 45 percent of Millennials think labor unions have a positive impact on the country, up from 32 percent in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s partly because Millennials are much more progressive than previous generations.

The current climate for media jobs may also be motivating some of the media-unionization drives, she said. While college-educated Millennials know that they can get all sorts of jobs in today’s booming economy, they are disappointed with the quality of the jobs in the media sector. “These are people who were led to expect that if they did their part, the world would be handed to them on a silver platter,” she told me. “And then they find that these are crummy jobs.”

Of course, thousands of blue-collar workers are also finding that the jobs available to them in today’s economy are crummy as well. But for them, the alternative to a crummy job—nothing—is even more terrifying.