September 2, 2014

"Boo unions" - another generational divide

This earlier post showed a generational divide in believing that your taxes are too high: compared to the Greatest Gen, Silents, and Boomers on one hand, Gen X and Millennials are far less likely to complain about their taxes, both within the same time period and during the same life stage. So it is not simply a matter of old vs. young, but of some birth cohorts remaining consistently higher than others in making "Boo taxes" a core civic value.

If the divide is that great for taxes, it must be part of a broader pattern of underlying differences. Pursuing that hunch, I looked into how people feel about labor unions.

The same person who loathes paying for what government provides is also going to start hyperventilating when the topic of organizing the workplace comes up. And historically, high taxes and an expansive union presence were both part of the Great Compression, while before and after, during the Gilded Age I and the Gilded Age II, taxes were lower (particularly for the wealthy) and the labor movement was marginalized.

The me-first / dog-eat-dog norm says everyone should look out for themselves, and if that means we get robber barons and Tammany Hall, then that's just the price we pay for enjoying laissez-faire individualism. The making-do / all-in-it-together norm says that the natural strife between workers and managers / owners needs to be dampened by collective bargaining in good faith.

Workers ought to accommodate managers by putting in an honest day's work — but they've already been doing that, so the main change must come from the managers and owners accommodating the needs of their workforce, rather than treating them like subhuman cogs in a machine, or a fungible commodity (man-hours of labor) that can be off-shored to cheaper foreigners or in-shored with a flood of cheaper immigrants.

And sure enough, we find the same generational divide over unions as we do over taxes. The General Social Survey asks a question about how much confidence you have in organized labor, one response being "hardly any." Respondents were restricted to whites only, since there are large racial differences across generations that might affect how pro- or anti-union a generation feels. The rest of the methodology is the same as in the post on taxes.

First, here is how the lack of confidence in unions has changed across time periods (years have been chunked into periods to give good sample sizes), separated by birth cohorts (e.g., the 1950 cohort includes those born from 1945 to 1954).

Overall the picture is the same as before, both the changes over time and the generational divide. The '70s and '80s saw a wave of anti-tax and anti-union sentiment across the pre-X generations, although the late Boomers (in solid yellow) were a holdout for awhile. Once taxes had been slashed and the labor movement pummeled by the end of the '80s, this sentiment subsided somewhat, particularly among the Greatest Gen cohorts. It has started to tick back upwards during the recession.

The band that includes the Greatest, Silent, and Booomer cohorts isn't quite as narrow as it was for taxes, but the separation of the Gen X cohorts is still clear. The red, orange, and yellow lines overlap a lot, while the blue ones stand apart from them. Millennials are even less anti-union than the X-ers; they aren't shown because they'd only appear in one period, and their changes over time couldn't be seen.

Now, take a look at how distrust of unions has changed over the lifetimes of each of the generations:

Once again, there's a single curving band along which the pre-X cohorts lie, while the X-ers are shifted noticeably below (albeit following a similar rise over their lifetimes). The earlier generations mostly hover between 35-45% distrusting unions, whereas the X-ers and Millennials will probably hover between 15-25%, or about half as distrusting as the Greatest, Silent, and Boomer cohorts.

This is a remarkable shift in mindsets when you consider that Gen X and Millennials aren't being fed a pro-union message. They simply came of working age when the harshest "Boo unions" battles had already been won. The only message they may have received about them was a non-message.

A cynic would say that it's their lack of familiarity with organized labor that allows them to entertain such benign views of them. But then most Boomers had no real experience with unions either when they were coming of working age, and that didn't stop them from jumping on the union-busting bandwagon. If anything, their experience was indirect, seeing their older Greatest Gen parents and relatives getting pensions and health care from having paid their union dues. Still, seeing the benefits wasn't enough to keep them from joining the laissez-faire revolution of the Me Generation.

Gen X and Millennials came of working age in the aftermath of that revolution, once the dismantling of the egalitarian-ish norms was more or less fait accompli. Seeing the neo-Dickensian ruthlessness and absence of fellow-feeling has made them skeptical of today's incarnation of Gilded Age laissez-faire cheerleaders.

It would not be accurate to say that they're enthusiastic about starting another labor movement, or that they have any idea what their ideal would look like — or even what the predecessor looked like 100 years ago. They're simply not kneejerk union-haters, and are keeping an open mind about some kind of unspecified collective organization to press for their needs once the economic shit really starts to hit the fan.

Lord knows they won't be able to count on politicians, neither could their counterparts in the late 1800s. Politicians only cater to demands for a wholesome workplace and economy once enough of the general public starts to raise the costs for political-corporate circle-jerking.

The last time around, the class war turned incredibly violent, primarily from the owners hiring private armies of Pinkerton guards to mow down striking workers in a hail of bullets. With the vast, militarized police forces of today's Gilded Age, I doubt they'll even need private armies this time around. On the other side, when the climate is frenzied enough, mobs of workers will take up arms, lob Molotov cocktails, and so on as well.

That's not ancient history, so hopefully this time around, both sides can keep the last time in mind, in order to steer clear of that much violence. Yet folks often have a way of believing that "this time is different," and pay no heed to the lessons of history.

GSS variables: conlabor, cohort, age, year, race


  1. I would like to see union membership rates graphed against these responses.

  2. You mean rates by year/period or by birth cohort?

  3. If you work as a temp (no chance to form a union) for a subcontractor (formed as a buffer for a main contractor, it will fold and move if a union forms) for a contractor (formed as a buffer, ditto) for a main company (which set up all three buffers to avoid doing the 'runaway shop' to another state or country, which it's used to doing anyway), then, no, you won't have much 'experience of unions'. No, that's not hypothesis, it's personal experience, with news stories about 70% of big companies doing it.

    The old middle class hatred of unions came from seeing factory workers make more than most English teachers or middle managers. That's a distant memory.

  4. This all sounds right and my family is pretty typical in these attitudes. I asked my mother about a year ago why she didn't like unions and she told me about this time her step-dad crossed a picket line back in the 60s to work and suffered sever repercussions that harmed the family, part of a catalyst that made them move to Florida. That was just wrong! She said. Left unsaid by her, like an elephant in the room, was that he was wrong to cross the line and I was a good daughter and said nothing.
    But she is changing dramatically. The way the elites are behaving worse and worse is touching everyone. The bloom came off the rose for her when her hospice company got bought and changed hands. Naturally, the newer owners are greedier, more hostile. They made her life hell and from what I've read online, doctors are feeling the same way and their suicide rates are going through the roof.
    Just today, I had an experience with these vultures. Every few years it seems the owners/banks of our mortgage changes hands. This latest one is a beaut. I pay online and am always on time so imagine my surprise when I get a hostility-tinged call this morning asking if I want to pay it over the phone. It went in this morning and it's the second of the month, why are you calling me? Because it was due on the first. But the first was a holiday and it's not late! It's the very next day! The, naturally, Indian-accented woman tells me it takes sometimes a week for online-posted payments to be deposited. "So, again, I ask, why are you calling me the very next day after a due date, which fell on a holiday, if all my past payments were paid online and it can take you a week to receive them?" Doesn't it stand to reason that almost everyone's is arriving today?
    *Because the investor has contracted us to call customers whose payments were not received on the first day.*

  5. Let's be fair: we owe a debt of gratitude to the MBA's for liberating us from the tyranny of a stable, organized workforce.

  6. "The old middle class hatred of unions came from seeing factory workers make more than most English teachers or middle managers."

    They also couldn't stand the thought of being forced to orient toward the future and pool resources. Union dues are a kind of taxation, after all. But one that provides things for those who need them, including you when your time comes.

    Um, like, why pay my union dues that will pay off later, when I could shop till I drop today? That's, like, THEFT. It's my money, and I should be able to max out five more credit cards with it if I wanna. Who needs early retirement, a pension, and health care anyway? Only weak old saps, which I will never be!

  7. All those buffers and the runaway shop behind aren't just anti-union, of course- it's capital flight from predatory regulation. But the dramatic Confessions of a Union-Buster stuff, the rubber bullets and rentathugs, even just loading a semi full of mattresses for a loyal cadre and locking the gates- that's all flashy and bad for business. Better to just move jobs around all the time.

    I don't think the middle class hates planning ahead. Not like they hate seeing Joe Factory Worker, notorious for crimethink, make more than them.

  8. I was thinking year/period, but why not both?

    Teachers are one of the biggest unionized jobs these days. And I don't think it was ever the case that factory workers made more than most middle managers.


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