Union's Appeal Lost on Younger Workers

To remain relevant organized labor needs to reach out and attract younger workers. But younger workers, especially in the tech industry, have grown up in a fast-moving, flexible and globalized economy where the familiar rhetoric and tactics of the labor movement may seem passe.

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Organized labor is divided and struggling to stay pertinent. Union leaders have debated things like leadership and structure, but they have not talked as much about more practical issues like how to reach younger workers and how to stay relevant in the Internet age. Organizing workers in the growing high-tech sector would help unions while traditional industries lose jobs. But as NPR's Frank Langfitt found, organized labor faces a hard sell with employees in the new economy.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

When the AFL-CIO met last week, leaders promised a new approach to stop the slide in union membership. But some of the language and themes at the Federation's convention were old labor standards. This is President John Sweeney giving his keynote address.

Mr. JOHN SWEENEY (President, AFL-CIO): Brothers and sisters, we have only four days to make the decisions that will help us build the power to eliminate the lines of income and wealth that divide our nation and our world.

LANGFITT: Sweeney's call for worker solidarity and attacks on big business played well with labor loyalists, but for workers in expanding job sectors like high tech, they had less resonance. Brian Kung(ph) is 32 years old. He was born in Vietnam and works as a software specialist in northern Virginia. Tonight he's out with colleagues at Sweetwater. It's a bar on the edge of a high-tech office park of red brick buildings with tinted windows near Dulles Airport. Kung says concepts like collective bargaining and seniority don't fit well with high tech. The field is entrepreneurial by nature. People switch jobs often and compete directly for higher pay.

Mr. BRIAN KUNG (Software Specialist): The difference is in the tech sector there's no cap on it. There's no cap. There's not saying, you know, we're going to pay you guys because you're skilled at building a car at X amount of dollars. In the tech field, it's wide open. I can code better than the next guy, and I'm going to make three more times that.

LANGFITT: Bill Sylvester's sipping a bear on the bar's deck as the sun sets over a manmade pond. He's 30 years old and works in Internet marketing. He thinks unions could help some tech employees. Sylvester says when he started out in an entry-level operations job, he put in long hours for little pay.

Mr. BILL SYLVESTER (Internet Marketer): I think a union would have been useful in representing the needs of the people. Even today, most operations folks are overworked. And when you take what they're paid vs. the number of hours they work, definitely they're not being compensated for the skill sets.

LANGFITT: Unions often confront management, an approach that makes some white-collar workers uncomfortable. Ryan McMichael is a 29-year-old Web master at Sidgidel, a small software security firm around the corner from the bar. He says talking to bosses at his company is pretty easy.

Mr. RYAN McMICHAEL (Web Master): You know, it's friendly. We don't feel like we're being talked down to by management. We can go to any member of the management to talk about our problems or to get things fixed. I've never felt like I've had to fight with anyone to get changes. You know, I feel like I can go to the CEO and say, you know, `This particular policy stinks. I think we need to look at it.'

LANGFITT: Many workers in traditional industries may see the boss as an adversary, but in high tech some employees dream of being the boss. Lawrence Katz is a labor economist at Harvard.

Mr. LAWRENCE KATZ (Labor Economist, Harvard): I think many of them identify with the entrepreneurs who set up their companies for many start-ups and view themselves as potentially doing that and really view their role as players in intellectual property not as a traditional front-line worker who is doing a task and aspires to sort of move up a standard ladder but doesn't see the, you know, top end as a possibility.

LANGFITT: If unions hope to reach workers in the new economy, they probably need to present a new face. The AFL-CIO talks about the need for greater diversity, but most union presidents are still white men, middle-aged or older. Marcus Courtney runs WashTech, a Seattle-based union which organizes technical workers. He says many unions were slow to understand the high-tech economy, and many still haven't put forth an image that appeals to professional 20-somethings.

Mr. MARCUS COURTNEY (WashTech): ...any institution, organization to survive and lead into the new generation, they have to be bringing up a crop of young, dynamic leaders that other people in that generation can identify with that says, yes, the union is me. And I don't think that communication necessarily happens if they see a leadership where they feel looks more like their grandparents than it really does like their peers.

LANGFITT: No only is labor's leadership older, so is its rank and file, and that could be one more challenge for unions trying to attract young high-tech workers. Today, only one in four union members is under the age of 35.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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