The use of a legislative maneuver by Republicans in Wisconsin to accomplish Governor Scott Walker's efforts to strip state employees of their collective bargaining rights may have caught Democrats by surprise, but the ultimate result of the actions of Walker and his GOP allies may have been to awaken a sleeping giant.
For the first time in decades, driven by the emergence of the Millennial Generation, the nation's youngest politically active generation (born 1982-2003), the public is as positive about labor unions as it is about business corporations. Pew research findings show that, in the private sector, Millennials side with unions over business in disputes by 51% to 37% and, in the public sector, favor unions over government by a 56% to 32%. These attitudes are reflected in recent surveys showing that both within Wisconsin and across the nation Americans favor the public employee unions in their dispute with the governor. In fact, largely due to defections from Republican union members, one recent survey suggested that Walker would lose a reelection vote to his 2010 Democratic opponent if a new election were to be held today.
In a recent Pew survey, nearly equal numbers of Americans were favorable toward labor (45%) and business (47%). This is in sharp contrast to the Reagan-Gingrich era of the 1980s and 1990s when the public was more positive about business than about labor by margins of around 15 percentage points. The Millennial Generation accounts for almost all of the narrowing of this gap. Millennials are positive about labor unions by a 2:1 margin (58% favorable to 29% unfavorable). The young cohort is far less positive about business corporations (49% favorable to 43% unfavorable). Although in the wake of the Great Recession, older generations are less positive toward business than they were a decade or two ago, they are still narrowly more favorable toward corporations (46% each favorable and unfavorable) than toward labor (42% favorable to 44% unfavorable).
The Millennials' endorsement of labor unions does not simply stem from a supposed tendency of young people to always support the underdog or liberal causes. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, youthful members of the individualistic and entrepreneurial Generation X (born 1965-1981), and a key Ronald Reagan support group, usually tilted toward management in its disputes with labor. Rather, the Millennial Generation has positive impressions of labor unions because it is what generational theorists have labeled a "civic generation." Civic generations, like the Millennials and the GI or Greatest Generation are characterized by their group-orientation, their tendency to build, reform, and utilize societal institutions, and their belief in cooperative approaches to accomplish their own and the nation's goals.
At around 95 million, the Millennial Generation is the largest in U.S. history, but its full force has yet to be felt. In 2008, when Millennials preferred Barack Obama over John McCain by a 66% to 32% margin and accounted for 80% of the president's popular vote margin, they comprised less than one fifth (17%) of the electorate. In 2012, when Obama runs for reelection, Millennials will account for about a quarter (24%) of those eligible to vote. In 2020, when the youngest Millennials reach voting age the generation will comprise more than a third (36%) of American adults.
As we point out in our upcoming book, Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America, with numbers like these the emerging generation is about to reshape all aspects of national life, including the relative positions of labor and management in the U.S. economy and American politics. The last time a civic generation so thoroughly dominated American society, as the Millennials are about to, was in the 1930s when the GI Generation, whose numbers were equal to those of the two preceding generations combined, spearheaded labor's drive to organize the nation's industrial workforce. They were so successful that more than a third of all American workers were union members by the mid-1950s. In the decades after it fought and defeated the Axis in World War II, the GI Generation assumed positions of power and thoroughly shaped the nation's institutions, just as Millennials will do in the years to come.
In the Millennial era that lays ahead, public opinion and governmental policy will be more sympathetic to labor than they have been at any time since the GI Generation ran things. Given the preference of many Millennials for public and governmental service, public employee unions should find fertile ground for organizing and for maintaining public support for a level playing field between workers and employers. That is why Governor Walker's battle in Wisconsin and similar efforts in other states over the ability of workers to organize are likely, in the end, to fail and why the decades ahead are likely to be better for organized labor than the previous few decades have been.