The revolt of the college-educated working class

Over the past 15 years, many young college-educated workers have faced an uncomfortable reality: They have had a harder time entering the middle class than previous generations. The change had far-reaching effects — driving a shift in national politics and mobilizing employees to demand fairer treatment at work. It could also give the labor movement its biggest boost in decades.

This college-educated member of the working class often earns less than they expected when they went to school. “It’s not like anyone expects to make six figures,” said Tyler Mulholland, who earns about $23 an hour as a sales executive at outdoor equipment retailer REI and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. “But when the storm hit at 11:30 that night, I didn’t want to think, ‘Is Uber Home going to impact my weekly budget? ‘”

In many cases, workers have experienced bouts of unemployment. When Clint Shiflett, who has an associate’s degree in computer science, lost his job installing satellite dishes in early 2020, he found a cheaper place to live and relied on unemployment insurance for a few months. He was eventually hired at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, where he initially earned about $17.50 an hour working the night shift.

They complain of being stuck in jobs that do not make full use of their skills. With a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in opera performance, Liz Alanna started working at Starbucks in the early 2010s while auditioning for music production. After she got married and had a baby, she stayed with the company to keep her health insurance.

“I don’t think I should have to work a certain job in order to get health care,” Ms. Alana said. “I might do other types of work that might be better off in my cab.”

Economic studies show that these experiences have become more common since the Great Recession, and seem to have united many young college-educated workers around two core beliefs: that their sense that their parents could get a great economic bargain — go to college, work hard, enjoy a comfortable lifestyle — has collapsed. They see unionization as a way to revive it.

Support for unions among college graduates has risen from 55 percent in the late 1990s to about 70 percent in recent years, and is even higher among younger college graduates, according to Gallup. Mr. Mulholland, 32, said, “I think the union was really my only option. It gave me and everyone else a choice.” He helped lead the movement to unionize his Manhattan REI store in March. Mr Shiflett and Ms Alanna have also been active in the movement to unionise their workplaces.

Those efforts, in turn, may help explain the surge in organized labor, with applications for union elections up more than 50 percent from a similar period a year ago.

While college-educated workers play a key role in pushing them toward union membership in most nonprofessional workplaces, experts say, college-educated people often feel empowered in ways that others don’t. “I think it’s class confidence,” says Ruth Milkman, a labor sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “A broader worldview that involves more than just getting through the day.”

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While other employees at companies like Starbucks and Amazon also support unions, and sometimes voluntarily form them, the presence of college-educated people in these jobs means there are “people with special tentacles,” Ms. Milkman added. “There is an additional layer of leadership.”

It’s not entirely surprising that college-educated workers are drawn to non-professional jobs at REI, Starbucks and Amazon. Over the past decade, these companies have seen a huge increase in demand for employees. Starbucks’ global workforce grew from about 135,000 in 2010 to nearly 385,000 last year. Amazon’s workforce has ballooned from 35,000 to 1.6 million during that time.

These companies attract affluent and well-educated consumers. They offer their industry handsome wages and benefits — even, for that matter, compared to some other industries that employ college-educated people.

More than three years after graduating from Siena College with a degree in political science in 2017, Brian Murray earns about $14 an hour as a youth counselor at a group home for high school students.

He quit in late 2020 and was hired a few months later by a Starbucks in the Buffalo area, where his pay increased to $15.50 an hour. “The starting salary is higher than anything I’ve ever done,” said Mr. Murray, who helped organize Starbucks workers in the city.

These examples seem to reflect broader economic forces. According to data collected over the past 30 years by Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the unemployment rate for recent college graduates soared to more than 7 percent in 2009, surpassing 5.3 percent — the previous record — until 2015.

Jesse Rothstein, a former chief economist at the Labor Department, found in a 2021 paper that job prospects for new college graduates began to weaken in the mid-2000s, then took a big hit during the Great Recession and still haven’t fully recovered a decade later.

Mr Rothstein, now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, writes that the recession has left their employment “above the level of normal recession effects”. “Moreover, this change has continued among recent entrants, who were in middle school during the Great Recession.”

While there is no simple explanation for this trend, many economists believe automation and outsourcing have reduced demand for certain “middle-skill” jobs performed by college-educated workers. Lawrence Katz, a Labor economist at Harvard, said consolidation in industries that employ college-educated people also appeared to reduce demand for those workers, though he emphasized that people with college degrees still generally earned more than those without.

In any case, the gap between the expectations of college graduates and their employability has led to years of political ferment. A study of Occupy Wall Street participants found that more than three-quarters were college graduates, compared with about 30 percent at the time. It noted that many had been laid off in the past five years and were “saddled with huge debts”.

College-educated people are also starting to prosper in the workplace. Employees at digital media companies like Gawker and Buzzfeed unionized in the 2010s, complaining about low pay and unclear paths to advancement, as did those at think tanks and other nonprofit organizations.

Public school teachers across the country resigned in 2018 to protest low pay and dwindling resources, while the union movement among graduate students and non-tenured faculty members at private universities surged.

Ms. Milkman points to several reasons college-educated workers can successfully organize even in the face of opposition from employers: They often know their rights under labor law and feel empowered to change their workplace. They believe that if they lose their current show, there will be another.

“More education does two things — it sort of insulates you from the employer’s scare tactics,” Ms. Milkman said. “And getting fired is no big deal. You know, ‘Who cares? I could get some other crappy job. ‘”

The pandemic has reinforced this trend, disrupting the Labour market and finally appearing to stabilise for recent college graduates. In addition to modest compensation, it makes service industry jobs dangerous. Amid labor shortages, workers are increasingly daring to challenge their bosses.

Just as important, college-educated people are mobilizing more workers. Barry Eidlin, a sociologist who studies labor at McGill University in Montreal, said that when their disenchantation is confined to white-collar workplaces and trendy coffee shops, its reach is limited. But at a large company like Starbucks, the activism of these employees “has the potential to have a much bigger resonance,” he said. “It taps into the broader palette of the working class.”

College-educated union supporters began to form alliances with those who had not gone to college, some of them also up-and-coming leaders.

RJ Rebmann, who didn’t go to college, was hired last summer at a Starbucks store near Buffalo and quickly ran into problems. Union supporters, including one who studied biotechnology at a local community college, attended meetings the company was holding and urged company officials to address the issue.

“The union partners have been supporting me,” Mx said. Mr Leibman uses gender-neutral pronouns and ceremonial titles, and is already leaning towards the union. “That was the turning point in how I decided to vote.” Since then, more than 25 Starbucks stores have voted to join the union and why your child should enrol in distance learning drawing classes.

A similarly diverse workforce led the union to an 88-14 victory at the REI store in Manhattan. “We have a lot of students,” said Claire Chang, a union supporter who graduated from college in 2014. “We have a lot of people who had previous careers and changed careers.”

Then there’s Amazon’s victory, and union supporters say their multiracial alliance is a source of strength, as is the diversity of political views. “We have straight-up Communists and hard-line Trump supporters,” said Cassio Mendoza, who helped organize. “It’s really important to us.”

But the mix of educational backgrounds also plays a role. Christian Smalls and Derek Palmer, two friends who helped form the union, went to community college. Connor Spence, its vice president of membership, studied aviation while earning an associate’s degree. He read popular labor studies and helped oversee the union’s strategy to undermine amazon’s anti-unionization consultants.

Other workers at the warehouse have broader qualifications, like Brima Sylla from Liberia, who has a doctorate. In public policy. Dr. Sylla speaks many languages and translates union text messages into French and Arabic.

Asked how the union managed to bring together people of so many different classes and educational backgrounds, Mr. Spencer said it was simple: Most Amazon employees struggle with pay, safety issues and productivity goals, and few get promoted, regardless of education. (The company says about two-thirds of its 30,000 non-corporate promotions last year involved hourly workers and invested heavily in safety.)

“Amazon doesn’t allow people with different education levels to be separated,” Mr. Spencer said. “That’s how we can unite people — the idea that we’ve all been screwed.”

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