Graduate students at the University of Connecticut had many reasons to feel unhappy. An increasing share of their stipends was being eaten up by fees, sometimes for services and facilities they mostly didn’t use. The health-care plan they’d traditionally been offered was taken away, leaving them with coverage many found to be inadequate. Finally, their teaching load -- already pretty heavy -- was being increased, with students in some programs being pressured to teach an additional course every semester for no additional pay. “Consistently, things that we cared about didn’t matter to the administration,” says Cera Fisher, a Ph.D. student in biology, “and we felt they could change our conditions on a whim.”

That led to what Fisher describes as a “Norma Rae moment.” A couple of grad students sent out an email to some friends, raising the idea of joining a union. The notion had been floated before at UConn, without any success, but this time it took root. This past April, just a few months after the first email was sent out, 2,100 UConn graduate students formed a bargaining unit within the United Auto Workers. Fisher was a part of the organizing committee. “A union is the first thing that I’ve ever felt offered me some power, some control over my life.”

For the first time in many years, unions see a chance to make themselves more attractive not just to graduate students, but to young workers in general. Today’s young people -- the millennial generation, who are now 32 and under -- are currently trending leftward in their attitudes about many economic issues. Specifically, they are much more likely to hold favorable opinions about unions than older adults. Polling by Gallup and the Pew Research Center shows that about 60 percent of those under 30 express support for unions, compared to about 40 to 45 percent of older Americans. The resentment that turned young people away from organized labor in the 1970s and 1980s -- when there was a widespread perception that unions were in place mainly to protect the status quo for a select group -- has largely faded away. It’s been replaced by at least a small uptick in feeling that unions can return to their roots as vehicles for collective action aimed at improving the lot of lower- and middle-class workers across the board.

Penn State graduate students tried to unionize in 2002. (AP/Pat Little)

All this has to be kept in perspective. Young people are not joining unions in droves, and won’t be doing so anytime soon. For one thing, the job market is too weak. Young workers in particular have faced slim pickings for a half-dozen years now. They’re especially unlikely to find the type of manufacturing and industrial work that is still the most unionized in the private sector. In the public sector, where about a third of all workers belong to unions, hiring freezes, furloughs and layoffs have been more common than job openings until recently. As a result, only 5 percent of workers 25 and under are represented by unions. That number doubles to about 11 percent among those who are between 26 and 34. Union membership among the young has grown in the past couple of years -- while declining among most other age groups -- but the increase is by such tiny amounts it’s impossible to rule out statistical error.

Employment sectors that are growing, such as retail and technology, have proven stubbornly resistant to organized labor. A pending Supreme Court case could make matters more difficult if the justices decide to make it easier for public employees to opt out of unions. (At press time, no ruling had been released.) “The crucial questions are the legal and political blockages against unionization,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “If we just took polls of people and said, ‘Do you want to join a union,’ the union movement would be three times larger.”

The very fact that so many young people have felt locked out of successful careers, however, is part of what offers unions an opening. At a time when quality jobs are scarce and income inequality is front of mind, the idea of banding together to press for better terms has increased appeal. There has been a flurry of labor-related activity lately, from the campaigns that have helped convince several states and cities to increase the minimum wage, to groups protesting pay and working conditions at Walmart, to the fast-food workers regularly getting arrested as they picket for higher wages. Unions have been heavily involved in such “alt-labor” conflicts, even if the protesters themselves are rarely union members.

Still, translating a more positive attitude toward collective labor activity into union membership will be a huge challenge. Unions have to fight unfriendly legal and political conditions, particularly in Republican-dominated states, as well as global economic forces that have driven down union numbers in rich nations around the world. In order to seize the chance to sign up young workers, unions will also have to make internal changes, shedding old habits such as a lack of transparency that is especially off-putting to millennials.

Unions may be getting a friendly hearing from some among the young, but they also have longstanding habits of seeking to protect benefits of current workers at the expense of new hires. That may be especially true in the public sector, where two- and even three-tier pension systems, for example, are becoming more common. “It’s going to be increasingly difficult and more complex for the public sector to attract these young millennials, because they don’t have the same panoply of benefits that their parents and grandparents had in the past,” says Sujit CanagaRetna, a fiscal analyst with the Council of State Governments.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The millennial generation comprises more than 80 million people. By 2025, its members are expected to make up 75 percent of the global workforce. Lots of labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Government Employees, have ongoing youth outreach programs of various kinds.

Millennials are more likely to be only children than any generation that came before, but they are also more likely to be inculcated with a belief in group effort, due to fashions in classroom instruction styles and an emphasis on teams. “There are a number of surveys that show that millennials are favorable to unions because they stand for community and solidarity, which millennials are all into,” says Neil Howe, who coined the term “millennials” and consults with corporations on generational attitudes and behaviors.

If there’s one thing that observers of millennials agree on, including sociologists, union officials and managers, it’s that they communicate differently than older generations. Part of this simply reflects changing technology. While little if any communication was conducted electronically when older managers were growing up, today’s young people are accustomed to constant digital interaction. “When millennials walk into work” -- into a realm of landlines, email and face-to-face encounters -- “it is not unusual to feel like they are stepping back in time,” writes Lauren Stiller Rikleen, a workplace expert at Boston College, in her book about managing millennials called You Raised Us -- Now Work With Us.

Older managers complain that millennials want constant feedback and handholding through assignments, she says. They expect a constant flow of news and information and were raised with a sensibility that leads them to think it’s a good thing to question whether the options being presented to them are the best ones possible. This is a generation that wants to be consulted. “When they question authority, they want to know why that’s the best way to do something,” says Robert Suarez, president of the Miami branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “They’re a little more interested in the substance of the issue than prior generations. If you make the mistake of saying to the younger generation, ‘shut up and just do it because everybody else is doing it,’ you’re going to have a problem.”

The millennial desire to collaborate creates challenges not just for unions but management as well. But listening to young people’s concerns can be profitable, Suarez notes. Not all that long ago, schedule changes for firefighters in Miami were handled using telephone trees, and certain types of health data were copied using carbon paper. Incorporating ideas from young people willing to question standard operating procedures ultimately led to beneficial changes. That also happened across the country, in Redlands, Calif., where the police department embraced changes in technology that seemed like common sense to younger officers. “From an organizational standpoint, trying to fight these changes is like standing on the shore and ordering the tide not to come in,” says Jim Bueermann, who served as the police chief in Redlands for 13 years.

As is always the case for older generations, it’s sometimes easy to dismiss the interests and concerns of young people as a waste of time, Bueermann says. When he was coming up in the force, officers simply saluted and carried out the orders. Today’s young officers, by contrast, want to have departmental strategies and new directions explained to them. This can cause eye-rolling. “They’re doing this not to be malicious or annoying,” Bueermann says. “They just really care about what’s going on.”

He found that habits of continuing consultation were ultimately more helpful than not. Younger workers want to be consulted all the time, but just listening to them can make a big difference. Rather than engaging with workers strictly through formal channels, Bueermann kept up a regular round of conversations, meeting with union officials and rank-and-file officers in coffee shops and other relaxed environments. Talking in casual settings -- something that tends to appeal to millennials, who on the whole don’t like confrontation -- allowed the Redlands police to smooth out many issues before they could become real problems. The result was that in more than a dozen years, Bueermann never had a grievance filed against a disciplinary action he had taken.

The discussions he held were rarely about salary and benefits. Instead, in Redlands, the younger officers cared most about work schedules. Many wanted to serve longer shifts on fewer days of the week, in order to carve out time for family. That’s common. Millennials sometimes express less concern about traditional benefits -- particularly regarding retirement, which can seem hopelessly far off to them -- than quality-of-life issues. New hires generally want work to be more flexible, whether it’s different shifts or opportunities to work remotely, says Jill Leka, general counsel for the National Public Employer Labor Relations Association. “The types of issues being raised by new workers are different than they were in the past,” she says.

Hundreds of thousands of teachers, police officers and firefighters have been laid off over the last few years, but there’s still enough churn in those fields that some young people are finding jobs. Not all of them are happy with what they’ve seen from the unions in those fields, particularly in teaching. Education has been struggling with enormous amounts of policy change, such as the rise of charter schools, increased teacher accountability, Common Core standards and merit pay. Teachers unions have mostly -- although not monolithically -- been opposed to all these approaches. “There are so many ways that teachers feel deprofessionalized,” says Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, “with thing after thing saying you can’t use your judgment.”

Some young people drawn to the teaching profession may appreciate that their unions are fighting for better benefits and higher pay, but not all of them like the way unions can seem stubbornly recalcitrant. During his years teaching in a public school in San Jose, Calif., Andrew Elliott-Chandler grew frustrated that his union was so resistant even to discussion of matters such as measuring teacher quality or extending the work day because, he was told, that could undermine contract negotiations. Now 32, Elliott-Chandler gave up and went to work running a charter school. “As a teacher, I very much voted with my feet,” he says.

He’s not alone. Plenty of young people in teaching have grown fed up with unions, concerned less about pay and working hours than the lack of a shared sense of high expectations. If being in a union means protecting the status quo of an industry that young people want to change, that is by definition a problem, Howe suggests.

As sociologist Jake Rosenfeld points out in his new book What Unions No Longer Do, many unions long ago lost their sense of “grassroots militancy” and switched to a service provider model, in which individual members receive care and attention in exchange for dues. That’s what put off 26-year-old Ari Goldstein, who recently quit teaching after four years at a high school in San Francisco. Like a lot of teachers, he essentially had to belong to the union -- under California law, he could opt out, but he’d have to pay a fee equivalent to the amount he’d owe in dues. In his experience, United Educators of San Francisco seemed mainly concerned with filing grievances against the administration, defending employees who slept or even drank on the job. “It’s awful, it’s disgusting what the union does,” Goldstein says. “We’re a bottom 5 percent school in the whole state, so there’s obviously a lot of room for growth, but nothing innovative is happening here because administrators are afraid of grievances and harassment.”

It’s the worst stereotype about unions -- that they defend the personal interests of their members at the expense of the enterprise as a whole, blocking all evaluation that isn’t positive and dictating behavior down to the length of bathroom breaks. “It was clear that many of the younger teachers new to the profession were concerned about a union whose sole purpose was to defend members against disciplinary charges or dismissals,” says Jackson Potter, of the Chicago Teachers Union. “That was the perception.”

A 2012 strike by the Chicago Teachers Union lead to a 17 percent salary hike. (Flickr)

In order to change not just that perception but the reality of how the union operated, Potter was part of an effort several years ago to elect new union leadership and return the local to its original purposes. It worked. Karen Lewis was elected as the union’s president and stared down Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a 2012 strike that was arguably the most dramatic win for labor anywhere in the nation during the past five years. It led to a 17 percent salary hike for teachers as well as changes in evaluation and hiring policies for laid-off workers. “You have to draw out the issues people care about,” says Potter. “If you don’t, you’ll become one of these top-down unions that have lost connection with the people they’re supposed to represent.”

What’s really important is not just that unions listen to their existing members, but that they make themselves attractive to potential recruits. The only way to grow is by broadening their appeal, whether it’s through collaboration with other allied groups -- which unions have been doing on many issues for years -- or simply speaking to young people, who by all accounts appear ready to give them a hearing.

For many coming out of college over the past several years, and for others who entered the workforce directly out of high school, income inequality is not some abstract notion. For the past few years, most workers young and old were willing to accept nearly any salary offered to them, since jobs were so scarce. But now the young are starting to feel like they’re being left behind or, worse, cheated. Perhaps partly as a result, union organizers maintain that young people are more open to recruitment pleas than older workers, who tend to be more skeptical or even cynical about unions. “The older generations, they had bad experiences with unions in their time,” says Jacquita Berens, a 30-year-old who is working to organize home health workers in Minnesota for the Service Employees International Union. “Young people are more receptive to unions, to change.”

Berens was introduced to union activity through her experience working with a nonprofit group seeking to raise the minimum wage. Few young workers may belong to unions, but many like the idea that they can be part of the campaign against wage stagnation and income inequality. If the unions play their cards right, more of them might be prone to sign up.

This story was originallly published by Governing