In her short stint as a member of the labor market, the high school senior says she lost economic stability — Panos was laid off from her first job as a hostess due to the pandemic.
“It was just a really terrible time,” Panos said. “The structure of my life was falling apart in front of my eyes and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
She joined Starbucks in mid-July, a month before her franchise announced its union campaign, and soon realized that even as a part time employee working conditions could improve.
“You just have customers straight-up verbally abusing you,” Panos said, “You get like a $1 or $2 pay (per hour) increase while you’re taking on way more work… and I felt like they were using us.”
Gen Z, born between 1996 and the mid-2000s, came of age through Black Lives Matter, the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump presidency. The oldest among them remember the 2008 global financial crisis and the Great Recession, and see echoes of that era’s economic instability today.
“They’ve seen opportunities for their generation disappear and are afraid they are going to be worse off than their parents,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research and a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “They look around and see who is doing something, and they see the labor movement.”
Many of those interviewed by CNN Business say they want to join a movement where social causes are part of their workplace values.
“[Unions] hadn’t crossed my mind, because we learned all these big union movements happened way back,” Panos said. “So you think everything should be set up by now. And everything should be fine.”
Kaitlin Bell, 23, communications chair of Nonprofit Professional Employees Union and a member of CLINIC Workers United, which represents the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, decided that she wanted to organize after seeing TikToks of millennials working in the non-profit sector, making jokes about overbearing bosses and their fears of getting fired.
“I want to be in a work environment where people feel safe and secure,” Bell said. “Those TikToks are funny, but if that’s our reality for the next several decades, it can be a little disheartening.”
Richard Minter, the organizing director of Workers United, a Service Employees International Union affiliate, said he has organized about 300 new members in the past 18 months. Most of them were young people who work in restaurants and service industries.
“In my history of doing this for 27 years, I don’t think I’ve seen that kind of bravery,” Minter said.
Kati Kokal, now a reporter at the Palm Beach Post, was the youngest journalist on the staff of the Hilton Head, South Carolina-based Island Packet when she joined the newspaper at age 22 in 2018.
“When I was in college, we were not talking about unionizing in newsrooms, and now among student journalists there’s more of this idea,” Kokal said.
“It would be rare to not have a friend that I hadn’t already talked to about unionizing at some point,” Westlake said. “Whether you’re in a coffee job or starting out as a medical professional or engineer.”
Westlake’s store in Buffalo, where employees are mostly young, female and progressive, he said, began mail-in voting earlier in November. Ballots are due early December.
Starbucks says the company is not “anti-union” — they frequently hold listening sessions across the country and send corporate members to locations when there are operational concerns. Starbucks says its workers have received three wage increases in the last two years.
It was Panos’ first time signing a union card, and she said she felt like she was signing an illegal document, and that she felt as if she was being “spied on” by out-of-state company officials. Starbucks said any claims of intimidation are not accurate.
“I’d ask my coworkers, oh, am I going to get fired tomorrow?” Panos said.