Unions haven't done a good job connecting with young workers and teaching them about their rights in the workplace, labour activist Pablo Godoy says — and that has lead to young people caring less about union activity compared to previous generations.

Now, union leadership must step up and connect with young people on their terms, so they can fully grasp their rights as workers and understand where those rights came from, he says. But some say even if they do, it won't matter —because young people are simply better off without union representation altogether.

"I think unions are extremely relevant — but I don't think they are too present or prevalent when it comes to young workers," Godoy told CBC Hamilton. "It's not necessarily on their minds."

'unions represent the last pillar holding up the diminishing middle class in the developed world.'—Michael Borrelli, union member

Godoy is a national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) — which at around 245,000 members is one of the largest in Canada. The latest UFCW estimate puts 35–40 per cent of its membership under the age of 30 — and at 27, Godoy is one of them. He wears many hats within the organization, but the majority of his job centres around young worker engagement.

He says that in large part, young people aren't as cognizant of the origins of worker's rights as compared to their parents.

"Employers didn't sit around and say 'we should give workers time off, and vacations, and pay for those vacations.' These things didn't arise naturally — they were fought for and were won by a faction of workers," Godoy said. "Somewhere along the line, I think we lost the communication with young people when it came to informing them about where these things come from."

"We started with a slate in which we had nothing and we had to gain these things. And if young people were more aware of that, I think they would be more active and participatory when it comes to protecting them."

But do young people even equate things like benefits with a union? Kristina Michor, a 23-year-old medical administrator, told CBC Hamilton she doesn't. She says most young workers aren't as concerned with having union representation as their parents were.

"I know that growing up being in a union was a huge thing that my parents told me about, because for them it meant security, a pension, etcetera," she said. "But for myself and most of my peers, a union is not an important thing to get. I value getting benefits from a job over being in a union."

Michor has worked in both union and non-union hospitals, and been part of a union. Currently she's in a non-union job — and much happier because of it, she says.

"I actually  get better perks for working in a non-union hospital — with better pay and frequent raises, better benefits, more vacation and sick time, and no union dues to pay so I am keeping even more of my salary," Michor said. "I would also say I am happier at a non-union hospital because I was hired onto a job that in a union hospital I would have very little chance of getting into unless I had a lot of seniority behind me."

"I also have more chances of advancement and moving around within the non-union hospital."

'A pillar of the middle class'

But not all young people feel that way. Michael Borrelli, 31, lives in downtown Hamilton but works in Toronto. He says that after 16 years in the workforce, he would choose a union shop over a non-union gig every single time.

"Sixteen years as a worker with experience in both union and non-union environments have turned me into an avowed unionist," Borrelli said.

"Broadly speaking, unions represent the last pillar holding up the diminishing middle class in the developed world. They bring together workers with common interests to fight to ensure that their members aren't abused or mistreated, are paid fairly and appropriately for what they do."

"But personally, unions represented the possibility of attaining a modest lifestyle where I could buy a home, work a regular schedule that allows me to pursue my interests and raise a family, and the ability to, one day, retire."

The debate around the place of unions in the 21st century has become more and more divisive. One needs to look little farther than the controversy that has erupted around right to work legislation in the U.S. to see that the sentiment towards unions is not all favourable.

Michigan became the 24th U.S. state to instigate right-to-work laws in December. Right-to-work laws ban requirements that non-union employees pay unions for negotiating contracts and other services.

Supporters say the laws will give workers more choice and boost economic growth, but critics say the real intent is to weaken organized labour by bleeding unions of money needed to bargain effectively with management.

Workers as a threat

So why is the sentiment surrounding unions so divisive?

"Ideology, plain and simple," Borelli said. "Workers who organize are a threat — mostly to profit — and educating workers of their legal rights is similarly threatening. The same people who want to stop workers from freely associating would cry bloody murder if they couldn't organize themselves."

And organization is something Godoy says young people are making great strides towards in recent years. Even if it's not directly tied to unions, it signifies young people becoming more engaged in their communities, which in turn bodes well for the labour movement. He points to the Occupy movement and 2012's Quebec Student Strike as indicators that young people are increasingly more interested in standing up for their rights.

He says the most dangerous thing that union leadership or employers could do is assume that young people are just apathetic — that they don't care about their futures and will take whatever is given to them, just to keep a job.

"We haven't historically done the best job talking to young people because we make the assumption that they're apathetic," Godoy said. "What we've learned as a union is that when you open opportunities for young people to get involved — not in the ways that we want them to, but in ways they'd like … then you are actually able to engage them a lot easier."

Yes, that means social media campaigns — but more than anything, it means having young union representatives interacting with young workers, Godoy says.

"You really have to do young worker to worker engagement," he said. "They see a young face, and they can relate to that."

"Maybe it takes difficult circumstances for them to be pushed to a point where they realize, 'hey — unions are pretty much our best friends when it comes to fighting our rights in the workplace.'"

This is the first in a series of stories about unions in the 21st century from CBC Hamilton – all leading up to our Labour Pains: Do Unions Still Matter? Town hall on Tuesday, April 23.

Join CBC Hamilton at Mohawk College's McIntyre Performing Arts Centre for a discussion and live webcast on the state of unions in Ontario and Canada, hosted by Brent Bambury, of CBC Radio's Day 6. Tune in on Tuesday, April 23 from 7:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.