Organising youth in Europe, what can we learn?
Hats off to Kurt Vandaele at European Trade Union Institute for a fantastic bit of research he’s undertaken for the ETUC Youth Committee looking at the various ways trade union confederations across Europe are reacting to the problem of low union density among young people. It is research like this that is essential to developing effective organising strategies, learning what’s been done and how we can improve upon it.
As you’d expect, it’s a mixed picture.
Sadly, the problem of low membership among the young is common to nearly all European countries. And, although low unionisation rates among young workers are not new from a historical perspective, union membership has been declining more rapidly among young workers.
However, as Kurt points out, the research also finds that young people “do certainly not disagree in principle with trade unions and there is reason to believe that there is an unsatisfied demand for unionism among young workers.”
A finding that will be no surprise is that possibly the main reason for a low membership among young people was that there was no significant union presence in those sectors or employers where young people were concentrated.
So what are union confederations doing about this?
Well, nearly all of them now have youth representative structures in place, although the young members themselves often don’t have much of a voice at senior levels in the organisation. And while most of the confederations are seen to be responsive to the needs of young members, activity on organising and recruitment is the weak link.
“Among the youth representatives there is a demand for organising youth recruitment campaigns and an apparent belief in those campaigns as a channel for joining a union … Yet there is a clear mismatch between the perceived responsiveness of the ETUC national member organisations on recruiting and organising young workers and the priority that youth structures give to this.”
Okay. So what lessons are there for union confederations, the TUC being one of them, who want to support organising and recruitment campaigns among young people? Among Kurt’s findings, there’s some really useful pointers for the TUC:
- Frequent discussion with affiliated unions on recruitment and organising issues is linked to the effective organising of recruitment campaigns.
- Effective organising happens when young people are engaged at the earliest possible stage, when they enter the labour market, with a significant role for the union rep on the shop floor.
- Young workers should sample the benefits of union membership at an early stage.
- Youth representatives confirm the importance of union presence on the work floor as a channel to join the union. Union reps were the most important source of union recruitment, with work colleagues coming second.
- Youth recruitment campaigns should not differ from other campaigns in terms of the issues they raise since young workers are likely to be reached with a traditional union agenda.
- Several issues of concern are at play in youth recruitment campaigns but the ‘traditional’ union agenda (wages, job security and benefits) is dominant.
- Cooperation with student organisations and action groups for unemployed workers is considered helpful for recruiting young union members.
No major surprises there. But it’s helpful endorsement for the TUC’s own plans to expand support for organising young workers through its Next Generation campaign.
Engaging young people as they enter the labour market is a key concern of ours, which is why we’re actively promoting support for apprentices, interns and Future Jobs Fund workers.
Working with student unions to promote trade unions among the increasing number of working students is an underused though possibly effective strategy.
But, ultimately, it’s about working with unions to stimulate organising activity around those key sectors where young people are present. Watch this space …