It seems we are fighting on all fronts at the moment: defending jobs, terms and conditions, services; campaigning against cuts to services and benefits; struggling to win our fight for equality. There is no question that we are already stretched.
So why is the TUC young members conference pushing now for a TUC-led campaign of awareness and education to win young hearts and minds to our cause?
In UNISON we’ve always been conscious of the issue. With around 70,000 young workers in membership, structures that give young people a voice at all levels of our union, and positive encouragement and support to get actively involved, we still know there is much to do. That’s why we submitted this motion to the TUC young members’ conference, and were delighted to see it selected for Congress 2012.
Recently we’ve been spreading the word on trade unionism through our affiliation to the British Youth Council, reaching out to young people – some still in their early teens.
And we are proud to have been founding partners in the TUC’s ‘unions into schools’ initiative (a brilliant online resource – see for yourself at www.ebctuc.co.uk).
Yet too many young people are unaware of the heritage that collective action has delivered.
Sadly, we’ve found it’s not just a lack of awareness of our achievements, but also widespread ignorance about what trade unions are. We’ve taken a small step to start addressing this through publishing a leaflet “What is a trade union”. It’s one of the most popular items we’ve ever produced – over 150000 distributed last year.
As a movement we have every right to be proud of what we’ve achieved, and our achievements are real, practical and easily communicated. (Even the Government can’t hide the facts: as recently as April this year the Department for Business Innovation and Skills reported 16 -24 year olds earn nearly 27% more if they are in a union than their non-union counterparts. The news – from the same report – for the trade union movement though, is that only 8.6% of 16 – 24 year old workers are in a union.)
Bringing young people into understanding, membership, and active participation in trade unions is not an optional extra, but an essential part of building capacity and sustainability. We all know what the alternative is.
Every union has a responsibility to include this in their organising work, and the TUC is the right body to co-ordinate a programme that reaches out across the labour movement to educate and inspire younger generations with the values and rewards of trade unionism.
The question, therefore, is not why young union members are calling for a programme of awareness and education now. The question is “if not now, when?” Our movement can’t afford to wait.