Now more than ever, young workers need unions to need them
The statistic that usually troubles me the most when the trade union membership stats are published each year is the one for density amongst young workers (those aged between 16 and 24). Last year the figure was 8%. There are many reasons why membership amongst this group of workers – some of the poorest paid and most vulnerable to exploitation – is so low. I could entertain you for hours talking about these and in particular the lack of ‘transmission methods’ (or probably not).
The list of reasons might be long but it wouldn’t include the one that is most often trotted out. This says that the main reason for low union membership amongst young workers is that they are ‘Thatcher’s generation’. I’ve never bought this. The suggestion that something entered the gene pool around May 1979 that made those born after this date genetically disinclined towards unions has always struck me as somewhat defeatist and pretty ridiculous.
That’s not to say we don’t have an image problem amongst young people – we do! Although it would be more accurate to say that amongst the vast majority of young people we have no image whatsoever – good or bad.
This speaks to the (real) main reason why so few working young people are union members. Quite simply, in the kinds of workplaces and sectors in which many young people work, or at least get their first job, there is no union to join.
The best rebuttal of the ‘Thatcher’s generation’ argument is to look at the performance of unions recruiting young people in workplaces where the union is well organised. Unions across a range of sectors have demonstrated that if the union is present and active in a workplace then it’s no more difficult to get young people join than their older colleagues.
So we have to be more imaginative in how we reach out and allow young workers to hear about unions – who we are, what we do and the way that they can be used to campaign on the issues that they care about.
The traditional response to ‘engaging young people’ in a range of organisations (not just unions) is to establish young members’ structures. Whilst I have nothing against these, all too often they simply recreate the traditional ways of working (committees/conferences) that exist elsewhere in the organisation. The only real difference being that young people fill the positions usually held by the oldies.
The problem with this is that at its worst – and particularly in political parties – this way of ‘engaging young people’ creates an almost professionalised ‘young activist’ who has about as much in common with the majority of their peers as people much older.
Fortunately union young members structures have done a lot more to freshen up the issues unions prioritise and crucially, the campaign tactics they use. As a result they’ve had a positive impact on the number of young existing members who get active in the union. But across the movement they’ve perhaps been underused in reaching out to the majority of young workers who work where there is no union for them to join.
I’ve written elsewhere about how unions and the TUC might create a pathway into union membership, particularly for young workers; but there is more that we can do to raise the profile of unions amongst young people.
I’m often told by union officers and activists that unions need to ‘get into schools’ to promote unions to young people. Although briefing school students about unions wont on its own increase membership amongst young workers, they’re correct – this is important work.
The good news is that we’ve never been so well equipped to do this. The TUC’s Unions into Schools resources provide teachers and activists with all they need to tell the story of unions and make the case for our continued, and increased, relevance.
Unfortunately they remain some of the most under used resources in the movement. So we need a collective effort to increase awareness and most importantly, the delivery of these excellent materials.
The TUC Young Members Forum is the voice of young workers in the TUC. It’s fair to say that over recent years it’s not had the profile it should, particularly given the impact of the government’s austerity agenda on young people.
That’s why in the run up to this year’s Young Members Conference the Forum will be reviewing how it works and considering ways that it can improve its capacity to run effective campaigns that have an identifiable young workers imprint.
It will be looking how to extend participation in the Forum – perhaps by holding ‘open forum’ meetings combined with campaign action training in TUC regions to which any young worker or organisation representing young people could be invited to attend.
The Forum will also consider how it can sharpen up its campaign activity; perhaps by choosing two or three ‘priority campaigns’ each year into which it can put all of its energy.
And there may even be a case for a rebrand. Renaming itself the TUC Young WORKERS Forum would be a small change that could send a bigger message; that it wants to involve and speak for ALL young workers.
These would be admittedly small changes that in no way match the scale of the challenge. But if along with the work carried out by TUC affiliates, they contribute towards creating a sense of urgency and purpose that stimulates a fresh ‘whole movement’ approach to increasing membership amongst young workers, they would be well worth it.