Clocking off. Photo: Steven Puetzer
Ageing members and reps: the demographics that threaten the future of unions
Most of the commentary on trade union decline concentrates on the fall in overall union membership and density (the proportion of workers who carry a union card).
This is obviously cause for great concern. Since 1979, total union membership has halved and density has fallen from over 50% to below 25%. However there is another set of figures that should keep anyone who cares about the future of trade unionism in the UK.
These tell a story of an ageing membership and, perhaps most worryingly, an ageing activist base, a double whammy that if not addressed will on its own reduce membership and seriously damage the ability of unions to effectively represent members individually and collectively.
Less than one in ten 16–24 year olds in employment are members of a trade union. This isn’t necessarily because they are reluctant to join unions, rather that they are unable to join one because unions are largely absent from the sectors in which they are starting their working lives.
For example; there are just short of one million young people working in retail and hospitality, a sector in which just 12% of the workforce is in a union. Over half a million young people work in accommodation and food services jobs, a sector where less than in one in twenty workers carry a union card and less than one per cent of young workers do. And finally, in manufacturing a sector that employs over a quarter of a million young people union density is less than half the national average
It’s when we consider the age of union members that the scale of this problem, and the threat to the future of the movement, becomes most apparent. Less than one in twenty union members are aged between 16 and 24, yet three quarters are aged over 35 and considerably more than one third are over 50.
An understandable response to these figures would be to assume that workers eventually get round to joining unions as they get older and so we shouldn’t be too worried about rates of membership amongst young workers. Unfortunately this isn’t the case.
Analysis of union density figures of workers aged 40–44 over several decades reveals a significant age cohort effect on union membership.
For example, union density amongst workers aged between 40 and 44 who were born in the 1940s (and therefore reached their mid-40s in the mid to late 80s) was 43%. If we then look at workers who reached the same age in the first decade of the 21st century we see that density amongst workers in this age group had fallen by ten per cent. A similar pattern exists for every age group over 25.
These figures tell us two things. Firstly that the current relatively high rates of membership amongst older workers is a legacy of these workers joining union when they were in their 20s and retaining membership throughout their working lives. Secondly, that the movement is not effectively backfilling to replace members we will lose as a result of retirement.
Unless unions can dramatically increase the numbers of young workers in unions then the net impact of this, will be a decline in membership regardless of whatever other challenges, political or economic, the movement has to face in the future.
The second issue concerns the age of union workplace reps.
When union members are asked what it is that makes unions relevant and effective, the presence of union representatives in the workplace is always in as the key factor in shaping their opinion on the relevance and effectiveness of the union they’re a members of. This isn’t surprising as the model of workers supporting and representing each other at their place of work speaks to one of the core principles of trade unionism.
Yet this is a model threatened not just by attacks on paid time off for reps in the public sector, but also as a result of an ageing activist base and evidence that our movement is not finding enough young reps quickly enough.
Evidence from the last two Workplace Employment Relations Surveys shows that union reps are actually getting older. Between 2004 and 2011 the proportion of reps aged 30 fell by 5% whilst the proportion of reps aged between 40 and 49 and over 50 increased by four and five per cent respectively. Once again a failure to back fill reps as they approach their working lives has the potential to seriously undermine the movement’s organisational effectiveness.
So what to do?
To begin to address the critically low levels of membership amongst young workers, the TUC and its affiliates have launched a major new campaign to reach out to young workers in sectors with the lowest membership density. The campaign ‘Reaching Britain’s Young Core Workers’ consists of a number of work strands each aimed at making unions more relevant and union membership more attractive to them.
The first stage of the campaign involves trying to get a definitive understanding of how young people experience work, how they balance it with life outside the workplace and what issues they are most concerned about.
We know that most young people have no idea what unions are, let alone do so a key part of this research phase is to understand how to explain and frame the role of unions to young people. A crucial part of this will be to explore how we can use digital technology to bring union membership and mostly crucially, union organisation, within reach of young workers in sectors where there is little traditional union organisation.
Other parts of the campaign will look at how we beef up union campaigning on issues that young workers care about, how we encourage and support young people to take a lead role in these campaigns and how we utilise existing union young workers structures in increasing young worker membership, density and activism.
This is a campaign that will run over a number of years and the success of which will be crucial to the future effectiveness of the movement.
Our reps are the foundation upon which the strength of the movement is built so no one, whatever level of the movement they occupy, can be happy with a situation in which the majority of our reps are nearer the end of working lives than the beginning.
The challenge of finding the next generation of union activists, as well as requiring unions to be innovate in relations to forms of activity, will also require us to mobilise our existing resources and activist base.
The trade union movement has around 170,000 unions reps, who possess a massive amount of knowledge and experience that can be used to address this challenge.
So based on conversations with friends and colleagues in the movement, here are here are five (relatively) radical and possibly controversial things that we might consider doing to encourage more young members to get active. Obviously these do not represent official TUC policy.
Five ways to encourage new young activists?
1. Scrap traditional reps and activist job titles and descriptions and start again from the basis about what needs to be done. Titles like Chair and Secretary appear boring and administrative not proactive, action based roles that might motivate someone to get involved.
2. Introduce rep retirement ages so that reps step down from their union role 12/18 months before they retire from work and are tasked with finding and mentoring younger successors.
3. Branch officers and reps should be employed at the company/organisation, which means ending the practice of retired members holding branch positions.
4. Following on from the previous suggestion, unions should adopt and properly resource formal succession planning and mentoring strategies for new reps.
5. Unions should launch a digital revolution in unions that utilises tech and includes radically democratising how we identify issues and narrow the gap between the decision we make and the action we need to take.