From the TUC

Young Workers in the Recession: the Organising Challenge

24 Sep 2009, By

As Chair of the TUC’s Young Members Forum, I’m very happy to be a guest blogger for today on Stronger Unions.

As a young trade union activist, I’m interested to know what the Government is doing for young people facing the worst of times in this current recession?

And, perhaps more importantly from our perspective, how  unions are  tackling the challenge of organising young workers concentrated in areas where we have little or no union presense?

How do we speak with young workers, wherever they work, in a language that is relevant? 

If you have any further suggestions let the TUC know by emailing Matt Dykes, the TUC’s policy officer for Young People at [email protected]

But here are a few of my own thoughts on the matter:

It’s a tough world out there for our younger generation today.  For too many young people choices are narrowing as unemployment runs rampant, jobs remain concentrated in low skilled, low paying sectors, unpaid volunteering the only route for many into the professions and competition for decent apprenticeships and university places intensifies with supply lagging well behind demand.  

The awareness of the long term effects of the recession on young people’s aspirations and working lives has led to journalists, academics and politicians of all stripes to increasingly speak of a “lost generation”, a cliché perhaps but one with an ominous ring of truth about it for those of us out there facing the sharp end of the labour market in our teens and early twenties.

All this poses clear challenges for Government and employers.  While it’s heartening to see this Government, unlike previous administrations, committing itself to addressing the needs of young people, it remains to be seen whether the package of support within the ‘Backing Young Britain’ initiative is of sufficient scale to make a significant impact on the problem of endemic youth unemployment.  The guarantee of a job or training place for all long term unemployed young people is a bold commitment. Increasing public sector apprenticeships, as seen by the NHS recently, is genuine progress and the Future Jobs Fund shows a clear break from past initiatives with a focus on real job creation.  But the Government’s enthusiasm for internships and work experience as a potential solution leaves me cold.  Without further guarantees of decent minimum standards, the intern route is always going to be open to exploitation. 


What’s more, the Government’s strategy hinges on genuine commitment from employers.  Without this, ‘Backing Young Britain’ gets nowhere because the jobs, internships and apprenticeships will fail to materialise.  Or at least, will fail to materialise in a way that provides a quality route into sustainable work.  The Government needs to find more ways to ensure that employers engage in and contribute to this agenda.  Using its considerable purchasing power as a procurer of goods and services from the private sector would seem one way of obliging employers to participate in the Government’s plans.


And, of course, the unions have a key role to play in all this.  There are three big challenges for us to meet.


First, we need to continue to campaign and lobby Government to ensure that job creation and work experience initiatives are rewarding and effective, providing sustainable pathways into employment and more good quality apprenticeships are made available to young people.  And we need to use our presence in the workplace to monitor the real experiences of young people entering employment through these schemes.  That unions have been given an advisory role on the Future Jobs Fund panels is one very welcome example of how we can feed into this.


Second, unions can play a supportive role with young people entering work for the first time, particularly those previously unemployed and excluded young people coming to the workplace through Government initiatives.  Developing cohorts of union reps who can play an active role in mentoring and supporting young apprentices, work experience placements and other new entrants not only helps those vulnerable young people but promotes recruitment and organisation, demonstrating the value of union membership to new groups of workers.


Finally, trade unions need to do more to organise and recruit more widely among young workers.  Young people make up a sizeable chunk of the workforce with workers aged 16 to 24 making up 14% of the total workforce.  Around a third of 16 and 17 year olds and two thirds of 18 to 24 year olds are in employment.  They are most likely to be in low paid work and suffer higher levels of bullying and employment rights abuses.  And yet union membership among young people is notoriously low with only one in ten of this age group joining a trade union.


There are specific reasons for this: young people are more likely to move jobs so there is high probability that they will leave a union because they move to an employer without union presence and younger workers are overwhelmingly concentrated in sectors where union density is particularly low.


Trade unionists used to complain that young people had become a generation of Thatcher’s children and that they were no longer willing to join trade unions. The reality now is that rather than having a negative image of trade unions, many young people simply have no image of trade unions at all.

But several trade unions are already proving that organising young workers can be successful, with the right kind of targeted work.  So what kind of organising and engagement has proved effective?

For unions to really make their mark among young workers there needs to be a greater union presence in those sectors where young people are concentrated.  For unions to recruit young members, they need to be in the hotels, restaurants, shops, and call centres where so many young people start their working lives.  This, of course, poses a whole set of organising challenges for unions but both Unite and GMB have shown that these kind of workplaces don’t have to be union-free zones and that young people are often willing to join when unions find them.

Schools and colleges are also a good place to start.  For a number of years now the TUC has provided teaching materials and volunteer speakers for schools.  But delivery has been patchy, with real challenges both in providing speakers who are able to find the time off to participate and in building demand for the service from schools.  There’s also scope to develop our teaching materials, providing more up to date and user friendly teaching materials that can be applied to the modern classroom where technology allows for greater use of multi-media approaches.  It will be interesting to see how the TUC develops this in coming months and how we can put this work on a more sustainable footing, without over-reliance on volunteer reps to undertake the work.

Engaging with students in the Further and Higher Education sectors potentially offers more immediate organising gains.  Large numbers of students are already in work and often concentrated around campuses with student unions offering a range of support services that trade unions can work with.

The TUC and NUS protocol signed in 2006 was a significant development and new strategies emerged as a result.  This has included the joint production of information on employment rights and housing for students as well as some pilot organising projects delivered in two TUC regions and currently in Wales. 

Engagement with students has often been most effective where unions have been able to link with vocational training relevant to their industries.  Equity, NUT and NUJ are examples of how this can prove very effective, particularly when backed up with student structures within the union.  UNISON has also established a similar approach with student nurses.

Increasing awareness and recruiting young members is only part of the challenge.  We need to develop future activists and make our unions attractive and inclusive for young people.  It’s therefore essential that unions develop our younger members and empower them with a voice within their own unions. 

16 of the 55 TUC affiliated trade unions have some kind of targeted activity with younger members and most of these have internal structures which help bring young members into the trade union mainstream.  Unite, PCS, UNISON and CWU are some of the unions that have seen real growth in activism as a result of establishing young members structures. It stands to reason that young members get active when the union is seen to value them.

The TUC’s Young Members Forum and Conference makes an essential contribution to the work of the TUC, giving young members a platform to make their views known to the TUC and its affiliated unions though the General Council and ensuring that their voice contributes to national TUC policy.  It also acts as a forum to bring young activists together from across our unions, an engine room for ideas and change at the heart of our movement.

The TUC’s Organising Academy, and recently launched Activist Academy, are key vehicles for building the skills of our young activists both within the trade union movement but also with students, through our partnership with the NUS.  And the Activist Academy offers real potential to motivate new activists.

Finally, it is imperative that we consistently make the case for a better deal for young people.  We need to continue to lobby for a National Minimum Wage that does not discriminate against younger workers, for more and better apprenticeships and to tackle the chronic lack of affordable housing for young people. 

Ultimately, we need to be seen as the champion of young people in the workplace.  And to show that becoming a trade union member is not some relic of a bygone industrial age, but the best way of guaranteeing decency and dignity at work in an age of huge change. 

John Walsh, General Council member and Chair of the Young Members Forum.


One Response to Young Workers in the Recession: the Organising Challenge

  1. steve higginson
    Sep 24th 2009, 11:21 pm

    Thanks John, all very valid points you have raised! It is interesting to note that the 15-18 year old age group in the UK,will be reaching adulthood in the midst of a deep and severe recession.This is the first time this age group has been affected since when it happened the last time30 years ago, 1979. I am agreat believer in the economic and social cyclical nature of time,ie,whatever goes around ,comes around. Young people having denied to them,jobs, further educationetc etc plus purchasing power for consumer goods will react. How and where that anger is channelled will be a challenge for the labour movement. As John rightly points out as dignity,and decency come to the fore,we should not forget to champion TUC values of justice, fairness and equality
    – values tat are needed more than ever in these difficult days.