From the TUC

We’ve never had it so bad: Difficult times for young public service workers

05 Mar 2014, By

For young workers providing public services, these are very dark times indeed.

We are being demeaned in the attacks on our pay, terms, and conditions; demoralised as the prospects of providing decent, democratically-controlled, properly-funded public services are torn apart; and demonised as the Government and its big business and media allies hammer home their ‘public bad, private good’ ideology.

Of course, young people – and young Black people in particular – without work have it much worse. It’s worth noting that as public services and jobs are handed over to private profiteers, their job opportunities diminish further. But even this is not good enough for a government who have decided that careers advice and youth services are of little importance and whose funding as public services have been slashed accordingly.

These attacks have had a big impact on young public service workers, as individuals and as trade union members.

For example, even before the austerity agenda was launched, we knew that local government was going to face a staffing crisis as around a third of local government workers were eligible to retire over the next decade. Now with the impact of job losses of around half a million since 2010 (mainly due to funding cuts) the burden of maintaining service delivery with ever-shrinking resources has fallen disproportionately on younger workers. It is little wonder that stress and sickness are a growing issue. And at the same time harsher new sickness and performance regimes are being imposed.

And one might almost think the stress of working in such resource-starved services was worth it if the workers were well-rewarded. Yet we are witnessing poor private sector practices being imported, meaning that the number of low paid jobs is growing, as are zero hour contracts. Incomes are falling as prices rise – but public service workers have the same living costs as anyone else. For young workers it is especially hard to find affordable housing, meaning many remaining at their family homes for years beyond what might otherwise be reasonably expected, creating the likelihood of further domestic stress.  For young LGBT this can be especially difficult if they are forced to stay in unsympathetic or unsafe family environments. And young women are disproportionately affected by the austerity-dictated depressed pay levels. Much of the progress we made towards equality is now under threat.

The idea of pursuing a career in public service is also fast becoming little more than a dream, as services are contracted-out to the private sector on ideological rather than quality (or even cost) grounds; as training and development budgets are reined in; and staff restructuring reduces promotion opportunities.

As trade unionists, the pressure on service delivery means it is becoming increasingly difficult to organise workplaces. From being refused time-off, to the challenges of uniting fragmented workforces, to threats of de-recognition – all present tough challenges for young workers starting out in their careers and also wanting to become active in their trade union.

Yet even in these dark times there are still moments of light and hope.

One brilliant example is that young workers are joining UNISON. Last year saw a 50% increase on the previous year of recruitment young workers. Yes, UNISON ran a recruitment campaign, but it was not targeted at young workers, and the recruitment of young workers was proportionately much greater than that of older workers.

And our ‘Worth It’ campaign is capturing the imagination of young workers – working first to change the way public service workers feel about their own position: challenging the dangerous and pervasive ideology that public service workers don’t deserve decent pay, and building from that to challenge the negative propaganda about the value of those workers.

But for now, the challenge is to keep bringing in new young members – and to recruit and organise in both the public sector and private sector where our members have been contracted-out. We have  to develop as many as possible of those new young members into activism, to become our next layer of reps, stewards, and leaders.

Because, as we know, we can only win through effective organising. And that is what we will do.


March 2014 is TUC Young Workers Month. Find out more on the TUC website.