From the TUC

Ageing members and reps: the demographics that threaten the future of unions

17 Mar 2017, By

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.

Ageing members

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.

Ageing reps

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.

3 Responses to Ageing members and reps: the demographics that threaten the future of unions

  1. K Toulson
    Mar 18th 2017, 9:51 am

    Perhaps if would-be union members saw the TUC and the trade union leadership actually working for them they might see it worthwhile joining a union.Further, far from continuing to protect workers rights, over the last 30 years, New Labour Blairites, the TUC and right-wing trade union leadership have cravenly allowed working class gains to be eroded.

    Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws were never repealed despite 13 years of a New Labour government’s opportunity to do so. The TUC and most of the trade unions’ leaders’ complacency and Labour’s neglect to repeal these laws when it had the chance clearly emboldened this vicious Tory government and laid the foundations for them to further build on and escalate the attacks.

    It need never have got to the stage of this vicious Tory government’s all-out attack on unions if the TUC and most trade union leaders had not squandered multiple opportunities to take them on.

    Organising hundreds of thousands protesters in rallies, protests and short-lived ineffective strikes is futile if the actions are not meaningfully followed up. Pleading for concessions serves only to betray its weakness.

    Millions marched and took strike action over March, June and November 2011 over the pensions dispute only to be betrayed by the climb down of the Unison and GMB unions signing the ‘heads of agreement’, and in doing so, isolated the PCS union, the only union willing to fight on. Encouraged by this, Danny Alexander, in Parliament at the end of December 2011 gloated that the ‘heads of agreement’ deliver the government’s key objectives in full, and do so with no new money since our November offer.”

    And then, among other failures to rise to the occasion, health unions suspended the further NHS strikes planned for the 29 January and 25 February 2015 leading to acceptance of an inadequate offer.

    Similarly with the local government workers in 2013.

    For the TUC and trade union leaders to keep leading people, who have over the years invested so much time and effort in strikes, rallies and protests, into action only to repeatedly retreat, not only betrays their trust but serves to sap any confidence in a fightback.

    So inevitably, after years of unfulfilled action, facing such little opposition and emboldened by their previous unchecked successive vicious attacks on working people’s lives it’s hardly surprising that these cold, hostile, callous, calculating Tory spivs have the confidence to mount, the biggest ever attack on trade unions rights in the Trade Union Act.

    It is now time for the trade union movement to get behind this mounting rank and file pressure and show its mettle.

  2. John Gray
    Mar 18th 2017, 10:34 am

    A challenging but important contribution Carl. This is a critical issue for unions.

    I think the success of the Labour Party in recruiting young people in recent years must tell us something? Even though in my experience many of them have joined but not got involved.

    There must be lessons for us somewhere? Changes in titles, rules, comms and digital media are important but it is also about the wider narrative – what is our our message to young people and how do we deliver it?

  3. Joe Bailey
    Mar 19th 2017, 4:17 pm

    The following comments are from the standpoint of the blog statement above.
    I loudly Celebrate the fact that whatever trade union members intentions they are all generally trying to pull in the same honourable direction.
    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.
    From Above blog.
    Could the TUC request the Oxford Internet Institute (O.I.I) trade union researchers analyse the following sentence.
    What benefits would have accrued to lower grade workers in the public sector and local government if they had been supplied in the year 2000 with an in house Intranet and an E-mail address?

    Would this have been a material gain for those workers lives in 2000?
    The possibility for recruiting of new union members through access to an in-house Intranet —helped?
    Would access to an in-house Intranet substantial improve the life chances of young workers today?
    There were all sorts of remote sites where workers in the public sector and local government were unlikely to come into contact with unions in carrying out their duties.
    (Would there have been a surge in membership – don’t know – it would have been nice to have an opportunity to experiment.)

    My branch first raised this topic in 2000 I think this was met with instant hostility from trade union members who didn’t work in local government. It was greeted with daft remarks such as “you will all be watching porn.” “What do you want that for?”

    The importance of this issue is not just the educational opportunity and other possible improvement in lower grade workers lives.
    This is one of the greatest examples where the trade unions could have obtained a benefit from the employer with the employers’ blessing.

    The support staff in universities had access to in-house internet well before this period. I think—don’t know.

    NW Regional Development Agency.(NWRAD)
    In the time of the Labour Government they instituted Regional Development Agencies. These RDAs published policy and influencing employers and councils regionally.

    There were three official trade union representatives on the NWRDA. The (NWRAD) appeared to publish policy that would be adopted across the NW.

    The NWRDA kept telling anyone who would listen that they were interested in promoting the “knowledge economy.”
    A similar phrase at the time was “open, accessible, accountable. (N.B not transparency.)

    The national TUC could have raised this point of lower grades in the public sector and local government with the Labour Government. No need for a revolution it was supposedly an open door. (“Beer and Sandwiches”)

    What could have been done to help? A sub-committee could have been set up – no I don’t mean the trade union hierarchy – ordinary union members had feed their views with the emphasis on young members into policy making bodies in the regions.
    As far democracy is concerned could the TUC please ask the Oxford Internet Institute (O.I.I) trade union researcher could this type of sub committee be set up in the present day to investigate the potential improvement to workers lives through ICT and technology in the coming period? The possible advances would also be of interest to workers with disabilities – talking technology etc.

    The challenge of finding the next generation of union activists, as well as requiring unions to be innovative in relation to forms of activity, will also require us to mobilise our existing resources and activist base.

    What do young workers of passing trade union motions and then sending them on to a higher authority? I think their hair would turn grey.

    A trade unionist raises a point in the trade union and Labour movement at any level. Response “You will have to put a motion in.”

    “You will have to put a motion in.

    Where do this motions go? (It seems you don’t want of get rid of old fashion terms such as motions. Be they seems to be got rid off Without its title being jazzed up.)
    In the what some people call the “real world” There would be a TUC a consumer programme such as “You and Yours.)

    (Could the Oxford Internet Institute build a numbered algorithm to trace where all the trade union motions are disappeared – into the ether?)

    In 2006 I wrote to the National TUC with a proposal (not a motion) for an innovation scheme for lower grades in local government.

    Proposal to the TUC
    (If you read below you find a motion which I wish to

    raise with my TxG branch.

    If supported it will go forward to the NWTUC. Does the

    TUC research department have view on who should be the

    appropriate responsible body that an approach should

    made ? I realise you are busy and do not expect an
    immediate response.
    That all public sector local government and voluntary

    workers in all grades are allowed to
    undertake a period of four hours a week to purse a
    innovate project. This would be accredited and
    administered.  Through a school college or university

    depending on the expertise of the education
    professionals. This could be funded under the
    of NESTA.? ERSC? European Social Fund? THE  LGA???
    As local government and the public sector are equal
    opportunity employees this should be open to all

    Goggle The search engine enterprise  employees are
    allowed to do this.
    Do the TUC research department have the expertise to
    advise which is the optimal route to follow?
    My branch is a public service branch we talk in terms
    of the public sector as people who work for councils

    and government. The BBC are now talking about public

    sector and local government workers as distinct
    different groups of workers this may cause further



    Joe Bailey)

    I received a lukewarm response (in my opinion) from the national TUC. I wanted the TUC to take the lead.

    The TUC wanted me to start with my employer. For a host of reasons the last option for me would have been to start with my employer.

    I then wrote to a Labour MEP I received a reply asking for information on EU publication “Innovation” (no longer published) magazine which I had mentioned in the letter.
    A quick Internet search for “Innovation Magazine” would have turned up information.

    At that point I gave up. Would a young person be impressed with the didactic approach from our leaders?

    Sometime ago I heard that academics would be publishing a paper on recruiting to the trade union movement. How many full time activists would have read these papers?

    How has the trade union policy research think tanks improved the lives of ordinary trade unions members?
    Hundred thousand people working in “think tanks – policy wonks.” ????

    Difficult to quantify — anyone for research???? Where is the evidence (metrics) – that what academics say – if a person from non academic background makes a statement.

    There is certainly a difficulty in raising issues for the benefit of members from what I have experienced in the policy field.

    (If I was going to purchase or join an organisation I would get a Which report and consult friends. I would be guarded of media or politicians — people that tell me something is good. Ca vet emptor???

    I think there involvement is to promote so called” brand loyalty.”)
    In retrospect I sometimes wonder if we would have got more sense out a Tory like Kenneth Baker – at least he would listen politely and probable do nothing – but rather the present policy in the Labour and trade union movement of being talked at.

    From the inside the movements looks at cross between the Methodist Church –due to die out in 2030? And the BBC with faux communitarian-ism – obsessed with 18-34 but unable to attract 18-34. Trying to ditch it old fashion image – not make viewers and listeners happy in the long term.
    “We reserve the right to talk at people.” A fitting epithet for a head stone?”