What do young people want from trade unions?

The Unions21 publication: Hit Hardest, scarred longest – Young workers during the crisis


The Unions21 fringe ‘Creating Opportunities for Young Workers’ takes place at the Labour Party Conference today.Ahead of the event, Chris Gray asks: What do young people want from unions?


This is a subject that is often conspicuous in its absence from discussions about the state of youth membership of unions. From the perspective of a generation facing terrifying levels of youth unemployment and feeling like we are paying where our elders did not, it is easy to see the trade unions as defending the interests of others, most recently in the role they have played in the defence of public sector pension schemes. As Dai Hudd, Deputy Secretary of Prospect, asked in a recent Unions21 pamphlet, ‘is it fair that cost sharing arrangements devised for public sector pension schemes transfer increases in future costs to younger workers?’

It is not a revelation that the core goal of trade unions is the defence of their members’ interests but if unions are to reach out to young people today they must work pro-actively to overcome this limitation. Instead they must choose to defend a generation under threat, taking up the cause of future, as well as current members.


Melanie Simms is right, in the recent Unions21 publication Young Workers During the Crisis, to point to education and industrial policy as areas in which the labour movement must make the interests of young people more prominent in their work. However announcements such as the 2010 TUC Next Generation Accord, which mapped an action plan for unions, government, and employers to improve the number and quality of opportunities open to young people, suggest that in these areas the will is there, and that the problem remains much publicity as it is about union priorities.


We cannot forget, however, that all of this is only a means to an end. A new relevance of trade unions to young people must be matched by a new approach to recruitment which will reach them in their workplaces, colleges, and universities. Much has been said about this but from the perspective of a young person who until recently worked in the transient jobs and small workplaces which challenge traditional models of organising it seems that most unions are yet fully engage with the problem, beyond communication and social media strategies.


Following the examples of the teaching unions and Nautilus, the maritime union, trade unions need to develop their presence on campuses. Further education colleges and their student unions should be a priority here, especially those offering vocational courses; the move to compulsory education up to 18 must be realised as the opportunity it is, increasingly vastly the number of students who will be enrolled in these courses. Beyond this, the lessons of the Living Wage Campaign, now over a decade old, must be embraced by all, in particular the ability of locally based organisers to develop campaigns which are based in the community as much as the workplace, amongst disparate and disorganised workforces. Our counterparts in the US have already demonstrated the merits of this approach in their work within immigrant communities.


This move out of the comfort of large workplaces and stable workforces will be challenging, but the work of the organiser has never been easy, and like our earliest predecessors we must realise that the true power of solidarity and union membership can only be felt through direct contact between young workers and organisers on the ground. If this approach is to be successful it must be backed by local campaigning priorities which reflect the interests of young people, and as with the larger debates, it is their input which is crucial here. Personally I’d like to see paid internships and the living wage in the hospitality industry amongst these, and I know I am not alone.


All of this is not to say that other approaches should not be attempted, and I certainly find ‘Friends’ or young/student membership schemes attractive, but these alone are not enough. We must do all we can to make trade union policy and media work as relevant to young people as possible, not least because their interests have never been more under threat, but if we are to turn the tide we must, once again, organise.


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