The future of the left since 1884

Young workers and trade unions

How can trade unions appeal to millennials, asks Unions 21's Becky Wright.



We are now ten years from a financial crisis which has had long lasting impacts on our economy. One group of workers that have been most affected by it are millennials who have seen a stagnation in earnings, under use of skills and experience first hand the emergence of the ‘gig economy’ or working practices which put the balance in the favour of the employer.

Trade unions are the essential part in an effort to improve the experience of those in work. So, it stands to reason that unions would be the obvious choice for workers experiencing these types of conditions. Yet trade union membership and collective representation remains stubbornly low among this ‘youth’ sector. How do unions begin to reverse this decline? As a start and as part of a wider discourse on union renewal which the Fabians has played a key part, Unions 21 – in conjunction with Slater Gordon – commissioned the Sheffield Political Economic Research Instituteto explore the views of young people on the economy, the world of work and unions.

Is it all about digital?

The ability to reach new workers using limited resources is an attractive offer. Yet, unionisation isn’t just about getting the numbers in terms of membership or winning individual campaigns but in creating a long lasting collective bargaining relationship with an employer. This is how wages increase in line with the cost of living, it’s how we improve the quality of work and make work, work for all.

Our research suggests that face-to-face communication, ideally via trusted colleagues who are already union members, has come out as the number one way young people want to hear about a union. Seeing someone regularly who can be trusted and who can relate an issue directly to workplace situations are and will continue to be crucial to the survival of the union movement.

In the discussion on how to improve unions, digital communications and platforms have a key role. It can be most useful in enabling members to communicate with each other, and smartphone apps can also be used to give detailed, up-to-date information to young members about the workplaces and sectors they are working in. But we need to dig deeper into explaining the what and the why. If the value of face to face is key, what do we want digital to achieve, why and how does it relate to the messy process of gaining union recognition and engage and build up leadership past a single campaign?

Digital cannot be seen in isolation to the nuts and bolts of industrial relations. It can extend the understanding of trade unions to new workforces but it needs to be incorporated into a wider industrial plan in order to build trust with workers who have no experience to take that next step and build for long lasting negotiations in their workplace. Quite possibly, the equal problem for unions to addressing the digital challenge will be the debate on the role of representation and how activists are recruited, trained and supported which Unions 21 will be working on this year (launching at our annual conference in April).

What do graduates want from a union?

The good news is that graduates broadly want what unions are doing now. One main point from the research is that a stronger focus on the long-term value of union membership to their career appeals more than a focus on how unions can help with particular employment problems. Many unions already do this type of work and have done for a very long time. However, in the wider conversation, the attention is often directed to key skills. Some good examples of this are the coalition of the Federation of Entertainment Unionsthe new National Education Union’s learning area or the offerings from health sector unions. The challenge for unions is how to incorporate the career development offer as a more prominent feature of union membership.

How much and for how long?

The cost of union membership in relation to wages has often been seen as a key reason that unions have difficulties in recruiting. And it’s hard to argue when someone is looking at their outgoings and don’t feel a sense of worth in their outlay. The Fabian’s paper explored the possibility of discounted union membership for the under-35s and the evidence from our research broadly supports that in the idea of differentiated fees. Many professional unions offer students and young members free or lower rate membership. However, these are usually in industries where freelancing is high or there are established collective bargaining routes. If a union is approaching a new industry with higher levels of young workers, it will need to take into consideration the view of the Central Arbitration Committee which does not count free membership in its density tests for union recognition unless there is a broader indication that they are joining for free because ultimately they will pay. The challenge going forward for unions will be how a differentiated model could (and whether it does) work, coupled with flexible membership models which still would past the Central Arbitration Committee test.

We’ve got a mountain to climb, but we’re making a start

My first ever organising role was to improve unionisation amongst travel agents. In many respects this project – completed nearly 18 years ago – covered the same problems we face today: an atomised workforce, young workers with little knowledge of union membership and a culture of fear of putting heads above parapets. Back then we used fax machines to roll out a national campaign which resulted in the first ever collective action in the company’s negotiations. The union I worked for had battled internally to deploy this considerable resource (us as staff) but it was necessary to do. We didn’t succeed in everything and much was learnt and those lessons have stayed with me to this day. We must remember that in our current climate it takes significant resources, time and people to organise in new, precarious or low paid areas (and a combination of those three). Young workers, wherever they are in the hourglass economy, will have experienced one of these as they tend to be where unions aren’t. So our challenge going forward will be to take what we’re doing right now and work together as a movement to expand and extend the benefits of membership to all across the generations which is what Unions 21 and our ever growing supporters are hoping to do.


Becky Wright

Becky Wright is director of Unions 21.


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