Young People and Trade Union Membership

by Frankie Leach

This piece is a response to Nadine Houghton's article in New Socialist, 'Re-Newing Trade Unionism: What the Unions can learn from Labour's Election Campaign'

Being a trade unionist is part of my identity. As a 20 year old woman in the Labour party, I encounter many young people who always identify as socialists. However what shocks me, particularly considered it is the Labour party, is that very rarely will you find young people who identify themselves as trade unionists. Given that young people, and young women in particular - as Marie noted in New Socialist’s analysis of women’s voting behaviour, were mobilised in greater numbers to vote Labour in this election, it is surprising that this politicisation has not extended to increased interest in trade unionism. For me, being a socialist and a trade unionist is linked, and being one should imply a strong tendency to be the other. But apart from in specific Trade Union spaces such as conferences and events, the Labour party’s youth movement seems sadly out of touch with its history. In fact many young people in the Labour party are not even members of a Trade Union. So what is it exactly that’s making young people turn away from Trade Unions?

The Decline in Young Workers’ Trade Union Membership

Since 1980, Trade Unions have collectively lost over 150,000 members, however, this has not been evenly distributed. Stephen Hermann states that “unions have increasing problems attracting young workers”, which can be seen in the government’s report on Trade Union membership, showing that only 2.4% of young people in work aged 16-19, and only 11.6% in the 20-24 age group, were members of a Trade Union.

Union membership rates have also fallen for older workers, but not to anywhere near such low levels. It is among 20-24 year olds that we see the most dramatic decline in Trade Union membership.

Casualisation of work

There is a huge decline in young workers being unionised as they enter employment. The destruction of industries with high levels of union density such as the steelworks and coal mining in post Thatcher Britain has resulted in an entire generation of predominantly young men not employed in traditional unionised places of work. In fact, in contrast to these highly unionised workplaces, young people are now more likely to be employed in increasingly precarious and casual work. According to the Office for National Statistics, 900,000 people in the UK are employed on zero hours contracts and make up 2.9% of the national workforce. This figure has risen by over 20% since 2015.

The TUC released a report stating that growing ‘casualisation’ of employment is changing the face of the UK workforce and this is having profound effects on trade union membership. In 2014, Carl Roper, who was the National Organiser of the TUC at the time, stated in an interview with the New Statesman that “the workplaces in which younger workers are predominate in are those with the lowest union density”. Roper notes that the private sector, retail and other little unionised industries tend to be where young people are working.

Young workers need collective organisation and representation especially in the context of the global economic crisis of which they have been the primary victims, but they work overwhelmingly in non-union jobs. From my experience in the Labour party, most young members are employed in casual work on zero hours contracts, particularly if they are studying at university or college. So even in unstable unemployment that is in desperate need of unionisation, why are young people, even those in the Labour party, still turning away from the unions?

Politicisation of Young People

There is a clear indication that the absence of politicised young people contributes to falling Trade Union numbers. Unlike in the 1980’s, young people are not exposed to heavy Trade Union disputes such as that with the miners, which encouraged young people to join unions and take up the fight. But why is this? As a generation, are millennials just politically lazy compared to their parents before them in the height of protest culture in the 80’s? Were we simply just born into the wrong time?

A change in the political climate of Britain, particularly within Labour and the rise of neoliberalism, has meant that those born post 1990 have no real connection to Trade Union culture and therefore see no need to join a Union. Most evidence indicates that this is not because they view unions more negatively than older groups do; if anything the reverse is true. Roper, for example, does not suggest that young people are apathetic towards unions, stating that there is “not something fundamentally unattractive about unions to young people”. Rather, because they work in occupations, businesses and sectors where unions are in short supply, young workers have only limited recourse to collective action through Trade Unions because the latter are not readily available to them: their experience of the labour market is largely union-free.” Many believe that a lack of political education or even influence ensures a generation who are, for the most part, unaware of the benefits or even purposes of Trade Unions.

Is it the case that it is not down to young people to join a union, but it is in fact the job of the unions to recruit young people? Is it this ‘grey area’ of responsibility that is helping to widen the gap of engagement?

Union Engagement

Those young people who are employed on zero hours contracts are being targeted by Trade Unions in order to combat the decreasing number of young people who are members of a Trade Union, however, more imaginative strategies are needed. As discussed by Hodder in ‘Young Workers and Trade Unions: A Global View’, there are options that Trade Union’s could explore to increase membership of young people. Hodder discusses that in the case of young workers’ lack of unionisation, Trade Unions need “dedicated recruitment and organising campaigns as well through education and marketing systems that seek to penetrate the ignorance around Trade Unionism amongst young people.” This is extended by Houghton in New Socialist, who argues that membership must be tailored specifically for young people in precarious employment:

We need to rethink how we define what a union member is, including how we ask them to pay their dues. A precarious worker is not going to sign a membership form, particularly one that asks them to make a monthly direct debit. A care home worker on a zero hours contract isn't going to join unless they see the relevance at a local level. We need many more flexible levels of union membership suited to varying degrees of what constitutes a union member.

Is it the case that it is in fact apathy from the Trade Unions themselves that have caused young people to turn their back on the Trade Union movement as a whole? After a decade of neoliberalism, now more than ever is the time for young people to dust the cobwebs off our Trade Union links and reclaim the Labour party as the force for change it once was. Young people, now more than ever, are in desperate need of organisation in the workplace to fight against the inequalities caused by capitalism.

Photo: Kaishu Tai


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