Age old problems

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Young people need trade unions, but the unions will have to change to attract their support.

Trade union members in the private sector earn on average eight per cent more than their non-unionised colleagues, this increases to almost 21 per cent in the public sector

Trade unions have had a great century: gaining paid holiday, parental leave and the minimum wage – which even the Tories are committed to raising. However, union membership is falling and young people are not joining in the first place. If trade unions do not adapt to the new way young people approach institutions, individuality and inequality they face being ineffective within a generation.

‘Young people are apathetic’ is now received wisdom, but if you look at the data that just is not true. More young people are donating to charity, signing petitions and advocating for causes and campaigns than past generations ever did. What is right though is they are shunning old institutions. Instead, they are looking to new sites which are light on their feet, react quickly to the news agenda and poll members on what they want to campaign on. Getting involved is free, easy and offers instant feedback – almost the exact opposite of the form filling and direct debits of joining a union.

As media organisations have shown, giving your supporters products for free does not scale. The revolution still needs to cover its admin costs after all. However, sites like The Times’ have shown that lowering barriers to entry can increase growth.

Unite the union have started this process with their community membership. However, it still feels like a traditional membership. The information and support they provide would be more likely to appeal to young people if hosted as a peer-to-peer question and answer page where your first six answers were free: similar in style, if not business model, to GiffGaff’s community pages or Quora.

In the long run, distributed tools like coworker.org will help streamline unionisation, especially in private sector companies, and make it easier for employees on the ground to find the right style of unionisation for their organisation. From a public policy point of view lowering the barriers to entry for getting involved in your union’s decision-making structures through digital tools will make them more relevant to their members and more realistic in their policy aims.

Unions are already incredibly democratic institutions. But in a democracy decisions are made by those who show up, and if showing up means going to a conference or sitting through a meeting that is going to skew the types of people who get involved. Digital tools, and distributed ways of working, open these up to a wider section of the membership.

Poll after poll has shown that young people prize their individuality but the job market millennials enter is highly competitive and unstable, making collective bargaining more important than ever. Unions need to start engaging young people outside of the workplace through schemes that support the wider movement, acting as a funnel to membership in a way that will not jar with their needs for individualism. Starting a union label for products and business which recognise trade unions would allow people to support the wider movement easily as consumers.

This tension is more difficult to placate in the realm of public policy. One voice and individual support has little power against organised lobbyists and campaigners. However, there is no doubt that the current situation where the public policy decision-making is devolved to a democratically elected committee whose outputs everyone in a union is nominally signed up to is unsustainable.

Unions need to become platforms for getting their members’ voices heard on the issues they care about, similar in model to change.org or SumOfUs, with unions asking members to sign up to individual campaigns rather than a slate of policy proposals. In the US, the American Civil Liberties Union has already had some major success with this model.

Whilst this may mean that some important campaigns fail to get off the ground, in the long run it will make the unions more effective at making change. Too often unions’ reasonable demands are dismissed as the will of a faceless organisation or an out-of-touch exec – even though they have been put through a rigorous democratic process.

Inequality is used as shorthand for many different issues. The argument is framed as ‘rich v poor’ or about fairness. Whilst this is nice it is also not what is really at the heart of the issue. Last year, for example, inequality dropped in the UK. The government made a political point out of it but it did not catch the public mood because the reason inequality dropped was because the stock market had under performed. What annoys people is stagnant working-class and middle-class wages rather than what is happening at the very top. In this area, trade unions have a proven track record: trade union members in the private sector earn on average eight per cent more than their non-unionised colleagues, this increases to almost 21 per cent in the public sector and 30 per cent on average for women.

Unions need to talk about the value they create for their members and how they solve this problem affecting young people and society more broadly. This will not only encourage people to join and sustain the union movement, from a public policy point of view it puts trade unions at the heart of the defining debate of our time showing government that they can be a practical solution to macroeconomic issues.

Any organisation which is the result of generations of history is bound to calcify. But if the movement is going to remain relevant for the next generation it needs to recapture the radicalism of methods which made it successful in the last century. Using technology to lower barriers to entry, make it easier for normal members to get involved in policy-making and create ways for people to show individual support.

Tom Mauchine is a senior account manager at Portland and has previously worked with Unite the Union, PCS and on other Union campaigning projects

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