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Do Young Workers Need Unions?

Many young people don't know much about unions, or look at them as antiquated relics, but they could provide a path to making work suck less.

The miners' strike in 1984. Photo via Wikicommons

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Since Margaret Thatcher crushed the miners, the Tories' distaste for, and distrust of, trade unions hasn't exactly been a secret. And so (if you're not already aware), the fact that the Conservative government is currently trying to pass a new law intended to radically curtail the activities of trade unions probably won't come as a shock. If passed, the Trade Union Bill will ban trade unions from using online voting, allow agency workers to replace permanent staff during strikes, and will require unions to have at least 50 percent voter turnout in order to strike in "important public sector services." However, not all Tories are in support: Conservative MP David Davis described plans to make striking workers wear armbands as like something out of Franco's dictatorship in Spain. Former business secretary Vince Cable has also criticized the bill, calling it "vindictive, counterproductive, and ideologically driven."


For many young people still ticking the 16-24 box, unions will represent either: (a) the best excuse for "working from home" when the tube drivers are on strike, or (b) something that was around before they were born. But trade unions do actually still exist. And the reason they still exist is because—despite things changing a fair bit since they were founded at the dawn of the industrial revolution—we all still have to get up in morning and go to work. And work still sucks quite a lot of the time. In short, this is the historic mission of trade unions: to make work suck less.

So how have trade unions gone about doing this? The list is a long one. For starters, they gave us the weekend—if it had been left to employers, we might still be working on Saturdays. They also reduced the length of the working day to eight hours, putting the choice to work longer in the hands of employees rather than bosses. They have been at the forefront of the fight for equal pay between women and men and have "played a primary role in fighting against discrimination" at work, according to the European Commission. Apparently they're even good for the national economy, as explained to me by Alice Martin, researcher at the New Economics Foundation:

"Trade unions don't just protect employees, they also stimulate economic activity. Increasing the share of national income that goes to wages rather than profit—a key function of trade unions—boosts the economy because the average person has more money to spend."


Despite these achievements, many young people don't even know what trade unions are. And when they have heard of them, they're most likely to think of the 1980s, and "people who wear brown shirts and go on caravan holidays," according to focus group research conducted with groups of young people by the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) in 2011.

It will be of little surprise then, that the latest statistics show that 38 percent of trade union members are over the age of 50, and that the numbers of young people joining unions since has fallen sharply since 1995. If you're young, you may be thinking the Conservative attack on an aging trade union movement is not really your problem. But the lack of youthful enthusiasm for trade unions is perverse; and that's because it's young people who are getting a particularly crappy deal at work.

Take Gareth, a teenager who took a gap year in Daventry, Northamptonshire (a place he describes as "a bit like an industrial estate"). Gareth's first "real experience of work" was in a call center. Unfortunately for him, this experience was dominated by a sporadically enraged middle manager whose main pleasure in life was to patronize the youthful underlings unlucky enough to enter his personal fiefdom, and who could "do whatever he wanted," which included firing someone for wearing a bow tie.

Gareth was shocked at his manager's behavior. But speaking to his colleagues, he encountered a mixture of resignation and acquiescence—"people thought that was just the way things were." Many didn't know what a trade union was, a fact that is perhaps not surprising considering there was no union presence in the call center whatsoever.


Stories of crazed managers taking it out on young people are abound. But beyond this, the statistics show that young people are getting completely done over in the UK labor market. 16-24 year olds are more likely to be unemployed, paid the minimum wage, and on a zero hours contract than the generation above them.

Combine this with the fact that young people are one of the groups hardest hit by the financial crisis and government austerity, and you might have expected them to have run headlong into the loving embrace of the trade union movement since 2010. But they haven't.

A significant reason there's a disconnect between under 24s and trade unions, is that many young people no longer identify with a "trade" the way they did for much of the twentieth century, when trade unions were at their height. The nature of work has changed—young people today are unlikely to have the same job from the age of 14 right up until retirement (which is something they may never reach considering the goalposts keep getting moved further and further into old age). They tend not to see themselves as the embodiment of "labor," locked into an eternal battle with capitalist bosses to ensure their survival and the historic betterment of their class.

The trouble is, even if this is often the underlying truth of being young in 21st century Britain, youngsters are more likely to identify with a Nike tick than a hammer and sickle. Take your average freelancing graduate bobbing along in the capital's creative industries. Point out that it is pretty shit to get treated like a personal serf by employers and to then pay half of a lousy wage on a damp shoebox of a bedroom in Zone 3, and they will simply tell you this is "the way things are."


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According to focus groups conducted by trade unions, young people are most likely to seek advice on employment issues from their parents, friends and colleagues, line managers, and HR advisors. The young people in the focus group said they were more likely to "google it" if they had a problem than to ask a trade union.

The news gets even more depressing for trade unions when the young focus group participants were asked what would encourage them to join up: "You get a discount at Pizza Hut and Top Man. That's the only reason any of my friends have done it," said a student from Sheffield in a report by Unions 21.

So if young people do not identify themselves as "workers" locked into a class war, what can trade unions—or whatever campaigning vehicle—do to make work suck less?

For those young people who generally hate their job—and that includes many of the disproportionate numbers of young people stuck in low paid service sector jobs such as hospitality, catering, cleaning, and retail—the answer is not to call for "full employment" and "jobs for life," but rather to call for less work for the same pay. If unions want to appeal to young people and help them adapt work to an increasingly automated future, they need to start calling for "fully automated luxury communism." Or perhaps, if we are feeling a little less utopian, just a reduction in working hours.


For those young people who identify strongly with their jobs the issue is freedom and control at work. It is this professional frustration that unions have to take advantage of if they want to stay relevant amongst career driven graduates. They could start by taking a leaf out of AltGen's book, a group helping young people start their own workers' cooperatives as a way of empowering them to own and run their own working lives. People invested in their work want more than a pay rise—they want an empowering vision of their future working lives.

Third, unions could use that strange beast "the internet" in new ways to attract young people. Remember Gareth, the gap-yearing call center worker? Well, it turns out he left the call center and set up an app called FairOffice, designed to "enable workers to anonymously speak their mind so they can dialogue with their employers to make positive changes to the workplace." It's not a catch-all solution to young people's crappy working conditions, but it is something.

Finally, unions need to be open to changing the way they work and young people need to be less flippant in their attempts to transcend their dreary working lives. Unions are famously bureaucratic and they need help from youngsters if they are to revitalize themselves. And if young people want to improve their sorry lot, they will have to learn that changing things requires the kind of long, boring organizing that trade unions are all too familiar with.

Do young people need trade unions? Well, they certainly need something to improve their working lives. And right now, letting the Tories kill off the trade unions would be a catastrophic step in the wrong direction. So yes, young people need unions, and it is up to them to make unions look like they are on the side of the future.

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