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The new union generation

For those who think that trade unions are simply a reminder of a Britain that no longer exists, the recent sight of striking TGWU members outside the Houses of Parliament should be enough to set them straight.

August 1, 2005
4 min read

It’s the first time in the long and rich history of the British trade union movement that employees from within the corridors of power have picketed them. It’s also a clear sign that, while unions need to change and adapt, the need for them has not abated.

Unionised workers are less likely to be sacked or discriminated against, and earn up to eight per cent more than non-unionised workers doing the same job. So why is it that unions can’t seem to recruit young people and casual workers?

‘There have been a lot of positive moves by the TUC and individual unions, but it’s still not the priority it should be,’ says Lucinda Yeadon, 24, and vice-chair of the TUC young members’ forum.

Yeadon believes that unions are cutting their own throats if they ignore the potential of young members.

‘Through my union I’ve been involved in campaigns against the far right and against the war. Young people are pro-active and we’ve been able to get a lot done because of that.’

No amount of glossy leaflets plastered with images of fashionable young unionists is going to turn things around. Workers need to know that they are joining an organisation with their interests at heart.

‘We need to be focussing on what young people want rather than solely what the current members want,’ says Kath Owen, 25, and an active union member from Yorkshire. ‘We need to be going into the places young people or casuals work, at the times they work. We need to concentrate on expanding our membership rather than just consolidating what’s already there.’

Mark Dawson of No Sweat agrees. ‘Rather than forcing people to do what you think needs doing, actually allowing people to do what they’re interested in doing and they want to do is the answer,’ says Dawson. The anti-sweatshop campaign has had a great deal of success in recruiting young people by allowing them to make their own decisions within a flexible and democratic organisation.

The East London Communities Organisation (Telco) has followed a similar approach. It unionised staff at Canary Wharf and introduced the living wage by finding out what people wanted, and then involving them in achieving their aims.

‘The Telco model is incredibly effective,’ says Deborah Littman, Unison official and co-chair of the living wage campaign. ‘Schools and colleges join and it’s their organisation, not something organised for them.

‘You’re using community links to reach people that your union wouldn’t normally reach.’

Important lessons from abroad are also taking root here. The SDA is the largest union in Australia and 50 per cent of their members are under 25. The majority of them work as casuals in supermarkets and fast food outlets at night or on weekends.

‘You have to talk their language,’ says SDA national president Don Farrell. ‘We’ve recruited about 80 per cent of them by getting into their workplaces when they’re working. We also offer benefits that appeal to them like education scholarships.’

‘Our membership turns over at the rate of 50 per cent per year so it’s difficult, but young people retain a degree of idealism so if you can get in front of new employees they’re often very receptive.’

The TUC has borrowed an Australian idea by creating an Organising Academy, where predominantly young organisers are trained for the specific challenges faced in non-traditional, non-unionised workplaces. British trade unionists are also going into schools and colleges in an attempt to overcome some of the negative stereotypes that still survive from the 1980s

A worker’s first experience in the workplace often determines their attitudes for the rest of their working lives. It’s no good waiting for someone to finish their studies and enter a particular industry if they’ve had a miserable experience while working their way through college.

These initiatives are vital if the British unions are to maintain their strength. Kath Owen sums it up perfectly when she asks: ‘In ten years time, who are going to be the members? Do we really want more retired members than we have working ones?’

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