A sandwich-man in the Strand, London, recruiting union members during the railway strike of 1919. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why don't young people want to join trade unions?

Everybody needs representation to fight against the inequalities caused by capitalism.

My generation has it tough. Under the coalition government we have faced a frozen minimum wage, high unemployment rates, and now the removal of housing benefit. And yet, our membership of trade unions, one of the few organisations that could actively help our cause, is minimal and steadily declining. According to the Trade Union Membership: Statistical Bulletin 2012, less than 10 per cent of trade union members are aged between 16 and 24, while 36 per cent of trade union employees are aged over 50.

The problem seems unique to my generation. While the Conservatives wouldn’t want you to know it, union membership has thrived in the past year, with a 59,000 increase in membership since 2012. In times of austerity it seems incomprehensible that young people would not want to be represented in trade unions and beyond. Does this reflect a general political apathy among my peers, a lack of awareness, or simply a change in attitudes and approaches towards employment?

Admittedly, before coming to university I knew very little about unionism. However, the way that many universities are structured means that there is a dependency on unions. My student union is integral to university life, and although funded in part by the main university itself, effectively works as an independent force to represent all students. There would be no Freshers' Fair, societies or welfare support without it, and every student at my university is a member of the student union whether they like it or not.

Nevertheless, as reflected by low voting figures in student union elections, even students appear uninterested in unions, and the politics that come with them. According to the Telegraph, Sheffield University Student’s Union has the highest student satisfaction rating in the country, but still only 39 per cent of its student body turned out to vote at its student elections for 2013, and at my allegedly political university, Goldsmiths, figures were even lower at 20 per cent.   

Speaking to the National Union for Students (NUS) president Toni Pearce, she notes that “There is a special bond between the student and trade union movements,” describing how this is “even more important at a time when the future appears bleak for so many of our members.” Although not offering an explanation as to why trade union membership is so low among young people, she does note that the “feeling of powerlessness and instability is rife among the rising generation who are squeezed by global recession and biting financial pressures.” Perhaps it can taken from this that young people do not join unions because they feel as if they will not do anything to help them.

But, more than students, it is those young people that are currently in full or part-time employment that are the most vulnerable to exploitation under the current government without the help of trade unions. With 49 per cent of young people going into Higher Education in 2011-12, the rest are assumedly in employment, or part of the just under 1 million unemployed 16-24 year olds. If they do not get representation from unions like UNITE and UNISON, the chances of the coalition showing them any financial or career support seem minimal in light of their recent benefit announcements.

Carl Roper, National Organiser of the TUC, however, offers a different explanation for the lack of interest in trade unions shown by my generation. Commenting that “the workplaces in which younger workers are predominate in are those with the lowest union density”, Carl notes that the private sector, retail and other little unionised industries tend to be where young people are working. He does not suggest that young people are apathetic towards unions, rather stating that there is “not something fundamentally unattractive about unions to young people”.

When I ask him about the reasons why he believes unions are important for young people he echoes my own thoughts on collectivism, stating that “the only way workers can get collective rights is through union membership.” He has little faith in the current government’s loyalty to average workers, and adds that there is also “lots of evidence to suggest that there’s disproportionate impact on young people (and women).”

Unfortunately, it makes sense that the Conservative-led coalition is against unionism – why would they support something that essentially works against the free market? Trade unions have historically supported movements from anti-apartheid to the minimum wage. It is no wonder that the Conservatives have recently introduced legislation which will dampen the powers of trade unions. But as you can see with the increase of those in the private sector becoming union members, everybody needs representation to fight against the inequalities caused by capitalism.

Although Roper’s workplace argument is convincing, I have drawn a different conclusion; I believe that the problem lies deeper and is connected to wider issues with political disengagement. Among my peers there seems generally to be little knowledge of the work that unions do, but according to the NUS, “a lot of young people may not feel that politics isn't relevant to them, which is why young people need to be encouraged to take part in democracy, not kept out from it”. So maybe, rather than trying to work out the reasons why young people aren’t joining unions, like Unison, we should simply be encouraging more young people to get involved.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.