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

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

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

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.