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

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.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.