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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.