Rebecca Long-Bailey: “If you’re in the Labour Party, you should be in a trade union”

At a New Statesman Labour fringe the Shadow BEIS Secretary and general secretary of the TUC discussed how to encourage young people to join trade unions.

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Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Rebecca Long-Bailey told a New Statesman and Trade Union Council (TUC) fringe event that young members of the Labour Party should understand that membership of a trade union and the party were “one and the same”.

The panel discussion focused on how young workers could be encouraged to join a union. The chair, New Statesman senior writer Anoosh Chakelian, introduced the event by describing a “perfect storm” of “wage stagnation, insecure jobs in low-paid sectors, and few training opportunities” that was “disproportionately affecting young workers”. Despite this, she told the audience, just six per cent of young workers are members of a union.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, blamed low union membership in young people partly on the “low expectations” they have of working life and wages. “What many of us would see as appallingly low pay ... for many young workers who look around at their mates, who are all on it - that's the new normal". She said it was the job of the unions to “raise expectations” of “what it means to be fairly treated at work.” 

Rebecca Long-Bailey spoke about her party’s policy to establish a Ministry of Labour to support workers’ rights, which would be led by Laura Pidcock MP. She also said that it had been shown “the world over” that unionised workers were more economically beneficial for employers, as they had a greater understanding of how to improve productivity and could work with managers to achieve it. She declared that Labour would ensure that unions had access to “every single workplace”.

O’Grady praised the recent industrial action by TGI Fridays, McDonalds, and Wetherspoons staff. Also on the panel was Lauren Townsend, a waitress at TGI Fridays who led colleagues in a union membership drive, persuading 250 other staff members over a six-month period to join. She reported that the action had been “very much run by the workers … and used social media” such as WhatsApp and Facebook.  

Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of Unite, admitted that unions needed “to look at ourselves … our structures, our priorities,” and called for them to facilitate member meetings “digitally”, developing new ways of “engaging and communicating”. He stressed that in order to remain relevant, unions must focus on issues that were important to young people. He offered an example of a recent Unite online campaign that fought the decision by British Airways to ban female staff from wearing trousers; “we were relevant to that group.”

O’Grady said the world of work had been deliberately “fragmented” in order to make it harder for workers to organise for improved conditions. She concluded that “digital models of trade unionism” should be developed, “not as a substitute”, but as a “complement” to the work already carried out by unions. “Young people have been on the front line of austerity cuts, low pay and rubbish treatment,” O’Grady declared. “Our job is to organise young workers.”

Augusta Riddy is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman.