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Trade Unions and Young Workers: A relationship that needs to work

Ash Andrews
14th February 2017

Until two years ago, I had never considered challenging the requests of my employers when things didn’t add up. I never felt it was worth my job to question ‘the needs of the business’:when I was asked to work a 14 hour shift, half of which unpaid; when I was nearly called into a disciplinary because I incorrectly entered a code onto a till, but was never actually trained on its function; when my ‘redundancy consultation’ was a senior manager walking into the store and telling us to leave as we were closing then and there. These are three personal examples from three different employers over three years, and that in itself tells an extremely worrying story: young workers just do not know their rights at work.

But despite these kinds of experiences, there’s little love between trade unions and young workers. At the time of writing this less than ten per cent of trade union members are aged between 16 and 24, and that now doesn’t make sense to me. In such times of austerity why wouldn’t young people (who already get paid less, have a generally lower rate of employment and are far less educated on employment rights) not want to organise and show a strong collective voice? It’s a unique problem that my generation faces, a problem that could spell the end of trade unions in the long run if we don’t find a way to build a relationship between us.

This issue becomes even more complicated when you consider the recent economic shifts to the ‘gig economy’. How do you bargain collectively when you don’t actually have a workplace? How do you raise an issue when your ‘manager’ is your smartphone? How do you work to gain recognition from an employer when employee turnover is so high? Of course this particular issue isn’t restricted to young people, but at least someone over the age of 30 will most likely have an idea of what a trade union is, and as a result would be more willing to have the conversation.

Admittedly my understanding of trade unions and their values came only recently when I applied to work as an Apprentice Regional Organiser for Community. I was sick of not being able to stay in a job for one reason or another and felt the training and upskilling involved in apprenticeships would be a good way to break this vicious cycle. I can honestly say it was one of the
best decisions I have ever made. I feel the work I have done to assist working people in their times of hardship has really shaped my values and allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the working world. I now work for an employer that cares about my development and has continually invested in me, because they understand that investment breeds long term growth. It has also taught me that we can make positive change, if we know how.

And this leads me into the heart of the issue, the current disconnect between young workers and trade unions. There is some great work being done nationally within my union to start conversations with students, apprentices and young core workers. Coupled with the workshop style talks that the TUC are undertaking with young non-union members clearly demonstrates that we understand things need to be done differently. But it isn’t as easy as that. Our current Conservative government have shown their feelings towards unions very openly, with the Trade Union Bill weakening our position industrially and politically, we need to be even more creative and persuasive when reaching out to disillusioned young workers.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom, my work within the movement has proved that the message can be delivered and change minds in a very short space of time, if delivered in the right way. I will regularly speak to friends who complain about their jobs, and rather than question their reasons for not joining a union, I present them with the facts to allow them to look at the situation in a different way. This will almost always motivate them to ask more questions and grow their understanding of what we can do, which brings in more members, which strengthens our movement and our message to young workers.

I have purposefully left out a lot of the usual jargon and statistics that you see in these sorts of articles as I feel it’s not a great way to start a relationship. But I do firmly believe that if we keep thinking about how we make ourselves relevant to young workers more and more young people will come to love unions, creating a better working environment in the UK for years to come.

Ash Andrews completed his apprenticeship with Community and now works in our communications team. This article marks heartunions, the TUC week of action promoting the good work of trade unions across the UK.