speri.comment: the political economy blog

Conform or confront? Will young people turn to trade unions to address precariousness?

Our new research published today considers the perspectives of today’s young people on trade unionism – and how unions can respond

Craig Berry, Deputy Director at SPERI, and Sean McDaniel, Research Assistant at SPERI

The structural reasons for declining trade union membership rates among the young have been widely documented. In a nutshell, the young are increasingly concentrated in lower-value service industries which have traditionally been under-unionised. Indeed, relatively novel employment practices within these industries (with many workers not having a traditional ‘workplace’, or even being recognised as employees) make it particularly difficult territory for union activity.

Low pay, insecurity and skills under-utilisation abound. There is of course a chicken-and-egg dynamic here: has the young’s reluctance to join trade unions made labour market precariousness irresistible, or does the experience of precariousness make union membership less attractive? Whichever way the causal story is told, the ending is the same.

Our research with Unions21 (in conjunction with Slater and Gordon), published today, seeks to ask young people directly what they think about trade unions – and what they would like unions to offer. We conducted a series of focus groups with 18-25 year-olds (in Manchester, Grantham and London, supplemented by an online discussion forum) in October 2017. The groups had a mix of male and female, and graduate and non-graduate participants (with the exception of one of the sessions in London, which was composed of only graduates).

Attitudes to trade unions were not our only concern. Our previous post presented findings on how young people viewed the economy and the labour market more generally (we argued that precariousness had in many ways been ‘normalised’ by the young). In this post, we focus on trade unions, and consider how the current disconnection between unions and many young people might be overcome.

The good news, for trade unions, is that today’s young people hold concerns about their labour market circumstances which are enduring. Their view of what constitutes ‘good work’ – focused on fair pay, a degree of security, and opportunities to develop – is common to most cohorts. They also say they like the idea of trade unionism (if not all of the union practices they appear to be aware of).

There is, however, some bad news. We find evidence that today’s young people are rather more individualistic. This should not in-itself dishearten trade unions, for instance – even without a commitment to collectivist values, individuals are able to recognise the benefit of co-operating to pursue common objectives. However, it also means that today’s young people are less able or willing to recognise the structural causes of the labour market conditions they are experiencing.

Similarly, while they uphold enduring notions of ‘good work’, they consider themselves far less likely to experience good work than previous generations. Rather than being inspired to confront this inheritance – which would go hand-in-hand with collective action – they appear rather resigned to their labour market fate. There was a strong sense among our research participants that traditional forms of political and economic representation are not well-suited to their perspectives, or individual ambitions. There is a degree of confusion about the activities, and overall purpose, of trade unions.

But we should avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Trade unions are surely an essential part of any effort to improve labour market circumstances for young people – even if the young do not (yet) realise this themselves in sufficient numbers. Indeed, many of the things our research participants claim they want from unions are actually the things that unions already do, for the most part. Young people have been overly-influenced by negative portrayals of strike action and antagonistic industrial relations.

Our research suggests that the most effective way of reaching potential members among the young is through face-to-face communication, and ideally via trusted colleagues who are already union members. This enables highly tailored – and therefore more salient – information about the benefits of membership. Unions should also enable members to communicate with each other via communication platforms – let the young talk to their comrades by the same means they talk to their friends. Smartphone apps can also be used to give detailed, up-to-date information to young members about the workplaces and sectors they are working in (which may of course change rather frequently).

Many of our research participants questioned the cost of union membership. Trade unions clearly cannot pander to those among the young who believe union membership should be without cost. But they can perhaps do more to differentiate their fees, or offer flexible membership models. A stronger focus on the long-term value of union membership to their career appears to appeal to young people more than a focus on how unions can help with particular employment problems.

None of these suggestions are out-of-step with existing recruitment strategies. Furthermore, Gavin Kelly’s recent essay for Prospect illuminated some of the ways in which the trade union movement is attracting newer and younger members, from the establishment of new unions in low-value service industries, to developing a partnership-based approach with large employers and opening membership to co-operative owner-workers. We should take heart also from evidence of workers organising industrial action without the direct support of recognised unions.

These developments are of course contradictory in some ways, and challenge traditional notions of trade unionism. Then again, the UK labour market is contradictory, with notions of work and employment being challenged. We are skilling up millions of young people for low-skilled jobs. Indebtedness has replaced earnings growth. Technology is making us less productive. Workers are being monitored and disciplined in wholly new ways – but at the same time are less likely to be formally employed.

It would be unwise to assume that any one model can address all of these dilemmas. There are, however, several challenges that the trade union movement as a whole must face up to. Firstly, and most critically, will new forms of organising produce financial models that allow them to be reproduced at sufficient scale? The workers that need unions most are those least likely to be able to afford to join.

Secondly, what should the political role of trade unions be? Fascinatingly, many focus group participants argued that trade unions should not have a political role, particularly in relation to a single political party (the research is therefore an interesting counter-point to the notion that support for the Labour Party among young people has ‘surged’ under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn). Again, unions cannot pander to this view – their role in political life is indispensable – but there must surely be more effort to meaningfully represent the political views of members.

Finally, there remains a danger that, even as unions innovate to adapt to structural and attitudinal change, the foundational idea of trade unionism becomes diluted. This matters for two reasons. On the one hand, the principle that workers need to be represented because their interests are never perfectly aligned with their employers is too important to put at risk – and indeed it is recognised by most young people.

On the other hand, and from a more practical perspective, young people need to remain attached to the union movement through all the twists and turns of their career. We need different types of organising for different ways of working – but we also need a size that fits all.

Our research is presented in full in Young Workers and Trade Unionism in the Hourglass Economy, published by Unions21 in conjunction with Slater and Gordon.

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