Toggle high contrast

Building a movement fit for the next 150 years

Published date
Reaching young workers is the biggest challenge we face – so we're making 2019 the year of young workers

It’s been a jam-packed first full day of our TUC 150 Congress here in Manchester.

The day began with lots of media interest in our demand for workers to share in the benefits of new technology, so we can move towards a four-day working week.

Today’s Congress programme included motions about a proper pay rise for public sector workers, improving collective bargaining and winning a new deal for workers – as well as an in-depth debate on the General Council statement and composite on Brexit.

Our colleagues in the Fire Brigades Union paid a moving tribute to those who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire last year – and rightly called for those responsible to be brought to justice.

And we heard from NUS President Shakira Martin about the challenges that students face under this government and the need to build a fairer education system for all.

But I was most inspired by our special feature this afternoon on reaching young workers and union organising, which really got to the heart of the challenges that our movement faces in the future.

Winning for working people

Over the last few years, trade unions have scored some landmark victories over bad bosses.

We celebrate Unison’s success in defeating the government on employment tribunal fees, and the long-overdue recognition of Unite and Balpa for cabin crew and pilots respectively at Ryanair. And we continue to support the Bakers Union’s campaign at McDonalds, GMB organising at Uber, and Unite’s support for striking TGI Fridays workers.

Energetic and innovative campaigns like these can win for working people in the 21st century.

But if we are to build on this success, we urgently need to bring more young workers into our movement.

And given the scale of the challenge, we can’t afford to be complacent.

The challenge ahead

The most recent trade union membership figures show that union density amongst young workers lags far behind older workers. Less than eight percent of workers aged 16-24 are in a union, while almost 40 per cent of union members are aged 50 and over.

That’s not because the jobs that young workers do are well-paid, with fantastic conditions. For many young workers, it’s the opposite.

Our research shows that lots of younger workers don’t realise they’ve got problems at work. But because exploitation is all they’ve ever known, they think this is just what work is like.

They don’t think they can trust their colleagues, let alone work with them to improve things. And they think if they take a stand and demand change, they’ll just be ignored.

Most worryingly of all, they don’t understand what unions are or what we can do for them.

So if our movement is to thrive for another 150 years, it’s clear that we have a lot of work to do. That’s why this anniversary year we are focused on how the movement can bring younger workers – particularly in the private sector – into unions.

Year of young workers

Today Congress passed a motion from the TUC young workers’ forum to make 2019 the year of young workers.

That means that this year, the TUC and member unions will run an intensive year-long programme of properly resourced recruitment, organising and campaigning activity targeted at young workers.

Everyone here at Congress today was inspired by our brilliant young members who proposed the motion - and I hope every delegate goes back to their union and asks what they are doing to recruit new young workers.

I am also really excited about the TUC’s new WorkSmart app. It’s a pilot of a new way to get young workers into unions.

Our movement has a long and proud history of supporting workers to get on in life. We’ve always been a platform for working people to build their skills.

So WorkSmart offers young workers something they want and that they are interested in – support to get on at work and in life.


Through WorkSmart we’ll show them that unions are here for them, that we know about the world of work, and that we can help them get on in the workplace.

And while they are with us, we’ll be pushing union messages, helping young workers wake up to the problems in their workplaces, and building their belief that by getting together with other workers in a union, things can change.

For now it’s just a pilot – but we hope it will show the way to bring young workers to unions.

Combining the power of organising with new approaches like WorkSmart has the potential to transform how younger people experience work – and to reinvigorate our movement for years to come.

That’s why I’m confident that we will succeed in organising a whole new generation of workers and build a movement fit for the next 150 years.

Enable Two-Factor Authentication

To access the admin area, you will need to setup two-factor authentication (TFA).

Setup now