To reach young workers, trade unionists need to step outside their comfort zone

Author
Published date
12 Sep 2017
Clare Coatman manages the TUC’s programme to reach younger workers. She tells her own story of exploitation at work and how that spurred her to join a union and make a difference.
Photo: Hero Images / Getty Images

I went into work at eighteen and bounced between contracts for quite a few years.

Effectively I was an employee, but I was made to register as self-employed. I was exploited into working way over my hours and I suffered terrible management.

For most of that time I didn’t realise that how I was being treated was wrong. If I did realise, I accepted it as part of the deal and was still grateful to have a job. I felt powerless to change anything because I didn’t know how.

But one evening, a group of us were discussing work at the pub and sharing how unhappy we were. We realised that since so many of us felt this way, we could shift the balance of power if we stood up together.

When our manager asked to speak to us about our concerns individually, we insisted they had to talk to us as a group and we won substantial changes.

Barriers to organising

It was a couple more years before I joined a union. It was the first time I was in a workplace with a recognised union and a rep came to explain why I should sign up.

But sadly, that puts me in a minority. Most young workers don’t have a rep in their workplace, and have never even had a conversation about joining a union.

That’s one reason why just 6.3% of under-30s on low and median incomes are in trade unions.

The second reason is that through the generations we’ve seen a shift in how people see the world. Younger people are more likely to think first about individual approaches rather than collective ones.

This doesn’t mean trade unionism doesn’t have anything to offer them. But it does mean that we need to rethink how we communicate and what we emphasise.

For example, instead of saying “let’s stand in solidarity together” we might say “unions are your best way to get ahead at work.”

And third, we’ve got an image problem. Younger workers don’t think unions are for them – believing that we exist for older people, for the public sector not the private sector, and for those in careers rather than jobs.

But we know different. Unions are for everyone. They’ve had tremendously positive impacts on millions of people’s lives, and can continue to.

Listening to young workers

For the last year, we’ve been listening and learning more about young worker’s lives and how they feel about work. We ran WhatsApp diaries, interviewed over 100 young workers around the country, ran workshops and engaged online.

We now know some of the problems young workers care most about are rude or abusive customers, managers who are unfair, and unpredictable shifts.

We know that young workers have needs that aren’t being met by anyone else. They want to feel as though they’re investing in their future and to have ways of dealing with the stresses and pressures of work.

And we’ve identified three key barriers standing between trade unions and young workers.

First, young workers tend to have low expectations; they don’t identify as having problems at work. If anything they consider themselves fortunate to have a job at all.

I’ve met young workers who have to do an extra half hour of unpaid briefings and debriefings every day, but still think they’re treated fairly.

Second, there’s a lack of trust between colleagues in workplaces where young workers work. It’s common to hear “I could never talk to a colleague about a shared issue – they’d be straight behind my back to the boss and then I’d be in trouble.”

And third, they feel a sense of futility. When young workers have tried to change things in the past nothing has happened. Why put your neck on the line if you don’t think it will make any difference?

We’ve taken all that research and come up with possible solutions. We worked with union officers and young workers themselves to find ideas that help meet their needs, lower the barriers to organising and bring them closer to unions.

From this we have developed three new models to engage young workers. We’ve mocked up what these models could look like and are testing them again with young workers we’ve never spoken with before.

Grounded in that evidence, we’ll take the model that shows the most promise and run a full pilot in 2018.

There isn’t a magic fix; we need to take young workers on a journey. They need trade unions more than ever, and we’ll have to step outside our comfort zone to reach them.

Young workers need trade unions more than ever