Carl Roper, senior organiser for the TUC, has been meeting organisers and reps around the country. ”Earlier this year I was invited to speak by one of our affiliates at an organising conference in Birmingham.
The aim of the event was to get senior reps focused on the union’s organising strategy and to build their skills in delivering it. My contribution was setting out the extent of the organising challenge facing our movement, and in particular the challenge of organizing young workers and also the next generation of reps.
The scale of this challenge is made clear by the stats. Fewer than one in 10 workers aged 16–24 carry a union card, fewer than one in 20 union members are in this age group and among reps more than half are aged over 50.
As is often the case, my presentation was followed by a lively discussion. There was a massive amount of experience in the room and there wasn’t much, if anything, that I could tell them about the difficulties of combining the individual and collective representation of existing members with the task of organising new members. I simply made the point that while it’s important to look after existing members, if that’s all we do then we won’t survive, let alone grow. Particularly as more than 40 per cent of our existing members are over 50. It was on the issue of finding new reps that the discussion got particularly interesting.
The usual and understandable issues were raised from the audience about young members not wanting to get involved or feeling they have enough confidence or experience to take on the role.
And for existing reps the handover process can be understandably difficult. In the end they have to allow new blood to take over completely. Our existing reps possess a vast amount of knowledge and experience that we can’t afford to lose, yet all too often this knowledge is lost because it’s not passed on purposefully as part of a planned succession strategy.
Rather than someone stepping up only when the experienced rep has retired, wouldn’t it be better if the common practice was that the next generation were in place whilst there was someone there to advise, guide and mentor them for the first months?
The contribution that the present generation of reps has made to the movement is immeasurable but maybe it’s time for the final measure of success to be not just what they’ve done but what, and who, they leave behind.”
Clare Coatman and John Wood, of the WorkSmart Project, are about to pilot a digital answer to engaging young people with unions.
“Unions are facing a crisis we can't ignore. We're recruiting far too few younger workers. The average age of union members has been rising steadily every year. These days, just 6 per cent of low-waged private sector workers in their 20s are in unions. That's something that should worry everyone who cares about the future of our movement. So the General Council charged the TUC with finding new ways to reach out and win them over to unions.
We knew that to design something that works for a group we aren't in touch with, we'd first have to learn about their lives and their needs.
We worked with experts Good Innovation to run research with hundreds of young workers. Using WhatsApp, workshops, interviews and online panels, we got the voices of younger workers directly into the project.
In particular, we found four barriers standing between young workers and collective organising:
Low expectations: Younger workers don’t identify as having problems at work. Often poor treatment is all they or their friends have ever known. They end up believing that’s just how work is.
Lack of trust: As jobs have got less secure, it’s broken down personal relationships and solidarity for too many. It’s common to hear “I could never talk to a colleague about my shifts. They’d be straight behind my back to the boss and then I’d be in trouble.”
Sense of futility: When younger workers do try to change things on their own, bosses ignore them. It leaves them demotivated, and less likely to try the next time.
Attitudes to unions: Every year, fewer and fewer new workers have even heard of trade unions. And those that do know about us often think we’re just for certain professions, or that we’d be too risky to be associated with where they work.
It’s a bleak picture, but that knowledge has helped us build new ideas to reach out to them. With young workers and trade unionists, we thought up hundreds of ideas to meet their needs, and tackle those four barriers. We took the best elements and ran tests to see what they’d want to use, and what they’d share with their friends.
This gave us a clear direction: young workers want someone to help them get ahead at work, and that’s a role unions could fill.
Lots of our testers told us:
“If you’re at college there’s a careers service. If you’re unemployed there’s the job centre. But if you’re working and you want to get on, there’s no one there to help you.”
The result is WorkSmart. It's a career coach mobile app that supports young workers with bite-sized learning activities. It helps them mark-up achievements over time towards their career goals.
But that’s only the start.
Meeting young people’s own concerns head-on will let us start conversations and give them a deeper understanding of the world of work. By bringing TUC unions into WorkSmart, we’re going to help young workers talk to and learn from each other, and from expert organisers. We're working with unions to explore virtual branches that let young workers interact with the union in the digitalfirst ways they’re used to doing everything these days.
We’ll support them to recruit their workmates, campaign and organise to improve things where they work.
The pilot won’t be at a large scale yet as we’re still learning how best to support young workers in this way.
It's a big experiment, but we’ve given ourselves the best possible shot by basing everything on clear evidence.
We will have completed the pilot by spring 2019 so watch this space.
And if it works in recruiting young workers to our unions, it’s only part of the journey for our movement.
There’s a challenge for everyone to make sure our structures work for them, and our communities welcome them.
We need them to use their talents and enthusiasm to contribute in the ways they want to, not just ways that have worked in the past. There’s lots to do to meet the challenge, but it’s one we can’t afford to ignore.