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Organising for the future - how young trade unionists are leading the way

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Last month, the first ever TUC Summer Patrol sent young trade unionists into workplaces across Sheffield, Doncaster and Barnsley. Here's what we learned.

Attracting younger workers is one of the biggest challenges we face in the trade union movement.

As young people, we know that access to our union’s structures can sometimes be challenging, with older and more established members holding positions in branches or workplaces.

Many of us also work in places where there are no other members, which makes organising really challenging.

So if we’re to convince more young workers to join a union, we have to try new things to reach them.

That’s why the TUC Yorkshire and the Humber region developed the Summer Patrol – an exciting new initiative to engage young workers.

Carried out over four days this June, the project sent groups of young trade unionists from Yorkshire and Norway into workplaces across Sheffield, Doncaster and Barnsley.

It helped us to connect with young workers in a different way, giving them a positive introduction to trade unions.

This was a good start – but we can’t leave it at that. We need to learn the lessons from the project and build for the future.

But we’re already sure of one thing: that despite all the technology at our fingertips, there’s still no substitute for face-to-face conversations.

The Summer Patrol was the perfect example of that, and I can’t wait to do it all again next year!

What is the Summer Patrol?

The Patrol is something we developed after an inspiring trip to Norway to take part in the LO’s Sommerpatrulje.

The LO (the Norwegian version of the TUC) have been running the Patrol for 34 years, and it has spread across the whole country.

The Patrol involves trade unionists entering workplaces unannounced to try to interview young workers about their conditions and ensure that everything is up to the legal standard.

This allows the LO to collect data on working conditions across the country and track new developments to campaign on.

But data collection is not the most important thing. The Patrol also acts as an opportunity to give young workers a positive introduction to trade unions, something we think is key.

And because the Norwegians have sector specific trade unions rather than large general ones like we have in the UK, they can use the Patrol as a recruitment exercise too.

Why bring it to the UK?

For me the most important thing about the Patrol is the way it acts as a bonding and learning experience for the group of young trade unionists that take part.

Many of them make great friends on the Patrol and come back year after year to take part again.

In developing the Summer Patrol for our region, we focused on using it as a training experience and community building exercise for young trade unionists.

Giving young members the opportunity to lead and develop their own organising conversations with workers in South Yorkshire has been really good for building the confidence of young members to take a lead in their unions.

How did we get on?

We decided to focus on trying to have good conversations with the workers we met on Patrol.

I’m sure most of us remember the reason we first joined a union. It might have been when a mate or family member told us their union stories. Or when a great rep welcomed us to the workplace. Or it could have been when our colleagues started organising to improve conditions and inspired us to get involved.

We know that these conversations recruit members. But because everyone has information at their fingertips in the digital age, we’ve often thought that people will just search for us and decide to join themselves.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t really worked out. We need to get back into workplaces and talk to people about their issues (particularly on declining high streets where staff are feeling the squeeze).

Making new tech work for us

But that’s not to say that the Summer Patrol is anti-technology!

We used the data capturing website Typeform to conduct our interviews, which saved us loads of time which would have been spent inputting data at the end of the day.

We also trialled the peer to peer texting software GetThru to send texts to all the people we met on Patrol to follow up with them on any issues.

GetThru allowed us to keep in touch with people who showed an interest and invite them to a follow-up meeting to build a campaign to improve working life in South Yorkshire.

We used Facebook and WhatsApp to engage with activists and gather thoughts on our future campaigning too.

Used wisely, technology can be a great campaigning asset. But face to face conversations are what makes the difference.

And that’s why we’ll be back again next year!