A few weeks ago, the TUC’s Yorkshire and the Humber region organised the UK’s first organising ‘Summer Patrol’ for young workers.
We know young people, especially those working in the private sector, are particularly unlikely to be in a union.
Many are also migrant workers who face exploitation because employers take advantage of their insecure immigration status.
So for its first ‘Summer Patrol’, TUC Yorkshire and the Humber decided to focus on young people in workplaces such as hotels, restaurants and bars.
The patrol included trade union activists from Yorkshire and other parts of the UK, as well as a team of experienced patrol members from Norwegian trade unions.
The idea comes from the Norwegian trade union centre LO-Norway.
Every summer for over thirty years, LO-Norway has sent trade union activists into workplaces where young people are likely to be working in worse conditions because there are no collective agreements in place.
The aim is to sign up as many as possible to a trade union and build the movement.
And it works.
This well-resourced and coordinated organising drive, combined with a long tradition of employers bargaining with unions to set pay and conditions, means trade unions in Norway have much wider coverage and higher membership than the UK.
Union membership in Norway is 52.4% while it stands at just 23.5% in the UK.
And union collective agreements determine pay and conditions for 67% of Norwegian workers compared to just 26.3% of workers in the UK.
Over four days we went to workplaces in Barnsley, Doncaster and Sheffield.
We spoke to hundreds of workers doing all sorts of jobs – shop assistants, hotel receptionists, cinema ushers, bar staff, caterers, baristas and supermarket staff.
We interviewed young workers about their conditions and pay and asked if they were in a trade union.
Unlike LO-Norway, the TUC can’t sign workers up to a union. So instead, we encouraged them to sign up for updates about future TUC campaigns and directed them to the TUC’s unionfinder tool.
One of our most encouraging discoveries was how many workers had an instinctive understanding of how collective action can help solve problems at work.
Even if people hadn’t heard of trade unions, the vast majority agreed that when workers come together they can negotiate better pay and conditions.
When we explained how trade unions were already doing that for other workers in their areas, they wanted to hear more.
And the act of conducting the interviews got workers thinking about how to solve workplace problems collectively.
Often when we interviewed a group of workers together, they realised they were on different rates of pay or benefits.
That started a conversation about how they could work together to secure better treatment for everyone – and how a union could support them.
While both migrant and UK workers often faced similar problems at work regarding low pay, long hours, unpaid breaks or holiday pay, our interviews revealed that migrant workers often had issues with claiming their rights as well.
Some were afraid of being reported to immigration officials. Some were unable to communicate with fellow workers due to languages barriers.
We showed these workers the TUC’s online guide to joining a unions and employment rights in 21 languages.
We often interviewed migrant and UK workers together, which sparked interest in how unions could support all workers to claim decent treatment regardless of background or immigration status.
The TUC will be supporting more initiatives to build practical solidarity in workplaces.
One of the main reasons why young trade unionists in Yorkshire wanted get involved in the Summer Patrol was the opportunity to meet trade unionists from abroad who face the same issues they do, and to learn new and different ways of achieving our common goals.
The Norwegian trade union activists told us they’d also learnt a lot about how social media and digital communications could be used to build the union movement.
We’ll keep working with trade unions around the world to inspire activists and develop their skills to organise more workers.
And we’ve invited everyone we interviewed to an organising event this week to identify shared issues and develop campaigns to mobilise around them.
The data we collected during the Summer Patrol has helped us develop a detailed ‘map’ of workplaces issues in Sheffield and Doncaster, revealing trends in hospitality and retail around low pay, insecure contracts, the lack of paid breaks and long hours.
The TUC will now be working with the young trade unionists who helped to run the Summer Patrol to run follow up ‘mini patrols’ targeting these areas.
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