Staying Alive – Unions, Youth and Activism

So just why the hell did more than 60 of us – mostly under 30 years old –  come to Birmingham (nice as it is) on a wet weekend at the end of October?  What ‘s the point, what  did  we think we would achieve?

The event in question was the CWU’s 14th National Youth Education event (or NYEE)1, and so the fourteenth time these questions have been asked. Each year we go somewhere different. But each year many things remain the same.  Things like getting loads of new activists coming to their first ever CWU event. Getting great support from all of the senior officers of the union,  attracting  some amazing  external speakers, running a programme that  educates, enthuses, informs and entertains.

Most importantly of all,  it is seeing  people  almost grow before your eyes as they realise what  their union can and does do, and what they  can and will do  as part of it.  To get that unforgettable feeling  of suddenly realising that you are not alone. It isn’t just you  fighting for your members  rights in a corner somewhere- there are dozens, hundreds of young activists doing and  thinking the same as you.

So what’s the story? How do we do this? Believe me,  all the feedback  is freely given and published unfiltered – “A great weekend” “Can’t wait for next one.” A life-changing experience” Never knew my union could do all this.” Fantastic to talk directly to  the senior people – really inspirational” And so on. Reviews, frankly,  to die for.

The answer is a combination of factors that we (that is the National Youth Committee of the day) try and blend together in a perfect cocktail.

The recipe includes;

  • Strong support and dedicated support from CWU hq
  • Personal support from the senior officers
  • Commitment from a significant number of branches
  • Demand from potential participants – partly fuelled by energetic and positive  ambassadors who have attended in the past
  • An arresting agenda with the right mix of industrial, political and social issues, internal and external speakers
  • A well-worked plan

Of course nothing encourages success like success, so each year’s “good experience” fuels support, demand and expectations for the year after.  But I believe that whilst all of the above points are crucial, it is the “well worked plan” that  holds everything together.

We take people on a journey, as it were – the ice-breaker exercise  is what gets people moving and talking to each other.  The plenary and workshop sessions exposes them to key political issues of the day (this year the EU referendum2, blacklisting3, the British bill of rights4, housing5and the campaign for a fair deal for football fans6). The output for these sessions is in the form of motions. We then bring people back together for a session with the General Secretary – and then split then by occupational grouping  for  sessions with the lead national negotiators for their sectors.  Whilst the young activists are doing that, on the admin side we compile the motions  into  an agenda – complete with  consequential rulings and standing orders –  for a Mock Conference.

The last sessions of the day are a brief explanation of How Conference Works and then people go back into their morning  groups –  to  consider the  agenda we have produced exactly  as a branch would.

The following day,   we hold that Mock Conference .  Many “delegates” are making their first ever  speech in front of the people  – at the lectern ,  with a microphone and “traffic lights” –  there is  no kinder audience , but the debate can be impassioned, vigorous – and hilarious.

However, often motions from the mock conference  crop up  at “real”  policy making  fora in the union so increasingly it is recognised s as something of a test  bed for new policies.

There’s no denying things are tough. Employers often under-value the importance of good, well-trained IR reps and are suspicious of facilitating   the next generation.  Government attitudes  to  trade unions are at bets  hostile and at worse pathologically  negative. Most of the media follow suit and trade union membership  covers   little more than 1 in 4 workers. Amongst the very young (16-24 year olds), it is less than 1 in 10.

But it varies. Our key industrial sectors benefit from relatively high levels of union density and a sound workplace and branch structure. And that  provides a platform  for  campaigning  on  key issues that  affect  us at work and in our communities – such  as  our “Homes 4All”7 housing  campaign. And it also gives us an appetite and understanding of wider political issue that shape our world.

There are of course some slight potholes in the road. We have some structural issues that I think will require a structural solution. Not everyone will like everything on every agenda-  or every colleague they come across. Nothing is perfect or forever and  we  are in no way complacent.

But the ideals we hold and express are, without organisation, just dreams. The fantastic thing about this weekend is that it inspires more dreams, but grounds in them in practicality – in how to make the dreams real.

That is the light shining out from the autumnal gloom this weekend in 2015. That is what we stay strong and positive – and well organised.

Thanks to everyone who makes it happen.

This post was first published at http://www.cwuyouth.org/view-blog.html?blog_id=433