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We are on the brink of the biggest shake up of the UK trade union scene in a generation. New work lead by the TUC in collaboration with the Good Innovation agency seems set to break through the deeply entrenched disconnect between younger workers and organisations that despite not enjoying the influence of years past, still have over 6 million paying members.
But the outlook is stark. Overall trade union density is down to a quarter of the workforce. The numbers of employees whose terms and conditions are union-negotiated has fallen in parallel to around 30% across the economy as a whole. And in areas where employment is expected to rise – and which have a high number if young workers – density levels can be as low as 5%
The TUC term these people as “young core workers” – they are characterised by being aged 21–30, predominantly working, full- or part- time in the private sector, they’re not in full-time education and earn low to average wages. They are disproportionately represented in the hospitality, social care and customer services sectors.
The challenge, to a certain extent, is as it has always been: Get the membership/engagement offer right for this group and you then have a proven tool that will be transformational. What’s different this time is the power and energy behind the initiative.
Some very significant research has already taken place, involving a survey population from these target areas. As a result it has been possible to identify two key dimensions that characterise the employment experience of these YCWs – how important do they regard their job, and are they more preoccupied by the present or the future?
This leads to four generic worker types described in the table below:
These four types sit under some challenges that seem to be on the radar of all YCWs, namely Realisation (they don’t perceive that bad, even illegal treatment at work is problematic, Trust (sharing information or concerns is seen as a weakness to be seized upon by fellow workers) and Futility (the belief that any attempt to effect change will end in failure).
Conceptually, the next stage is to identify a successful series of engagement strategies. We know already that this is possible – look at Unite’s Sports Direct campaign, or the GMB work in respect of Uber. But the YCW strategy is an upscaling of these victories on a wider, larger, deeper scale. Something those driving the report – including a specially convened “President’s Group” of senior representatives from TUC affiliates – must recognise cannot be accomplished within the existing spheres of influence of individual trade unions.
The breadth of and foundation for of the YCW project is ground-breaking: This is more, much more than a “we can’t change anything but we’re going to try anyway” throw of the dice. The early response from young trade unionists is determined. But there is a necessity for habitually territorial unions to break out of the Balkanised industrial landscape created in the post war years. What was once comfortable has been increasingly unfit for purpose for many years.
Of course, this won’t solve all our problems in one hit, but the exciting, tantalising, real prospect of this project is the formation of new collaborative, cross union structures to deliver success in what everyone in the movement knows is an existential challenge.