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​Union innovations in organizing young workers

Union membership is ageing rapidly which raises questions about who unions speak for and who they speak to. Most recognize the challenges facing them and have been trying to address them with experiments with new ways of engaging young workers. We looked at some of those innovations in different countries (USA, UK, Germany and France) and found that where initiatives were supported by the union, and were in sectors that had some history of bargaining, unions can be very effective at reaching out to young workers. But it can be difficult to sustain these initiatives with the churn of activists and the precarious work that inevitably comes with working in some of the sectors targeted. Laws and restrictions on what unions do can also be a major hurdle. Nonetheless, there is good reason to be optimistic that unions can target and represent young workers very effectively when they are open to new approaches.

What's different about young workers?

In many respects young workers are very like their older peers and are no more or less likely to be pro- or anti-union, although there does seem to be evidence that they know less about unions. What is different in all of the countries is that they are more likely to experience precarious work, as well as other forms of precariousness such as in their housing and wider social lives. In all four countries it takes young workers longer to move into stable employment, and they are moving between jobs and sectors more frequently. It is this precariousness that creates specific challenges for unions organizing young workers.

Precarious innovations?

When we look at what helps unions and young workers organize, the support of the union structures is crucial. Without that, it is difficult to get the kind of sustained action that is needed to make effective changes. Existing structures of collective bargaining also help because they show both unions and workers what representation could look like and what can be achieved as an outcome. So it is really important that unions seeking to engage young workers reach out and look at what has worked in other workplaces, sectors and countries.

It also helps if labour markets are tight and employers pay more attention to trying to retain their staff. Unsurprisingly, the wider labour market can also act as a brake on union organizing. High labour turnover in sectors such as retail and hospitality that employ large numbers of young people is certainly a challenge. In most countries there are also laws and regulations about what 'counts' as a union and what a union can and cannot do. That means there can be legal issues about whether young people are formally employees, and whether the union can officially organise and represent them. And, we shouldn’t forget that union structures aren’t always set up to be welcoming to new groups. Challenging established ways of doing things is a real hurdle and it can be difficult for unions to embrace change.

Change is challenging but achievable

Overall,  though, there are really important examples of unions trying out new ideas to organize young workers. Some of the initiatives also successfully got to grips with the new challenges of organizing precarious workers. But what we noted across all of the initiatives is how hard it is to change ways of doing things. Sometimes representation structures lead to a focus on the workplace as the main site of union organizing. Sometimes it is people’s priorities to focus on existing union members rather than expand to bring in new groups of workers. And sometimes it is simply a matter of not recognizing a problem until it is too late. What is clear from the research is that unions can organize young and precarious workers and they need to make it a priority if they are to strengthen the voice of workers across different workplaces, sectors and economies.  

Melanie Simms is Professor of Work and Employment at the University of Glasgow. She sits on the Commission on Collective Voice and would love to receive evidence and comments about these issues.