The Labour Movement Cannot Simply Hope Activists Find Their Way To Us Alone

We need to bring our old union banner adages to life for the 21st century, writes Trade Unionists of Tomorrow founder James Matthewson.
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When we talk about tomorrow’s world and future generations, it’s easy to give in to wishful thinking. There can often be a dangerous, apathetic assumption that those generations yet to come will somehow automatically be imbued with the knowledge they need to champion progressive causes and to maintain, drive forward and develop our cherished movements of today.

Non of us are born equipped with a history of the Labour movement, its struggles, its hard won achievements, the iconic skirmishes. Despite many of us feeling that the movement has always been a part of us, a permanence rooted into our soul and our bone, this wasn’t always the case, at least not consciously.

We all discovered this movement at some point. We all discovered the legacy of the left, either through stories, through artistic outlets or, in the case of my own experience, through a spiralling obsessive desire to research, to read and to learn. For more and more young people, this eager investigation would start at school or university, for me however, it started in a car park hut. The more we would uncover, the more we would need to know.

The more books I inhaled to pass the time in that cold, damp shed on the North East coast, the more questions I would ask myself, the more my world was challenged and the more I felt I had become part of something, something much bigger than both myself and the car park hut.

The mythology of the labour movement was slowly unravelling before my eyes, as I absorbed years of information from Cable Street to Cuba, the Miners’ strike of 84 to the Spanish Civil War. The immortal warrior spirit of those early Trade Unions that my grandfather had once tried to explain to a distracted and uninterested lad, now had my full attention.

There is a contagious desire for these early onlookers to rise to the challenge and play their part in a struggle that has continued for generations. My interest and that inevitable determination to get involved took me from the Car Park hut, to standing for selection in the Labour Party, to being a Labour council candidate, to organising campaigns, to eventually working for the Chair of the Labour Party.

How many of tomorrow’s trade Unionists, how many of our future socialist politicians and icons are currently burning their way through left-wing literature? How many are hungry to jump in, but don’t know how? How many are still unaware of the Trade Union and Labour movement, it’s legends and it’s legacy, but are working somewhere right now feeling an instinctive, burning reaction in their body to witnessing daily injustices & acts of unfairness committed against a weakened workforce?

This is why the point of discovery is so important. The moment you read the definition of ‘socialist’ and think, that’s me, that’s what I am. Tomorrow’s trade Unionists are out there right now and our movement cannot afford to simply hope that they find their way to us alone.

We need to guide, support, encourage and empower our young people. We need to bring our old union banner adages to life for the 21st century; Educate, Agitate, Organise. Tomorrow’s battles will be shaped, fought and won by today’s activists and we need to make sure they are armed with the knowledge, resources and support-networks they need to change the world.

The information and mass-communication age in which we live has presented difficult challenges for today’s workforce, with more and more employment opportunities being less and less conventional. This has placed even more hurdles in the path of a Trade Union movement that has been ostracised by regressive legislation and anti-union sentiments spread across thousands of companies that disguise themselves as being ‘woke’ and ‘progressive’. The reality at the core of these businesses however, has never changed. Capitalism hasn’t changed, it just wears different clothes and evolves to stay current and relative.

Through the weaponisation of ‘memeology’ and internet culture to the use of targeted advertisements & data-profiling, capitalism has managed to rebirth and rebrand itself for each generation that arrives on its doorstep. This however is something our movement has struggled to do. Politically, the left has been able to adapt to keep pace with a rapidly changing world, but embattled by successive governments’ anti-union agendas, the Trade Union movement has been too busy fighting for our most basic of rights that image, branding and cynical PR practises were the least of its worries.

Out of the 6.5 million U.K. workers who were identified as members of a Trade Union in 2015, only 316,000 of these were aged between 16-25. The numbers aren’t horrendous and should not give cause for immediate alarm. However, if we want to preserve our movement for the future, we’re going to need to encourage more young workers to unionise.

Ask most 20-somethings and they’ll tell you about a friend, a relative, even a colleague who ‘doesn’t see the point’ of joining a union. This is why the impending image crisis of trade unionism has to be dealt with. If young people see the Trade Union Movement as a proud relic of the past, what motivation is there for them to sign up to be part of a project they can instead read about in history books?

Most Trade Unions have in recent years been acknowledging and tackling these issues but the fear of many young Trade Unionists is that this goes much bigger than summer membership-drives or freshers fair sign-ups for individual unions. We need a cross-union approach to research, address and implement changes that keep our beloved and successful movement relevant, re-energised and ready for the ever-changing challenges of tomorrow.

In his closing remarks during a speech to Glasgow University students, the legendary Trade Unionist Jimmy Reid said; “It’s my belief that all the factors to make a practical reality of such a world are maturing now. I would like to think that our generation took mankind some way along the road towards this goal. It’s a goal worth fighting for.”

In the spirit of Jimmy Reid, we need to ensure that each generation, including those yet to come are prepared to take mankind further along that road, it’s the only way we’ll one day reach our goal.

James Matthewson is Communications Manager to Labour Party Chair, Ian Lavery MP and is the founder of ‘Trade Unionists of Tomorrow’ a new organisation that aims to support trade unions in encouraging & engaging young people in the Trade Union movement. Both can be followed at @MatthewsonJames @TomorrowsUnions.

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