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As Young Workers' Month Ends: It's Time to Get Organised

It's been a bad couple of weeks for trade unionism. Two of its greatest champions - Tony Benn and Bob Crow - have both passed away. But beneath the sadness, something interesting has been happening. Something that offers hope for a previously moribund movement...

It's been a bad couple of weeks for trade unionism. Two of its greatest champions - Tony Benn and Bob Crow - have both passed away. But beneath the sadness, something interesting has been happening. Something that offers hope for a previously moribund movement.

March marked the first Young Workers' Month - four weeks of activities organised by the TUC to kick some life back into trade unionism.

It's no secret that young people, by and large, aren't members of unions. Just 8% of 16-24 year olds are members of a union in their workplace. That leaves 92% of young people almost entirely dependent on the whim of employers and the (largely right-wing) government. The fact that just a tiny minority of Generation Y are protected at work doesn't bode well for those seeking a fairer society.

But Young Workers' Month is trying to turn that around, both through the TUC and the actions of its dozens of its still-powerful member unions. With union numbers at less than half of their 1970s peak of 14 million, now seems the right time.

I spoke to Carl Roper, the TUC's National Organiser and co-ordinator of Young Workers Month. He told me YWM aims to 'highlight within the trade union movement that there is a crisis with respect to union membership amongst young workers': a chance to ask, 'what are we going to do to reach out?' It's potentially the biggest issue for the left in Britain.

But perhaps young people just aren't interested in collectivism anymore? Roper disagrees: 'We don't believe there's a 'Thatcher generation' who don't like unions or collective action. The evidence is the other way actually - young people are political, they are active. It' just their knowledge of unions is very limited.'

Why? For a start, media coverage of unions almost exclusively tends of focus on when they are at their angriest - protests and strikes. Yet naturally, this ignores the day-to-day role of union representatives, 200,000 of whom deal with the pretty unglamorous case work, from representing staff at employment tribunals to sitting in on management meetings and putting forward an alternative voice. Yet lack of decent media coverage can't be the only factor for low unionisation rates - after all, it's hardly new.

One reason for young people's 'union apathy', if there's such a thing, could be fairly simple. Most of them tend to work in sectors of the economy where union organisation is just non-existent and difficult to unionise - after all, how do you get part-time bar staff on zero-hours contracts out on the picket lines?

'25% of all 16-24 year olds work in retail, where union density is 12%. The next highest proportion is food and hospitality - where density is 3%. So young people just don't come into contact with unions,' Roper told me. Turning those stats around is a tough job, but one that Britain's union confederation seems hopeful it can do. Out of necessity, perhaps more than anything.

But there is a perception, at least from young people I know, that unions - as useful as they are for older people, just aren't for us. Picture the flat-capped 1960s male factory worker shouting 'everyone out'.

That, perhaps, is where social media comes in. Wednesday will see an online Q&A over Twitter with the first ever female TUC General Secretary, Frances O'Grady, called, appropriately, #askfrances. It's a nifty way of piquing the interest of a seemingly individualised (and thus isolated) demographic.

Maybe we're not so isolated, though. 'Young people do join unions where there is one - if you work in a hospital, if you're a nurse, a teacher, a civil servant, or on London Underground, working at a local authority or a car company or an airport, you're more likely to join a union where the workplace is organised...But too many young people work in places where there's no union organisation at all'.

The question remains as to why these sectors are unorganised. 'Young people don't know about unions, and don't have the lived experience of them. Over 50% of people in the UK now have never been a member.' The solution? Roper raised the prospect of teaching about trade unions in school, but it's hard to see how that will go down with Michael Gove.

Offering better prospects may be something tucked away in the back of last May's TUC Campaign Plan - 'gateway membership'. The idea offers a chance for young people to get a taste of being in a union where there isn't a presence at their workplace. Roper said it was in its 'embryonic stages' and was cautious to discuss whether it will go ahead or not, but it seems a chance not to be missed.

2014 seems pretty late to be starting all this. Yet Roper dismisses the idea unions have ignored young people: 'It was unions that campaigned for the minimum wage, and for it to be equalised among young and old workers now.' This is on top of the current Fair Pay Fortnight, as well as the TUC's push alongside the NUS for an end to unpaid internships via a phone app.

The latter is most poignant as it's students who may offer the best hope for union revival, giving it the radical kick it needs. Campaigns alongside the UCU, Unite and Unison on UK campuses for a Living Wage and an end to outsourcing - whether at Birmingham, Sussex, the University of the Arts, or through the London-based 'Tres Cosas' ('Three Things') struggle - all serve as testament to what happens when, to steal a phrase from 2010, 'students and workers unite and fight'. With the 'cost of living' crisis raging, Young Workers' Month offers the prospect of bringing that sentiment back...

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