LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 20:  A woman participates in a TUC march in protest against the government's austerity measures on the Embankment on October 20, 2012 in London, England. Thousands of people are taking part in the Trades Union Congress (TUC) organised anti-cuts march that ends with a rally in Hyde Park, where Labour leader Ed Miliband is scheduled to address the demonstrators.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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I went to a conference a few years ago at which a group of trade unionists were fretting about why they did not have more young members. They concluded that they needed to be better at Facebook and Twitter. As one of the younger people in the room, I felt qualified to roll my eyes.

It seemed to me they had the right question but the wrong answer. In Britain, almost 40 per cent of trade union members are over 50. The under-35s, who are almost 40 per cent of the workforce, account for less than a quarter of trade union membership. The picture in the US is similar. The American labour movement “has not prepared its own succession plan”, according to David Rolf, president of SEIU 775, a fast-growing union in the north-west.

This is not because trade unions do not tweet enough. The decline in youth membership is one consequence of a deeper problem for unions: the economy has changed more than they have.

These days, you are most likely to be a union member in Britain if you are a public sector professional with a degree, a fairly good salary and a permanent full-time job. That does not fit the description of most young people or most new jobs. Employment in the public sector is steadily shrinking. The private sector, self-employment, part-time and temporary work are all on the rise.

These fizzing bits of the labour market are tricky to unionise. It is hard to reach cleaners who only work at night, domiciliary care workers who drive alone from one client to the next or virtual workers who log in from home.

Technology can help, but it requires an understanding of when it is actually useful. Blanket broadcasts on social media are far less effective than tools that allow atomised workers to connect and compare notes. When couriers for the UberEats food delivery service went on wildcat strikes this summer, they communicated and co-ordinated through a private instant message group they all accessed on their phones.

Some trade unionists and other activists are beginning to explore how they could deploy technology more smartly. In the US, Mr Rolf is involved in the Workers’ Lab, which brings together entrepreneurs, investors and labour organisers to try to come up with ideas that could boost workers’ power. In the UK, the Resolution Trust has started a similar project called WorkerTech.

But trade unions cannot rely on new technology alone to solve their problems. If they want to recruit and support younger workers, they also have to devote time, effort and resources to the cause. The difficulty is that they also need to support their existing dues-paying members. And the interests of these groups do not always align.

There are no easy answers to how to defend your ground while simultaneously expanding into new territory. Even within a workplace, the generational divide can be hard for unions to manage.

It is not lost on young people that an across-the-board 2 per cent pay settlement gives more cash to workers near the top of the pay scale than to ones like them near the bottom. And while older members will expect their union to fight to protect rights like defined benefit pensions, this might well grate on potential new members, to whom such generous benefits were never available in the first place.

The most successful union I know at recruiting young and migrant workers in the “gig economy” — the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain— is tiny and not particularly technologically superior. Until recently it was operating out of the back room of a dry cleaners.

Jason Moyer-Lee, the 31-year-old general secretary, says they actively seek out workers, have structures that let them lead their own campaigns and relentlessly pursue results that demonstrate the benefits of unionising. In other words, he says, “you have to really try”. There is no app for that.

sarah.oconnor@ft.com

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