Trade unions need young members, and young workers need trade unions

Submitted by sglenister on Thu, 30/05/2013 - 12:59

30 May 2013

By Sarah Glenister, IER staff

The latest trade union membership statistics, released by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills yesterday (29 May 2013), shows the age of the average trade union member is increasing at the same time as young workers need representation more than ever.

According to the figures, around 36% of trade union members in 2012 were over the age of 50, with membership having fallen in all age groups over the last 17 years, except among those aged over 65.

It is no surprise to see a decline in membership during the recession, as trade unions have been hit by the economic slowdown in line with the majority of organisations - private and third sector. Furthermore, the statistics are not all bleak. There was an overall increase in trade union membership in 2012 of 59,000, bringing total membership figures to 6.5 million. This boost was fuelled by a rise in membership in the private sector for the second year running, with 63,000 employees becoming new members and the proportion of private sector staff who are represented by trade unions improving by 0.2 percentage points to 14.4%. Meanwhile, membership among public sector workers remained broadly stable.

At a time when the Coalition government is systematically destructing workers' legal protections in favour of private profit, trade union membership is vital. Workplace representatives steer employees through ever-changing and increasingly unjust employment law, and ensure their wages remain as high as possible. Indeed, the figures showed that the average trade union member is paid around 17% more than the average non-trade union member - a significant premium at a time when weekly earnings growth has hit a record low.

Membership is particularly important for young workers, who have been among the hardest-hit by both the recession and Coalition policies. The Office for National Statistics reported last week (15 May 2013) that the unemployment rate for economically-active 16 to 24-year-olds not in full-time education hit 19.1 per cent in January to March 2013, surging by 0.7 percentage points in the previous quarter. Overall, 668,000 people in this group were unemployed, up by 18,000 since October to December 2012.

Now on special offer!
Now on special offer!

Young people just entering work are also vulnerable to being exploited by employers taking advantage of much-criticised apprenticeship schemes paying just £2.65 an hour and accused of providing little or no valuable training to employees. Before they have been with the same employer for at least two years, they can also not claim for unfair dismissal. If they should decide to go to university rather than straight into the workplace, they are also faced with newly towering tuition fees.

Marie Taylor, Vice-President of the Community and Youth Workers section of Unite (CWYU) provided a ten-step plan for unions on how to explain the benefits of membership to young people in a recent copy of Federation News, by the Institute of Employment Rights and the General Federation of Trade Unions.

"Recently, young people … have been at the forefront of direct action challenging government policy," she wrote, explaining that a major result of the impact of the cuts on these individuals is "that it has politicised them in a way that only personal experience ever can."

That issue of Federation News - Meeting the Challenges of Age, which focuses on the challenges to trade unions in protecting young and elderly workers, is now on special offer at just £5 per copy. It includes ten essays by academics, trade unionists and youth workers on how to tackle the problems facing the young and ageing in UK workplaces.

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