Unions matter because they provide a voice for workers at their workplace and often in their communities, sectors and in the economy more widely. But in most countries, union membership is ageing rapidly which raises questions about who unions speak for and who they speak to.
By and large, unions recognize the challenges facing them and have been trying to address them for some time. This has led to many unions and activists experimenting with new ways of doing things in an effort to engage young workers.
What’s different about young workers?
Our research looked at some of those innovations in the 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 could 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, our research suggests there is good reason to be optimistic that unions can target and represent young workers very effectively when they are open to new approaches.
On one level, young workers are very like their older peers. Data shows that they are no more or less likely to be pro- or anti-union than older workers, although there does seem to be evidence that they know less about unions. What young workers share in all of the countries is that they are more likely than previous generations to experience precarious work, as well as other forms of precariousness such as in their housing and wider social lives.
There are lots of measures we can use to evaluate precarious work, but it is clear that in all four countries it takes young workers longer to move into stable employment, and that they are moving between jobs and sectors more frequently before they do so.
We argue that it is this precariousness, rather than different attitudes towards jobs and unions, that creates specific challenges for unions in organizing these young workers.
What helps young workers unionize?
We found innovations that were both driven by union structures and by young workers themselves, and in all of the cases there was a real enthusiasm among members, activists, organizers and the unions more widely for trying to improve working conditions. When we looked for factors that facilitated these initiatives, we found that the support of the union was really important.
It is resource intensive to organize any group and the commitment of the union to long-term, sustainable initiatives was important in ensuring an on-going engagement of young members within the union, especially when their experiences of precarious work mean that they may well move around a lot more.
This ‘churn’ in the labor market matters when we look at initiatives to engage and represent young workers. Not only does it mean that workers are moving in and out of the workforce that unions are seeking to organize, it also means that unions may spend time developing activists only for them to have to move on; perhaps to an entirely different sector or location.
To address this turnover, one of the unions organizing retail workers in New York City had created a separate space outside the workplace for retail workers to come together, get advice, organize and share experiences. Providing a physical space for organizing activity allowed a focal point for workers to come together in a sector that is highly precarious with high labor turnover.
In Germany, the approach of a union organizing workers in the care sector was to focus on regulating the qualifications that young people can build up so that their knowledge and experience is recognized and, crucially, rewarded by employers across the sector.
Unions in the UK and Germany have also been pushing to extend existing collective bargaining arrangements to cover workers in companies and sectors where precarious work is common in an effort to regulate the terms and conditions of work.
In short, then, we found plenty of examples where unions have engaged with the more precarious experiences of young workers and have made a real effort to develop new approaches to deal both with the challenges that brings them in terms of developing members and activists, and also to try to regulate precarious work more consistently.
Change is challenging but achievable
When we consider the factors that help unions and young workers organize, we can see that 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 for worker’s rights.
We also show how existing structures of collective bargaining help because they show both unions and workers what representation could look like and what could be achieved as an outcome. In this regard, 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.
And, of course, it also helps if labor markets are tight and employers pay more attention to trying to retain their staff. In a number of the campaigns we looked at, key breakthroughs were achieved when labor market conditions changed.
Unsurprisingly, labor market conditions can also act as a brake on union organizing. When labor markets are looser, we get the problems that come with high labor turnover. Another big challenge is that in most countries there are strict laws and regulations about what ‘counts’ as a union and what a union can and cannot do.
In the French case, for example, the young people who had organized outside union structures realized that they would be limited in their ability to represent workers if they did not become a formal union.
A final point that was a serious limitation in some of our case studies was the ability of union structures to integrate new groups of members and to facilitate their voices and representation both within the union and with the employer. Challenging established ways of doing things is a real challenge and it can be difficult for organizations to change.
Overall, we saw some really interesting 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 workers who are more precarious than previous generations.
But what we noted across all of the initiatives is how hard it is to change common ways of doing things. Sometimes the way unions organize leads, for example, 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 the challenge of an ageing union membership until it is too late.
What is clear from this 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.