"It seems that for most young people today, rightly or wrongly, trade unions are considered rather inconsequential, tools harking back to a twentieth-century age of now declining industrial manufacturing professions, and not beneficial alliances for current popular graduate jobs."
When faced with writing an article on trade unions, I felt rather stuck, as I realised how little substantial knowledge I had on them, despite being a solid supporter of the party built on their movement. Asking my friends for any inspiration on the topic, I realised I wasn’t alone: none knew any more than the very basic premises of trade unions. It seems that for most young people today, rightly or wrongly, trade unions are considered rather inconsequential, tools harking back to a twentieth-century age of now declining industrial manufacturing professions, and not beneficial alliances for current popular graduate jobs.
Much of this disengagement with trade unions undoubtedly comes from the organisations’ downturn themselves. Since Thatcher’s tightening of union legislation in the 1980s, union membership has been in steady decline from its 1979 high of 13.2 million members. 2016-17 saw the biggest drop in union membership in British history, with a loss of 275,000 members, taking total membership down to 6.2 million; membership hasn’t gone below 6 million since 1940. With this loss of membership comes a loss of power, with fewer and fewer employers recognising unions for pay bargaining. This is all despite the fact that the job market is increasingly insecure, with one in ten UK workers susceptible to losing their jobs with short or no notice, and far less access to sick pay, redundancy, and job protection. As Trade Union Congress General Secretary Frances O’Grady argues, “it remains the case that trade union members get higher pay and better terms of employment.” Yet the fact that two fifths of union members are now over fifty, and membership is steadily falling, highlights that regardless of this fact, younger generations don’t consider unions as helpful assets in an increasingly unstable job market.
However, hopefully recent university events can challenge this trend somewhat. Though they may be disrupting academic studies, the University and College Union’s strikes are teaching students different lessons, about the importance and relevance trade unions still have today. The dire reasons behind the strike – lecturers standing to lose £10,000 off their pensions each year, and younger academics potentially losing half their retirement income – underline that it isn’t just manufacturing industries who suffer from an insecure job market, but white collar and academic professions too, all of which therefore benefit from strong trade unions. The disorder that the strikes have directly caused offer a clear indicator to students of the power that trade unions can, and do, hold, and have provided a great way for students to participate more actively in politics. For the first time in many of their electorate lives, students have had the opportunity to join pickets and demonstrations; indeed, in some universities, they’ve even occupied buildings.
While the university strikes may not be having the best short-term effect on academic studies, then, they are hopefully encouraging students of the worthwhile of trade unions, an important notion if union membership is to stop declining and workers to keep their right to strike.
Fran Sellors is a Young Fabian and contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter at @FranSellors