Young people have an overwhelmingly positive view of trade unions and the future of the economy means that there is a clear case for the benefits of union membership. The challenge is to combine these facts into a compelling pitch and get more union sign ups.
That was one of the messages from economist Gavin Kelly, opening Unions 21’s conference in April.
Kelly said the union movement was shrouded in dark clouds but that there were “chinks of light” for the future.
The gloom was the halving of overall membership since 1979. The ‘demographic dark cloud’ is the fact that when the baby boom generation retires they could leave a gaping hole in working union membership.
To fill that hole, unions need to double the number of members under 35 by 2030.
The good news is that the latest research shows that young people have an overwhelmingly positive view of trade unions, and the future of the economy means that there is a clear case for the benefits of union membership.
The challenge is to combine these facts into a compelling pitch and get more union sign ups, Kelly concluded.
Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy said unions were rising to that challenge. He said they should focus on the compelling individual reasons for membership and sell aspirational messages about progression and career development, rather than focusing solely on solving workplace problems.
Mike also stressed that unions had to educate young people that they do not simply have to take what they are given at work. By joining together, they can secure a better deal for themselves and their colleagues.
Prospect’s success in growing the union shows that much of this thinking is already underway but there is no room for complacency in addressing this challenge.
Becky Wright, director of Unions 21, said unions have a “deep responsibility to turn the tide” and launched a new report setting out a plan to do this. She stressed the importance of going digital to reach new members and made the case for smart use of data.
Claire Sullivan from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, reminded the audience the best way to gain members is to be rooted in workplaces and focused on the issues that matter to people.
Unions can only do this by listening to what their members and reps are telling them: “If people tell us that the main issue is car parking, then our main issue should be car parking,” she said.
Although the challenges may be modern, the main thing that will help to grow the union movement is old fashioned hard work and organising around the issues that matter to workers, Sullivan concluded.