Irrelevance = death, for trade unions

Antonia Bance
4 min readOct 25, 2016


A famous piece of US research shows the impact of declining trade unionism. As union density falls, inequality rises. The mirror is almost exact — and the implication profound: collective bargaining coverage is an indispensable if you want to drive down worker poverty and overall inequality.

But UK union membership is falling — and fast. 9 in 10 under 30s on low and median incomes work in the private sector — but just 6.3% of them are trade unions. If current trends continue, overall, across all sectors, less than 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030.

Spoiler: it’s not because all of the problems of exploitation at work have gone away and unions aren’t needed any more.

I would argue that trade unionism is needed more than ever — or rather, that collective bargaining is. After all, it’s a model of change that doesn’t rely on a government (or the EU) passing laws to protect workers (handy with a Conservative government in power and Brexit on the horizon). It’s a way of improving rights beyond the legal minimum for every aspect of working life.

But for effective collective bargaining, unions need sufficient density of union membership within workplaces. And many of those missing — and those who most need the changes unions can bring — are young workers.

So the TUC has set out to find those young workers, and work out how we can be the movement for them once again.

So which workers aren’t getting the benefits of trade unionism? Britain’s young core workers, that’s who. The backbone of our labour market now and into the future, Britain’s young core workers are 21–30, on low to median incomes, outside full-time education and working (mostly) in the private sector.

There are 3.5m of Britain’s young core workers. They live in every town and every region of the country. 9% of them are BAME. One in three are parents to young children. Nearly half of them work in 3 sectors: retail, hospitality and care.

They serve your takeaway coffee, answer the customer services phone line, staff the checkouts in your favourite shop, look after your elderly relatives, make the beds after your night away.

By definition, they are low-paid, and often work in low-skilled jobs without many chances to get on in life. This is despite being some of the best qualified workers — many have A-level equivalents. They tend not to get the chance of training for a better job nor the option of promotion. What training is available tends to be induction for new staff in the high-turnover industries where they work.

We also looked at the attitudes of Britain’s young core workers. They are more optimistic, tend to prioritise individual agency and are competitive. They status-driven and want to get on — and are less loyal to causes or traditions. They reject the idea of being content with one’s lot and are not interested in playing it safe.

Finding out about Britain’s young core workers inspired us to name our report Living for the Weekend. For many of Britain’s young core workers, work is
necessary but without interest or meaning in itself — and life is what happens outside work, whether it be in their weekend socialising or their weekend with their young families.

So, what’s next? At Congress, the TUC and the union movement committed ourselves to be a movement of young workers once again.

There can be no more urgent task for a union movement that exists to win great jobs for everyone, than to improve life at work for Britain’s young core workers. And the best way to do that is to make sure they are in a union which understands their lives, and is geared up to win the changes to work they need. — Frances O’Grady, September 2016

First, we need more research into the attitudes and experiences of Britain’s young core workers. We’ll get out there and spend time with them. Quite literally: we’re planning to bring our brilliant steering group of union general secretaries and senior officers together with a group of Britain’s young core workers, to hear about their working lives and what they think is important.

That insight has to inform what trade unions offer young workers. We have to get unions into the right workplaces, with an offer that is carefully worked out to appeal to Britain’s young core workers. It has to be relevant, compelling and value for money when compared with other calls on their hard-earned cash.

We’ll help unions share what has worked where we already have big younger memberships in private companies — and learn from sister unions in the public sector too.

All of this means that unions are going to have to change, in ways we haven’t even thought of yet. But it’ll certainly involve big dose of “just ordinary” digital.

We have to change what we talk about, how we look, and what we campaign on. Everything we say and do has to show that we’re on young workers’ side, talking about things that matter to them. And our images, spokespeople, language and visuals have to hold a mirror to the Britain of now.

You can read more about our plans in the TUC’s campaign plan, Building Back Stronger. Our next step is to appoint an expert partner to help the union movement jump-start some models of unionism that start from what works for Britain’s young core workers. It’s time to start building again.