More than twitter: new union models for a new workforce

Antonia Bance
4 min readDec 13, 2016


Let’s start with a few (relatively uncontroversial, ish) assertions:

Earlier today, the FT’s employment correspondent Sarah O’Connor (a champion of working people and a critical friend of trade unions) said:

The decline in youth membership is one consequence of a deeper problem for unions: the economy has changed more than they have.

This isn’t a new problem — and it’s not one unions are unaware of. Union campaigns at Asos, Amazon, Sports Direct, Pizza Express, Uber and other private sector employers show unions grappling with this challenge.

But complementing these individual workplace campaigns, we need a set of new “ways in” to trade unionism and collectivism for younger private sector workers. The model of trade unionism we have relied on for decades unchanged works brilliantly in some places and for some workers, but not for others.

Just think some of the differences there may be between the experiences of younger and older workers:

  • having a permanent contract one or a few employers in one core field or sector vs. having a series of temporary contracts, moving frequently between employers and sectors
  • working in a workplace where there is a union, volunteer reps and a recognition agreement so the company has to negotiate on pay and terms, vs working in a workplace where no-one is in a union and what the company decides is just how things are
  • growing up in a world where your parents and their friends were in unions, vs. growing up in a world where you know no-one in a union
  • living at a time when unions had a place in the national debate vs. living at a time when unions are less visible and their place in public life is contested
  • used to engaging with organisations via the post, the phone and face-to-face, vs. staying in touch with organisations digitally

As unions, our job is still the same: how do we achieve great jobs for everyone? And the answer (in large part) is still the same: strong unions and strong legislative protections.

So, how do you create new “ways in” to unions? And how do you make sure that today’s workers still get the benefit of the collective power that makes trade unionism a force for better working lives, rather than just another paid service for them as individuals?

That’s the challenge we’ve set ourselves to solve in 2017 — with the backing of the TUC’s general council and the involvement of the UK’s biggest private sector unions.

Sarah’s FT piece talks about union activists concluding that what needs to happen to get young people into unions is more twitter and more Facebook. (And if I know union activists, at least one person will have said “tell them that unions gave us the weekend!”).

Starting with an easy answer you knew all along is a trap everyone falls into, in every field. And it’s one we want to avoid. So we’ve partnered with Good Innovation, who are (as the name implies) experts in innovating to find new ways to create social good.

And we’re starting with the users:

Service design starts with identifying user needs. If you don’t know what the user needs are, you won’t build the right thing. Do research, analyse data, talk to users. Don’t make assumptions. Have empathy for users, and remember that what they ask for isn’t always what they need.

As of now, the TUC’s kicking off six months of user research with the young people that aren’t in unions. I wrote about their lives here. We’ll take union general secretaries to spend time with them. We’ll run focus groups, paired interviews, WhatsApp diaries. We’ll read and talk and gather all the best ideas, everything that looks promising, from the UK and abroad.

And then we’ll test them and test them again with the young workers who would benefit most from unions.

A lot of pet schemes will end up in the dustbin. Maybe what emerges won’t look all that different. Maybe it will.

By next summer, we hope the TUC and the UK’s biggest private sector unions will be testing prototypes for how unions support and organise a generation of young workers. And I want us to be piloting those ways in to trade unionism for real by the year of the TUC’s 150th anniversary, in 2018.

Cos the need for trade unionism hasn’t gone away — but the world of work has changed. And we need to change with it, to serve today’s and tomorrow’s workers.

So if you have a great idea for the thing that could transform union engagement with some or all of Britain’s young workers, get in touch.