Prototyping a new trade union offer

Antonia Bance
5 min readSep 5, 2017

In the US, yesterday was Labor Day. Wikipedia tells me that the bank holiday “honors the American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, laws and well-being of the country.”

UK trade union twitter certainly enjoys sharing US memes about the importance of trade unionism. I can’t be the only one to have seen the Pope and Bruce Springsteen enlisted in the cause.

But one thread runs throughout so many Labor Day articles: that without strong trade unions, neither society stands much chance of sharing prosperity with what my US colleagues call the “middle class”, and UK policymakers term “ordinary working families”. Tomorrow another think tank will add their voice to this welcome chorus (edit: the IPPR’s commission on economic justice, which “flagged extra support for trade unions to act as a bulwark against shareholder interests in the workplace”.)

My clever colleagues created a UK version of the famous US graph comparing trade union coverage with inequality over time — and it shows the same story. Increasing trade union coverage is necessary if you want to live in a more equal society. (Sorry to bang on about it.)

(Original p22, Shaping Our Digital Future)

(On a side note, the effect of anti-trade union laws is noticeable. Just look at the declining red line just as the 1980s industrial relations acts start to take effect. That’s why trade unions continue to seek changes to the law — not just repeal of 2016’s unnecessary trade union act, but new freedoms for unions to go into any workplace, and to use digital to ballot their members.)

If unions are going to play their historic role as inequality-busters and the delivery mechanism for decent wages for working people, they have to urgently get many more younger workers and more private sector workers covered by collective bargaining arrangements. It’s Britain’s young core workers who are missing from our unions — just 6.5% of them are members.

A crucial part of becoming a growing movement is unions looking critically at whether they have the offer right for today’s younger private sector workers.

Our research with young core workers identified four mindsets and three key barriers to collective organising:

  • Low expectations: Young core workers don’t identify as having problems at work. If anything they consider themselves fortunate. It’s common for them to say “I have to be at work half an hour unpaid every day for briefings and debriefings, but overall I’m treated fairly.”
  • A lack of trust: There are very low levels of trust between colleagues in workplaces where young core workers work. It’s common to hear “I could never talk to a colleague about a shared issue — they’d be straight behind my back to the boss and then I’d be in trouble.”
  • A sense of futility: When young core workers have tried to change things in the past nothing has happened. It’s common to hear “Why would I put my neck on the line to try and change something if it’s never going to get better anyway?”

For most of 2017, the TUC has been running an innovation programme to find new ways to organise young workers. I wrote about it here and here. Back in March, I said:

Over the past few weeks we’ve worked through 100s of ideas generated by trade unionists and by young workers themselves — testing them out, taking them to our online panel of young core workers for their opinions, refining them, knocking them down.

Next week we’ll pick a final shortlist of up to three. By June we’ll have thrown up what the digis call a “minimum viable product” — and a handful of real young workers will be using it everyday.

Bloody hell, I hope it works.

Well, some of it looks like it might just (crosses fingers!) be working…

After lots of head-scratching and debate, we chose three potential routes to engage with young workers. Our hunch is that we need to start from where young workers are and what they are concerned about, and then take them on a journey to collective organising and eventual trade union membership.

So, for the past months we have been testing aspects of these three routes with a small group of young workers, mainly on Facebook, and getting their feedback online and on the phone.

The three routes are:

  • ‘Job progression’ — offering tools to help young workers plan their working lives and develop themselves
  • ‘People like me’ — peer support, venting and humorous content to engage young workers in thinking about solving problems at work
  • Control — tools related to problems at work, like salary checkers and rights information

It’s an odd feeling, knowing that 60 or so young workers are interacting with the tools that we have (sort of…) built. But there’s still a long way to go: this was just prototype 1. Prototype 2 is bigger in scale, with hundreds of young workers testing our ideas in greater depth. That’s what we’ll be doing this autumn.

There are lots of questions to be ironed out: can we deliver this at the right level of quality? Will it appeal to young workers? Which execution works best? How do we resource this? How do the young workers transition to trade union membership — and how do unions need to change in order to give them a great experience?

The beauty (and the risk) of trying to innovate is that we don’t know the answers — yet. That’s unnerving — and it’s to the credit of the TUC general secretary, president and executive that they are super-supportive of the programme and content to live with this uncertainty.

In 2018, the TUC is 150. And what better way could there be to mark our 150th birthday, and prepare for the next 150 years, than to launch a new initiative capable of bringing those thousands of young workers who need unions into trade unionism? I hope we’re on track to do just that.

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I recently read a good article about the risks of a “submarine strategy” for research projects. The reasons not to submerge your project from view landed with me:

As communications specialists, we wanted to work with them to reframe a debate, so that their recommendations would not land on deaf ears. Our aim was ongoing policy engagement, with their final research report as just one tool.

This isn’t a policy output, and I don’t work for a think tank. But the TUC going away and doing the secret squirrel on something as important to the movement as how we engage young workers won’t help anyone. So please share this blog, ask questions, come and see me to talk through the findings, ask me to come to your executive committee to present… If we find something that works, I don’t want it to land on deaf ears.