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You hustle if you want to, we're on strike: Young people discover the power of unions

From the UK to the US, under 25's are unionising in droves, with 60% to 156% leaps in youth membership in some cases. What does it mean for the future of work - and for the ballot box? 

February 10 2023, 17.41pm

2022 was the year of the strike. In fact, it was the biggest year for strikes in more than 30 years. No, wait: just six months  of 2022 were enough to break that record. Between June and November alone the UK lost 1.58 million working days to strikes. The highest number since 1990.

Whether it’s the cost of living crisis, stagnating wages, or the pandemic giving people a new perspective on life-work balance, something is shifting - not just in numbers, but in the sheer hunger for fightback. As an industrial reporter speaking to numerous striking workers last year, the feeling was palpable. And it was coming from everyone: soon-to-retire factory workers, 19-year-old nurses. precarious hospitality staff, sex workers, migrants. 

Indeed, the trade union movement seems to be swelling and, after a sharp drop in under-30s membership in the first 20 years of the century, more and more young people are getting involved. This is evidenced by figures shared with The Lead by some of the UK’s most prominent unions. The Communication Workers Union (CWU), which represents BT and Royal Mail workers, recorded 6,903 members under the age of 30 between October 2021 and October 2022, compared with 2,692 in the same period in 2018-19. That’s a 156% increase. Between March 2022 and August 2022, PCS, the union representing many civil servants, recruited 3,416 new members under the age of 28. 

Smaller unions, like the United Voices of the World Union (UVW) and the International Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) also noticed an uptick. The former said that, by October 2022, it had seen a 13% rise in members under 30. Compared to pre-pandemic figures (when union membership heavily dwindled) the rise was more like 60%. The latter said 10% of members joining in the last year had been under 27. Three of the largest unions, Unite, Unison and GMB, didn’t respond. 

Official figures for union membership in 2022 are yet to be published in the UK, so it’s not clear whether the uptick in youth membership is reflective of membership growth on the whole. But, for preliminary figures, these seem promising. 

For the young people who spoke to The Lead, it seems to be just as much about being part of the wider movement as it is about reaping the individual benefits of union membership. 

Kate*, 23, who asked to be kept anonymous as she works in a front-facing role, joined Unison in February 2022. A council worker from London, she had never been in a union previously, mainly because this was her first full-time role. “I’d never had to think about it before,” she says. She joined the union, on the advice of some of her colleagues and her mum, because she wanted to ensure she had some “extra protection,” although she’s never actually had to use it. 

Despite that, she says she’s already seen the benefits of unionisation, not just for herself but for the wider public. “I’m just happy that people are finding the courage to strike,” she says. “They have a very difficult decision to make, and I'm just glad that there's support for that. It's not for me, necessarily – I haven't been asked to strike, and I don't know if [my colleagues and I] ever will strike – but it's nice to see that people are putting their foot down, and I’m glad that there’s something that can facilitate that.”

For Amelia, 18, joining the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers' Union (BFAWU) felt like the natural decision, as she had always been pro-trade union, but she says the ongoing wave of strike action across the UK was a trigger. “It instilled a sense of urgency in me,” she explains. “I wanted to be able to participate if we joined.”

While she had her personal reasons for joining – “I was working overtime at my workplace and not getting paid and it was really irritating me,” she says - there was also a sense that being part of the union could help her to fight for her colleagues who may have been worse-off. “The cost of living crisis isn’t a concern for me but I know the wage I earn isn’t livable [for most], and I wanted to be able to fight for a pay rise for those around me. I want to be able to join in and fight if the opportunity comes about.”

Youth union membership has traditionally been low. Anthony Curley, Unite’s former National Youth Coordinator, puts it down to a number of factors: a lack of education about unions, a lack of union visibility (and power) and a lack of organising in sectors where young people are typically employed, like hospitality and retail, and increased precarity. 

Despite what some may believe, he tells The Lead that low youth membership isn’t because young people are against the movement . “There’s a myth that young people are anti-trade union, as if they’re not bothered or not interested, but that’s complete nonsense,” he says. Instead, he believes it's simply that they haven’t been taught about trade unions and, importantly, they haven’t been asked to join. But that’s changing. Curley is now a regional lead for Unite Hospitality in the North West, which is making moves to unionise the country’s fraught hospitality industry.

Over the pond

There is a similar picture stateside. Bolstered by high-profile efforts to organise in typically younger sectors, such as at Starbucks, Amazon, the Apple Store and in Higher Education, the US has seen an increase in young people joining unions. 

According to the latest figures, trade union membership in the US grew by 1.9% in 2022, with the number of union members aged 16-24 growing by 67,000. This also represents a 0.3% increase compared to 2019 figures, before numbers dropped significantly during the pandemic.  Conversely, however, for those aged 25–35, membership figures grew by 2.3% during the pandemic, but dropped by 2.5% last year. 

Because US trade union statistics are much harder to measure than in the UK, mainly because joining a union isn’t as simple as paying a monthly fee, and figures don’t accurately measure the real-world organising happening in workplaces, that figure is likely to be higher. Interest appears to be high, too: a Gallup survey from 2020 found that 77% of 18-35-year-olds approved of trade unions.   

Grace Reckers, a New York-based union organiser for the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) has witnessed the shift firsthand. “We've seen an uptick in the number of people who've wanted to organise unions, just in general across industries, but I would say there's been a lot more union activity than we've seen in decades, and this tends to be in workplaces with younger people,” she tells The Lead. This includes workers at nonprofit organisations, university resident assistants (RAs), healthcare workers, hospitality workers and tech workers. This, says Reckers, is emblematic of a “new phase of organising…where younger people are starting to realise that they can be part of unions.” 

She thinks this is not only down to high-profile organising efforts, such as with the Starbucks Workers Union, but also because of the cost of living crisis and the pandemic. “What the pandemic has caused is this reckoning with how much companies can still gain from crises like COVID-19, but then also still not reward their workers with the same benefits,” she says. “So I think that has raised some consciousness among workers, too.”

American labour reporter Sarah Jaffe agrees: “the pandemic interrupted the thing that capitalism runs on, which is human labour,” she tells The Lead. “So people's experience in and around the workplace got a lot shittier a lot faster, not just their experience of whether they can afford rent, but also in the sense that it became very clear that ‘my boss doesn't care if I die’.” From there she says the options were clear: suck it up, quit your job, or organise. “And so you get the ‘Great Resignation,’ and you also get unions.”

In fact, Jaffe puts this intercontinental shift towards unions (however small) down to a series of what she calls “crises of capitalism”.

First it was the introduction of Neoliberalism in the 1980s, then the 2008 financial crash, then 13 years of Tory austerity, followed by the pandemic and the global cost of living crisis. “They're not just crises in one country, they're crises in a global system that is increasingly intertwined in all of these different ways,” says Jaffe. “So like, the cost of living crisis is affected by the cost of oil because Russia invades Ukraine. That's a thing that is causing problems all over the place. The planet is on fire for everyone. These are massive, global, capitalist problems.”


From pickets to ballot boxes? 

You would think this spike in youthful engagement with organised politics would be pounced upon by the main progressive political parties in the UK and the US - the Labour Party and the Democratic Party, respectively. But the two display very different attitudes towards the movement. Even though the Labour Party originates from the trade union movement, and is still largely funded by unions today, Labour leader Keir Starmer has been, at best, tepid toward strike actions, taking care not to present himself as a trade unions advocate. MPs were banned from standing on picket lines, despite the fact that most voters were in favour of healthcare strikes, and at least one prominent ally who violated the ban was sacked. 

Over in the US, however, President Joe Biden vowed to be the most pro-worker president of all time. In a pledge to support labour organising he said he would “check the abuse of corporate power over labour and hold corporate executives personally accountable for violations of labour laws; encourage and incentivise unionisation and collective bargaining; and ensure that workers are treated with dignity and receive the pay, benefits, and workplace protections they deserve.” 

Reckers believes increased worker power could be impacting Biden’s stance, but doubts that Biden’s musings have had much of an impact on workers’ plans to organise. “I do think that policymakers are reacting to the wave of organising that they're seeing at Amazon, Starbucks and at grocery stores,” she says. “But I think the average person who is organising in their workplace is not doing so because they know what the policies are or who's even deciding those policies or what is available to them. I think it's that people are just agitated and decided it needs to happen right now.” Politicians, then, Reckers believes are piggybacking off the renewed support towards unions in a bid to get more votes. But, again, are the two really so intertwined?

It’s important to remember that union membership figures in the US are still historically low. In fact, the rate of union membership hit at a 100-year low of 10.1% last year, despite a rise in membership, so it's unlikely that unions can be seen to have any real political power, especially in the US, where union leaders can’t be a member of the Democratic Party the same way, say, Mick Lynch could be a member of the Labour Party. And even if they were in a stronger position, it's unlikely to make a difference: as Jaffe explains, Biden is pretty much all talk considering it’s verging on impossible to get any pro-Democrat laws through Congress. 

“Permanent change to the law that would make it easier for workers to unionise has been a thing that Democrats have been promising forever and have either refused to deliver when they briefly have windows in Congress, or more likely just blamed the fact that Republicans won't vote for it,” she says. Whatever one thinks of Starmer’s posturing towards the strikes, the same is all the truer in the UK, where the Labour party has been out of power for 13 years - and would need to wait at least another year to take a shot at regaining government. 

At the end of the day, this wave of youth organising has little to do with Starmer and Biden. As Reckers notes, workers everywhere are realising now is the time to put their foot down. It’s a perfect storm; multiple crises merging into one, millions of workers deciding enough is enough. Translating this organising surge into electoral power does not seem to be a priority for anyone just yet. And after all, even in the healthiest democracies unions are meant to offer workers other means of pressure beyond the ballot - especially with elections few and far between. “I think young people should be in a union full stop,” Curley concludes.