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In it together

Shelly Asquith and Samuel Wheeler articulate the trade union imperative for young people

Samuel Wheeler

To be young in Britain today is to be transient. We move away from our families to find work. We rent, because we can't afford to buy, and never get the chance to know our neighbours. We don't have landlines. Our friends are as likely to be on another continent as in the next street. We don't go to church. The jobs we work are often temporary and insecure. In short, so many of the bulwarks of civil society, those anchors for our lives, just don't exist for us.

Joining the union for me was a way of tapping into something secure. As a union that has branches all over the country and of every occupation, Unite had that constancy which is so vital. If you're going to give your time, energy and dedication to a group, which are such valuable commodities, you have to know that it will be there for you wherever you go. Solidarity has to be solid. The importance of that sense of belonging should not be underestimated. In an increasingly atomised society, feeling part of a broad and historic movement is a positive on its own.

When that movement is dedicated to goals which you believe in, so much the better. The services the union provides for those in need mustn't be underestimated. Young people, isolated and inexperienced as we often are, are prime candidates for exploitation, particularly if we also come from group that have faced discrimination.

But the union movement has to be more than a fire-brigade operation, dashing to crisis after crisis to try and save what it can. Educating new workers on their rights is important, but so are bigger policy issues, such as ensuring that hard won pensions and benefit rights can follow workers in an economy where having not merely multiple jobs, but multiple careers will be the norm. Ensuring there is always access from employers and government to re-training and education so workers can improve their skills is likewise essential. These aims can only be achieved by a co-ordinated campaign, and only the trade union movement has both the strength and the inclination to push it.

The union has to give its members a connection to the past and to each other, a sense that many older members who use the words ‘brother', ‘sister' and ‘comrade freely might take for granted. It is that sense that someone has your back, not the shiny freebies, that attracts younger workers. Woody Guthrie sang that he didn't have a home in this world anymore. There are a million young people on the dole, and millions more just a week away from it. Give them a home, a movement they can own, and they'll fight for it.

Shelly Asquith

As a working student, I joined Unite the Union to protect my rights and to campaign for a fairer society for the next generation. Young people are more likely to be receiving poverty wages, be in temporary, exploitative employment or not be in work altogether. It is through the union's young members structures that we make our voices heard on these issues, by running campaigns and taking industrial or direct action. Unite is the biggest union in the country, but 30% of its membership is retired. In order to keep the union movement alive, we need to build union density across all sectors and ensure that recruiting young members is key to our strategy. Youth unemployment, at 20%, is higher than ever, and young people are still facing discrimination in the welfare system (under 18s get a lower-rate minimum wage, and under 35s a lower Housing Benefit allocation). As one of the most, our issues need to be central to the union movement's campaigns.

But leading on youth issues is not the only solution to the decline in trade unionism. A clear lack of understanding of the roles of trade unions has emerged amongst young people, as our generation are the first whose parents were unlikely to be union members. Unions need to be engaging people at a younger age, which is why Unite's Len McCluskey pledged to send activists to every secondary school in the UK to deliver educational workshops on trade unionism. A degree of culture change needs to come about, too. Unions are stuck in their ways, their structures bureaucratic and dedicating to much time to paperwork and procedure. Young workers will not be taken in by a formal meeting on a Friday night or subscription that will tip them over the edge. Unions should look to making their structures more appealing and accessible to young members, with an extension of student-rate memberships. Trade unions are the most important progressive organisations in the country, but their survival is weighted on their ability to continue to recruit. Young members must lead the way in relevant and effective campaigns, in educating those who are yet to join the workforce, and in challenging the status quo.