Should young workers join a trade union?

So, you’ve started your working life. Should you now join a trade union?

When you think of trade unions, you probably think of the 1980s and the miner’s strikes. You might think trade unions are for your parents or even your grandparent’s generation. You might think employment law is enough to protect you at work. However, the Covid 19 pandemic in particular has highlighted how insecure some employment sectors are, and it is young people in particular who have been disproportionality affected. Young people are most likely to be in zero-hour contracts, temporary or part time positions and it is young people who are most likely to be treated unfairly. 

Yet in 2018, TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady warned that union membership among young workers is just 8 per cent while 40 per cent of trade union members are 50 or over. So, let’s look at why young people should join a union.

What is a trade union?

First, we need to understand what a trade union is. You may already be familiar with students’ unions. They are similar to trade unions. Students' Unions are associations of students at a university or college whose principal purposes include representing and promoting the general interests of its members as students. 

A trade union is a group of employees who join together to maintain and improve their conditions of employment. There are over 7 million people in the UK who are members of a trade union.

It is thanks to trade unions that we have weekends. Without unionisation, we could all still be working on Saturdays without a choice in the matter. It is thanks to unions that we have 8-hour days and again, whether to work longer hours is our choice. It is unions who campaigned for equal pay and who support us when we experience discrimination. 

How can a trade union help me?

Trade unions give power to working people by enabling employees to speak with one voice to their employer. In an organisation that recognises a union, you have a legally binding collective agreement to secure your rights and provide safe working conditions. A union contract also ensures that there is just cause for dismissal, that your working conditions are renegotiated regularly, and that everyone is equally represented. A union makes sure that as a worker, you will be treated with dignity by your employer.

Union membership can help employees have better job security, better maternity, paternity, sickness, and pension benefits. You may have more paid holiday and control over your working hours. The TUC reports that workers in unionised workplaces can earn more than workers in non-unionised workplaces. There are also smaller pay gaps meaning women are more likely to be paid the same as men for the same or similar work.

Unions can provide you with legal advice and assistance for employment matters. They can help you with incidences of workplace discrimination, harassment, or bullying.

Trade unions are not just for public sector workers. Many private sector employers also recognise trade unions and charities such as Shelter also have trade union recognition. Whilst some trade unions are linked to political parties, you can opt out of making political contributions.

You have the right to be accompanied by your union representative or a union official to some meetings with management - for example, if:

  • you’re facing a disciplinary charge
  • you wish to raise a grievance with your employer

Are trade unions for young people?

Despite the many benefits and achievements of trade unions, many young people don't even know what trade unions are. Those that have heard of trade unions, probably think of the 1980s and the miner’s strikes. You may think trade unions belong to your parents, or grandparent’s generation, but trade unions are very much still around and just as important to your generation.

Younger workers are much more likely to be in insecure or low-paid jobs than any other age group.  Young people are more likely to be working zero-hour contracts. TUC research also shows that young people earn less than their counterparts a decade ago. Even degree graduates are earning less than before. Younger workers have particular rights regarding their working hours and rest breaks but may not be aware of these rights.

Considering all of this, why aren’t more young people joining trade unions? Well, as already mentioned, young people are more likely to be working in service industries which have traditionally been under-unionised. These employers may not recognise a union. If employees are only working part-time or temporary contracts, they may think trade unions are not for them or that there is ‘no point’ in joining a union.

Apprentices also have the right to join a trade union. The Civil Service offers apprenticeships and is also a unionised environment.

The Covid 19 pandemic has seen an increase in trade union membership, especially from those working in hospitality, retail, and events sectors. The pandemic has disproportionally impacted younger workers who are more likely to be working insecure jobs in these sectors. The pandemic has led to many workers realising that existing employment laws are not always enough to protect us. We have also seen an increase in campaigning against low pay and unfair shifts, with one example being the McStrike campaign against McDonalds. By being part of a trade union, we can not only ensure these rights are respected but push for better.

What if my employer does not recognise a trade union?

Your employer may not recognise a trade union but that does not mean you cannot still join one or receive support from that trade union. You may not have a workplace representative to speak to, but you can still contact a regional trade union official for support.

If enough employees joined a union and wanted the employer to recognise the union, the trade union could approach your employer to request that they do so.

Where else can you receive support?

You can find out more about joining a trade union by looking at the TUC website. You can also find out more about your employment rights at work by looking at the ACAS website or Citizen’s Advice.

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