Youth membership of trade unions has grown

By agency reporter
May 31, 2019

As part of a wider increase in the absolute number of employees who are union members, membership for 16–19 year old workers increased to 3.2 per cent in 2018 (up from two per cent in 2017). But despite this recent increase, the percentage of employed 16–19 year olds in unions dropped by more than a half in the decade between 2008 and 2017, from 4.4 per cent to two per cent, meaning it is at half of the level it was in 1995 when it was 6.4 per cent, according to New Economics Foundation (NEF) analysis of new figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Meanwhile membership for workers under 24 has risen from 7.8 per cent to 8.4 per cent this year bucking the trend of decline as membership for 20–24 year old workers almost halved between 1995 and 2018, dropping from 19.3 per cent to 10.5 per cent. 

Today less than one in 10 workers under the age of 24 are in a union. The decline in the membership of young workers is greater than the overall trend of union decline over the last 20 years.

Meanwhile, there have been approximately 10,000 young people on the streets for the school climate strikes in recent months, which, says NEF, shows that young people are not apathetic and are willing to take collective action over issues that matter to them. By way of illustration of the current low union representation among young people, if all of the 10,000 climate strikers were to join a union when they come of age it would increase the number of members for 16–19-year olds by approximately one third, thus beginning to reverse the long-term decline among this age group.

Unions are alert to the need to appeal to and represent young people. The higher education union UCU are the first trade union to have pledged support for the school students’ general strike for the climate planned on 27 September 2019. Last year, the GMB union struck a deal with the University of East Anglia to offer free union membership to all working students.

In the US, where a similar long-term trend of union decline exists, there was a surge in membership among young people in 2017: out of 858,000 net new jobs for workers under the age of 35, almost one in four (23 per cent) was unionised.

Frances Fox, 18 and Abel Harvie-Clark, 17 of the UK Student Climate Network, said: “The youth strikes show a radical consciousness amongst our generation and a recognition of the power of collective action to bring change. We strongly encourage other young people to join unions, to continue this collective action as part of the labour movement, to fight for both climate and social justice. To voice the concerns of the youth, whilst listening to the concerns of the workers.

“As it stands, our generation has no future. We, the next generation of workers, will face not only an increasingly insecure job market, zero hour contracts and falling living standards, but also the destructive impacts of the climate crisis. Whilst the anti-trade union laws are awful and an explicit repression of the right to protest, the labour movement has the strength to bring about the radical changes that we need.”

Alice Martin, Head of Work and Pay at the New Economics Foundation said: “While the growth in youth membership is a reason for optimism, the long-term trend of the decline among young workers is still of concern. Without a pipeline of new members into trade unions, as a society we are less able to democratically shape the world of work – which is set to change dramatically over the coming decades in response to climate change and accelerating automation.

“The school climate strikers are a growing group of young people who have chosen to take action in the face of a crisis and are prepared to strike – these are exactly the kinds of young people that should be attracted to the union movement and could be critical to making up the next generation of trade unionists in this country.”

* Trade Union statistics 2018 here

* New Economics Foundation


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.