In the past 18 months there has been a surge in political activity by young people in the Occupy Movement, in student protests against tuition fees and withdrawal of EMA and in anti-workfare campaigns. At the same time, but less visible, there are a growing number of young trade unionists who are just as angry and are getting active in their unions . I spoke to two young people who are trade union members in Manchester.
Jane Warburton, member of PCS and chair of the National Young Members Network, is clear about her commitment to trade unionism. “I am from a working class background, my Dad is active in Unison and he took me on my first picket line when I was 8 years old”. She left school at 16 and it was only when she was ill at work that she realised how important trade unions are. “I joined PCS at 17 when I started work in the civil service. During my probationery period I wasn’t well and it was only through the support of the union that I kept my job.” Jane has now progressed through the union from being branch Youth Officer to Chair of the National Youth Members Network. Her work involves recruiting young people and encouraging them to get involved with PCS campaigns. The age range for young members is 16-27, and she has a growing number of young people in her branch, some 200 out of 1,500 members, with over 80% of all workers in her workplace now in the union. “We have an agreement with the management to meet with new members of staff and encourage them to join the union. In the past we have taken strike action to challenge the management over their heavy handed monitoring of staff, even checking how long people take over toilet breaks. We won, and this encouraged staff to join the union.”
Emma Chorlton is a member of Unite and a student on a Clinical Psychology course. She does not come from a trade union background. “I am educating my parents about trade unions.”, she laughs. At university she was not involved in student politics but when she went to work in the NHS Emma got involved in her union when there was an issue over pay scales. “I joined because it made sense, we got advice from the Union (I was then in Unison) and we won the dispute. I learnt how important unions are”. Emma has now joined Unite because they have a section specifically for psychologists, but due to the nature of her training programme, which involves being on a course and doing placements spread across the north-west she is finding it difficult to be active as she would like in the union. “I don’t feel able to become a union rep, but I am doing the job informally, I tell people about issues and keep them up-to-date.” She has some criticisms of Unite. “I organised for the union to come in and talk to the 24 people on my course. They were not very dynamic. Most students do not understand about unions, and they didn’t sell how important it is to be in a union.” Emma took part in the pension protest last November.”It was inspiring to see all these workers out on the picket line. It gave me a sense of how powerful trade unions can be. Many people on my course joined the union after the protest. It built their confidence in the union.”
Both Jane and Emma are aware that there are many young people who either do not know about trade unions or have a poor image of their role. Jane says, ”Unions need to advertise what they do. They need to involve young people at a school level. ” Emma agrees, ”The image of trade unions is of old men sat around a table. Unions need to be able to relate to young people.” At a time when more young people are flooding into non-traditional activist groups such as Occupy and UK Uncut, it will be up to trade unions to catch up with the young people and ensure that they not only speak the same language, but prove that in 2012 the unions can respond to the demands that young people are making.