Trade union membership in the United Kingdom has dropped by a quarter among under-30s since the turn of the century, according to figures from the Trades Union Congress. As the TUC marks its 150th anniversary, the union body has revealed the number of people under 30 who are members of a trade union has fallen from just over 20% in 2001 to 15% in 2017.
In the private sector, which employs more than 80% of 21 to 30-year-olds, the figure was just 9%. Overall, trade union membership is just over half its peak of 13 million in the late 1970s.
Speaking to the BBC economics editor Kamal Ahmed, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady admitted the union movement had a “problem” in reaching young people, and said it needed to show under-30s unions were still relevant in an era when higher-educated young people have actually seen average earnings drop over the last 20 years.
“We’re creating a lost generation of younger workers. Too many young people are stuck in low-paid, insecure jobs, with little opportunity to get on in life,” she said, adding unions needed to “reach out to young workers in workplaces where there isn’t union”.
The BBC says the pay gap between younger and older workers has risen by more than half in the past 20 years. Young people, on average, are earning £2.81 less an hour than those over 30.
A YouGov poll accompanying the TUC report found one in five young people had worked on zero-hours contract in the last five years, while a similar percentage had skipped a meal to make ends meet.
The TUC “is using the anniversary to overhaul the way it recruits younger members, launching a pilot for a new app to offer young people advice about their rights and how to get ahead in work”, says The Guardian.
It will also quietly try to bring them into trade unionism, with the idea of offering users the chance to connect with other similar workers across industries.
On Monday the House of Commons tabled the following congratulations to the TUC on its anniversary.
”This House congratulates and celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the world's first TUC being founded on 2 June 1868 at the headquarters of the Manchester Mechanics Institute; commends the dedication of trades unionists across the UK who have collectively contributed to the success and legacy of the TUC furthering the economic, social and political interests of workers; and believes the anniversary is an opportunity to both celebrate the proud history of workers' struggles in the UK and those across the globe and to promote the values and benefits of trades unionism to a new generation of young workers.
Likewise a special ceremony to mark the 150th anniversary of the British TUC, the first national trade union centre established in the world, took place during the 18th meeting of the ITUC General Council at the TUC headquarters in London on 25 May.
The ceremony, chaired by ITUC Deputy President Maria Fernanda Carvalho Francisco and addressed by ILO Director General Guy Ryder and TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, also touched on highlights of trade union action around the world, and concluded with a panel discussion on democracy, rights and peace involving trade unionists from each region.
Panelists in the session moderated by ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow included Lee Cheuk Yan (Hong Kong CTU), Antonio Lisboa (CUT-Brazil), Nana Koomah Brown-Orleans (TUC Ghana, ITUC Youth Committee Chair) and Luca Visentini (ETUC).