You don’t get me I’m part of the Facebook?

I don’t like generalisations about generations. But one thing about young people at work today is a fact. They are not joining trade unions.

The latest available figures suggest that less than 10% of trade union members are aged between 16-24.

Why is this? The truth is we really don’t know. There is of course high unemployment within this age group. Some of them are still studying. But as far as I can ascertain, no one has really researched the question. One union did look a few years ago at why younger workers weren’t engaging with lay or formal roles within unions, but this is just researching the views of those who are already within the organisation.

Trade Union membership has been on a downward trend since the 1980s. Around 6.5m members in the UK today, down from the heady days of 13m in the late 1970s. The reasons for this decline are complex and interconnected. There are the obvious factors; the decline in the traditional industries in which trade unions flourished like coal, steel, manufacturing. There is the impact of legislation that has reduced trade union power. Even us HR people have a role to play. Hard to imagine now that 30 years ago there were many organisations in which you would never speak to your employee directly. You would never conceive of such a thing as Internal Communications. You talked to a union. And they talked to the workers. Now we have this fancy thing called Human Resource Management instead.

Back to young people for a moment. If you are a teenager today, entering the workforce, what is in it for you to join a trade union? If you join a business where there isn’t a union, if it’s not part of your family history, if you don’t feel you need any protection, your company isn’t doing collective bargaining, and crucially a trade union is not reaching out to you and making a case for membership, then exactly what is going to encourage you to pay your dues? In your eyes? I actually explained the concept of a trade union to a young teenager recently. He had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. He just didn’t get it.

Jon Bartlett published an interesting blog post recently. He was reflecting on an article that suggested social media networks are the trade unions of the future. Well it is true your network can help you find a voice. It can help you find like-minded people. It can help you find support when you need it. The network of both contacts and friends that I have through social media has been invaluable to me. But it ain’t going to pitch up and sit beside you during a grievance hearing. Nor is it going to fight for your rights, if you need it.
36% of trade union members are now over 50. So add these trends together and it makes a difficult picture for the future of unions, unless they begin to act – fast.

I have been involved in programmes about the future of work. There are many interesting reports written about it, notably the recent report from UKCES. But here’s the thing. There is plenty written about the future of work. Globalisation, technology, flexibility…. But trade unions feature nowhere in this debate right now.

Is the age of collectivism passing? And could it be that somehow, social media is its replacement?

As much as I am an advocate of all things social, I’m not convinced. And I am not sure I want it to be, either.

11 thoughts on “You don’t get me I’m part of the Facebook?

  1. It’s interesting for sure.

    On crossing a picket line I was asked the question – do you want to join the Union? My response was a polite no. What I was actually thinking though was – because I know how to use my voice.

    I wonder if unions have a part to play in modern organisations at all anymore?

    It’s not because of social media that I’m suddenly feeling more empowered, but I certainly do think that we are given a lot of information about how to communicate and raise our voice if need be.

    Take the whole Occupy London movement thing. A group of people coming together because of a common belief that change needed to be instigated. This is what the unions of tomorrow will look like.

    In organisations we have many a failsafe to mitigate against unfair treatment of the workforce.

    • I think the author who inspired Jon’s post was making similar points about the ability for social media to organise in the moment, and the ability to get messages out. Hence is a TU needed?
      We certainly have a much stronger statutory floor of rights these days than we ever have in the past. The days when being in union was essential to ensure even the most basic of rights is fortunately long gone, as these things are now enshrined in law – interesting, some, like the NMW, as a result of years of union campaigning.
      Whatever your politics or views on unions generally, it is clear that, like every other organisation everywhere, they need to face up to the changing world of work and adapt accordingly. They need to understand where they fit, now and tomorrow.

  2. I was speaking to someone recently who told me the unions in Germany are very successful and are seen as a key part of the organisation. No doubt there are many factors that have influenced Germany getting through the recession relatively unscathed but I wonder what could be learnt from how they do things there.

  3. Unions are changing too, not just workplaces. Perhaps they need to take to SoMe a bit more to sell themselves? Those that do will survive and be relevant, those that don’t will go the way of Kodak and their ilk. But God help us if we ever get mediation via crowdsourcing on Facebook.

  4. Great blog Gem as always. The trade union debate is one that interests me given my old IR background. I’m of the belief that constructive balance inside organisations is a good thing in the main – I’ve been in industries where they don’t exist and it’s cut-throat and toxic to the extreme and in others where they are highly unionised and the conformity it has created is stifling the organisations’ growth but I guess it breaks down to calibre of people, motivations and vision. I think we need a new construct that provides for balance especially in uncertain times (I don’t think social media is the answer to this) as some employers will still want to do short term toxic things for the sake of stakeholder needs. Sometimes there is a ying required to a corporate yang. Change isn’t possible at this level for the foreseeable future given the opposition – trade unipon link and that worries me as someone who wants to see constructive and positive working environments.

  5. Ok, so it is nearly 2300 and I am three pints to the good and aren’t we missing something here? Hasn’t the role of HR changed exponentially since the days of 13M people being members of a union.

    As is mentioned in the wonderful post (well done Gem :-)) and in the comments, the days of only speaking to employees through the union are long gone. Also, if an organisation was to do something ‘cut throat and toxic’ then HR have a huge role to play in making sure this either a) doesn’t happen or b) is done in a way that is fair.

    Am I being naive?

    I’m with Sukh, people have a voice and there are many ways of using that voice which may or may not involve Social Media. Is social media the replacement to trade unions? Not in my opinion. Is there still a place for trade unions, I really don’t think so.

    When I was heading up HR I cared deeply what people thought and felt about working in my organisation. I didn’t need a union to talk to them and I used social media as a way of gauging opinion. Does one replace another, again no, at least not for me.

    If there is anything that I think will replace unions, it’s HR actively doing its bit to enable the business to be successful and caring about, supporting and looking after the people that work there at the same time.

    • I actually don’t want to see the demise of the trade union movement, which might seem an odd stance for a HR person. Whilst there are many of us in HR striving to do good people stuff, there are still very bad employers out there, and employees being exploited. Whilst many of the old battles have been fought, some won, some lost, there is still need to protect vulnerable workers. Agree with the old statement – you get the employee relations you deserve. If HR and management are aligned in doing the right things, or even doing difficult things properly and with empathy, then I agree that employees may feel less need to join an external organisation.

    • Agreed. Some unions are good at this, and some not. It’s important for unions to meet potential members where they are at – and for the younger generation that means different places, including virtual ones, then they did before. Some unions have picked up on this, some not. One of the unions I have worked with in the past (not that long ago) was still figuring out how to email their members. This is not going to be good enough if a union wants to remain relevant once the current membership heads for retirement.

  6. Very thought provoking blog and comments. I am no subject matter expert so my responses are largely intuitive reaction. Unions like any long established institution were created in different times and need to reform, modernise, change. I think however we are a long way from an enlightened workplace where corporate greed and political posturing are a thing of the past.

    Yes, I have a voice, but I can think of at least one occasion in the past where I wished I had joined the union just not to feel so alone, and as Gemma says “But it (some) ain’t going to pitch up and sit beside you during a grievance hearing. Nor is it going to fight for your rights, if you need it” .and HR can be complicit, albeit unwillingly perhaps, in reinforcing unethical practices.

    Really thought provoking point too from Helen about German unions. Having done some work in Germany, my experience was that there is quite a lot of internal bureacracy as a result of the unions, however the workforce was both more compliant and more influential. Possibly a sweeping generalisation based on one organisation but fascinating to think about this in relation to the economy.

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