Can membership declines be halted?

By Richard Stuart-Turner, Monday 11 June 2018

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Figures from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) provided to the BBC earlier this month revealed that trade union membership levels have dropped sharply in recent times, particularly among young people.


The stats showed that the number of people under the age of 30 who are members of a union has dropped from 20.1% in 2001 to 15.7% in 2017.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, says the union movement has “a problem” in reaching young people, many of whom are not contacting the unions for support despite feeling stuck and in low-paid, insecure employment.

The Graphical, Paper, Media and Information, Technology & Communications (GPMITC) division of union Unite – which looks after print among other sectors – says it now represents around 50,000 workers – a figure that GPMITC national officer Louisa Bull estimates has halved in the past decade.

This drop is not exclusive to print. The TUC says only 23.2% of employees of all ages – or 6.9 million workers – are members of a union, compared to a peak of over 13 million in the late 1970s.

But Unite stresses that unions are as important as ever, and that various factors have contributed to the membership decline, particularly among young people.

“I think it’s essential that we’re still here and still relevant but it is true that young people don’t join unions in general due to agency labour and precarious work,” says Bull.

“They are not there for long enough to commit to a [membership] cost that they find hard to pay. We have a low-paid work rate but it’s still an outgoing and a lot of jobs are temporary or fixed-term contracts that the workforce sees as transient. They don’t see them as long-term, so they don’t see a reason to connect to a trade union.”

She adds that Unite also has difficulty in getting its message across to young people in the first place.

“If you’re in a workplace that is not a recognised union house, the law doesn’t allow for the union to go in and talk to the workers about the merits of it, so we can’t access those workers.

“If we had the right to approach and talk to them, I’m sure there would be many that would see the merits in joining.”

Outside the norm

Tony Burke, assistant general secretary at Unite, says joining a union used to be “a natural thing”.

“When I first came into the printing industry it was a unionised shop. And all of my relatives, who largely worked in engineering, were union members – it was normal.

“But now there is a lack of knowledge about what trade unions do. They are highly relevant today because there is mass exploitation of young people, precarious employment, zero hours and unending agency work.”

BPIF chief executive Charles Jarrold says structural change has played a major role in declining union membership in the print industry.

“We had a number of very large employers and there was a collective bargaining environment within those employers. If not technically closed shops, those businesses were quite close to it, so there was a strong expectation that anyone joining those organisations in production-oriented roles would join the union and be part of those collective bargaining agreements.

“But there are now fewer of those large companies which automatically means that collective bargaining within the private sector, particularly within our industry, is pretty much a thing of the past.”

He adds: “There are a lot more smaller organisations now and in those the links between the senior management business owners and employees are typically shorter and closer so there is less need for a collective bargaining union representation angle.”

Wage wrangles

A few years ago, in the recession, the BPIF ended the 2005-launched Partnership at Work (PAW) agreement. Though this set standards for training for BPIF members, it was the demand for an industry minimum wage that proved its undoing.

Jarrold says that while the agreement “had some good things in it around commitment to training, it had run its course”.

“The older, larger companies were feeling bound by it and felt that it constrained them in areas that some of their competitors weren’t constrained.

“It had reached a point where it needed to go because it was impossible to say that everyone should pay an increase of ‘x’, because every company’s situation was different.”

While Unite’s Bull would like to see an agreement like PAW still in place now, she says quite a lot of firms have stuck by the guidelines.

Teaming up

Today the BPIF and Unite work together in various ways, including on the Trailblazer initiative, which looks to improve the quality of apprenticeships and give employers more of a say in how they are run.

While this is one example of how Unite continues to serve young people in print, Bull stresses there are many more.

“We also access young people through The Printing Charity, promoting the Print Futures Awards, and we work with a company called BookMachine in the publishing sector.”

As well as these initiatives, Burke says education about what the unions do will help to attract more young people to join.

“We’ve got to be able to look at what their aspirations are and we’ve got to demonstrate that, in areas where young people are exploited, we can make a difference to them.”

He’s confident that reaching young people increasingly through the mediums they are most familiar with will have a positive impact.

“We have a very big website, which Unite is looking to consolidate, we have a big following on social media and we have a daily live blog, UniteLive.

“We’re looking at reviewing our whole digital presence and realising that we’re going to have to reach out to people through their phones and iPads. We are doing that, and it is happening.” 

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