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Young people want trade unions – they just don’t know it

The values the trade union movement stands for speak to young people, labour market researchers say. But if young people are to discover this and sign up in larger numbers, it will require leg work and good offers. Corona and sustainability can maybe support the efforts.

8. Dec 2021
8 min

Chocolate, juice, thermos cups, free membership and insurance discounts. The young potential members are treated like royalty when the trade unions’ recruitment teams show up at educational institutions to provide brief and engaging information on the benefits of being organised.

It is a necessary combination of charm offensive and information campaign, because the degree of organisation of unemployed and employed workers has fallen from 73 per cent in 2000 just under 65 per cent in 2018, as shown by an analysis by the Employment Relations Research Centre (FAOS) in February this year. For decades, fewer and fewer young people have been joining trade unions.

The trade union movement shares the challenge of attracting and, in particular, retaining young people, but it is certainly not because 16 to 29-year-olds do not want the community, says Laust Høgedahl. He is a labour market researcher at Aalborg University and has been particularly interested young people’s association – or lack thereof – with trade unions.
“It is completely a myth that young people are selfish and uninterested in community. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that this has been the case at any time. On the contrary, their commitment to volunteering shows that they really want community and solidarity.”

Receptive young people

Chief Analyst at Danske Bank, Tommy Rosenlind, also experiences this. He has many years of practical experience as an area union representative making contact with recently employed potential members:
“My experience is that in recent years young people have become more receptive again to the classic values of trade unions. I believe this has to do with the focus on sustainability and the solidarity and strength that comes from doing things together – both in terms of recycling and professional associations.”

Tommy Rosenlind has good experiences with recruiting young people, and he is very knowledgeable about how to do this.

“Young people often do not know the history of the trade union movement and don’t know the role it has played in the construction and preservation of our great welfare society. When I talk about it briefly, I encounter receptiveness and interest”, says the area union representative, who, as the son of craftspeople, grew up with trade union being something entirely basic and natural.

“When I became a banking student myself many years ago, I got a contract and had to sign up to become a member of the trade union. It’s not as natural for everyone anymore, but I’ve never been afraid to sell the membership to new employees. We have a lot to offer.”

A lot to offer

Tommy Rosenlind gets an unconditional endorsement from labour market researcher Christian Lyhne Ibsen with the Employment Relations Research Centre that the trade unions have a lot to offer.

“What they offer is world-class, and employment conditions in Denmark are the best in the world. It needs to be made clear to young workers that this didn’t happen on its own and that employers would not have offered these terms if not for negotiations with the trade unions. A lot of young people don’t know that.”

At the same time, many young people join one of the “yellow trade unions”, which typically do not enter into collective agreements and do not have elected representatives.

“This is probably often because young people do not distinguish between the different trade unions and don’t know that benefits and rights in the labour market are secured by the traditional trade unions. Therefore, they choose the cheapest option. Although, of course, ideology and political affiliation can also be behind it”, says the labour market researcher.

No sense of belonging

Another partial explanation could be that young people face an entirely different labour market than previous generations and are looking at an average of 30 different jobs during their working life. Therefore, they don’t see themselves as linked to a specific workplace or profession in the same way, and thus do not have the same professional identity or clear picture of which trade union they belong to.

On the other hand, American research, which labour market researcher Laust Høgedahl attests can be transferred to a Danish context, shows that an early affiliation with a trade union often results in a lasting connection.

“Therefore, educational institutions are an obvious place for some unions to make contact with young people – as Finansforbundet and others often do. Not all trade unions have the same clear opportunities, because they don’t always have connections to specific educational programmes in the same way.”

Newly employed young people are often very receptive to proposals for membership, he says:

“When young people are asked if they want to join a trade union – especially if they are asked by someone they have a sense of belonging with, such as their colleague or union representative – they often want to. The reason why young people are not organised to a greater degree is primarily that they are not contacted as often as other parts of the labour market, in part because they often change jobs.”

Special offers

One of the things that can get young people to join is special benefits. For example, this could be discounted insurance offered by Finansforbundet. As Christian Lyhne Ibsen notes, such discounts have financial meaning for those who the trade union cannot reach with other arguments, and Laust Høgedahl says:

“Insurance is one thing that gets young people to bite – it’s something they can understand, while trade unions per se and the value of being part of one are somewhat less clear.”

Laust Høgedahl believes that trade unions have work to do in the form of more clearly conveying their own history and value. Christian Lyhne Ibsen fully agrees with this, because although trade unions have gotten good at bringing young people into the fold with free or cheap membership, it’s hard to retain them when they have to start paying.

“At least some of the old logic for being in a trade union doesn’t work the same way for young people. What would be their rationale for joining when they don’t see themselves ending up in a classic job covered by a collective agreement? It requires a huge communication effort on what trade unions do for society, what a collective agreement is and why it is important.”

Otherwise, it’s too easy to conclude that it’s probably not necessary to join a trade union:

“There are some opposing trends over time, but over the past 40 years, more and more workers have found that they can go it alone. At the same time, you can certainly get a free ride, you can get the benefits and be covered by collective agreements without having to pay for a membership.”

New opportunities

But young people are actually willing to pay for membership when they start getting a salary, Laust Høgedahl’s research shows:

“The trade union movement collectively has a problem that when young people are studying or between educational programmes, they are not as interested in spending money on a trade union. But they are absolutely willing to pay when they get advice if they are already on board.”
It requires effort from the trade union to get the feeling of being on board to show up. For example, it could be the experience of getting good assistance when they make contact. If the trade union fails in such a situation, the young member is lost, Christian Lyhne Ibsen notes:
“Trade unions must be really sharp when young people contact them to get help the first time, otherwise they are out of the shop again. So it’s necessary to really follow up with them and continuously ask them what their experience is, whether they are satisfied – and if not, what they are missing. They are not devout.”

Laust Høgedahl believes that an effort across trade unions, such as in the form of a common digital access portal with content aimed at young people, could be more appealing:

“I know it would be untraditional, but broader cooperation could be the way to get more young members.”

Another possibility could be working to give more space to young people:

“For example, trade unions could give young people the opportunity to participate more actively in projects and cases, use the energy they also use for volunteer work. They generally want to do something good and be engaged, but without having to commit too much, and without first having to go through a major democratic process typical of trade union behaviour.”

A new necessity

Although more and more young workers are outside a trade union, there are also trends that can take the development in the opposite direction. These include corona, which took the normality out of everyday life, and the strong sustainability agenda. How and whether this will affect participation in trade unions is uncertain, says Christian Lyhne Ibsen, but it could maybe have a positive effect on the degree of organisation:

“It was the feeling of being vulnerable and exploited that initially led the working class towards solidarity. If the current crises – such as the climate crisis, corona and the trend towards a greater degree of inequality – create a fundamental uncertainty with many people, the trade unions might have the opportunity to deliver collective responses to the challenges – and experience new growth.”


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