A picture is worth a thousand words? No – this one is worth far more. This is the CWU’s newly elected National Youth Committee. As most readers know, my day job is working for the Communications Workers’ Union, so I say this with feeling: No pressure ladies and gents, but the future of the union lies with you.
This is not hyperbole. The average age of a CWU branch secretary is 53-and-a-half. The average age of all CWU reps is 50. “Young” for us is 29 and under. They are the leadership of not just 18,000 of their fellow young members, but also the agents of change, the next generation, the key ingredient that will take us forward.
We represent people in posts, telecoms financial and business services sectors. And we are good at what we do. Our membership density in the larger employers we work with is touching or over 90%. For the private sector, with membership levels across the whole economy of around 16%, this is astonishing.
If you look at our core sectors, we surpass the national average across private and public employers of 26% trade union density – we represent around 30% of all telecoms workers and 50% of all postal and courier sector employees1.
And we recruit. 12,000 new members in a year – 5,500 of them young workers.
So the future is not only in good hands but looking secure – right?
CWU membership has fallen from a peak of nearly 300,000 in 1998 to just over 190,000 now. One employer, the GPO, has now become dozens. There are over 7 thousand telcos in the UK1. The sectors in which we organise are increasingly and intensely competitive. Theresa May may talk “one nation” politics but the party which she leads rammed through the ultra-hostile Trade Union Act – this is a government that can fairly be described as hating who we are and what we do.
And recruitment? It is a fantastic achievement to bring in so many new members each year. But we lose still more. And many new members are part-timers and those who leave are full timers. So money is tight. But incoming young members did exceed young leavers by nearly 3,000 last year.
So to hear a room full of young members (and those pictured necessarily exclude colleagues who just couldn’t make the meeting) talk about their experiences at work and of the union, about how and why they became more involved, about the personal struggles and bad management they already have had to deal with, about their abiding commitment to workplace respect and democracy, decent jobs, wanting to make change happen at work and in society, is just the best thing.
And of course they are not alone. Despite everything, there are still 6 million trade unionists in the UK, the country’s largest social movement by far. And the “union premium” is shown in higher pay and better conditions.
The media attitude to Trade Unions is downright contradictory: derided as irrelevant, unnecessary and marginalised generally, but purveyors of destructive power when we are driven to take strike action. That’s the narrative perpetuated in spite of days lost to industrial action being historically low, the likes of Sports Direct and Philip Green, Citylink and Hermes showing why capitalism can’t be trusted, and trade union campaigns on working time, health and safety, equality and employment protection being adopted and accepted as the norm.
One thing is for sure: If unions didn’t exist, we would miss them in all sorts of ways we don’t even realise.
And one more thing for sure is that these young reps show we have a bright, hopeful future.
1 “Mapping the Future” (CWU, 2010 and 2015)