Young Core Workers Set To Save UK Unions?

We are on the brink of the biggest shake up of the UK trade union scene in a generation. New work  lead by the TUC in collaboration  with the Good Innovation agency seems set to break through the  deeply entrenched disconnect between younger workers  and organisations  that  despite not enjoying  the  influence of years past,  still have over 6 million  paying members.

But the outlook is stark.  Overall trade union density is down to a quarter of the workforce. The numbers of employees whose terms and conditions are union-negotiated has fallen in parallel to around 30% across the economy as a whole. And in areas where employment is expected to rise – and which have a high number if young workers – density levels can be as low as 5%

The TUC term these people as “young core workers” – they are characterised by being aged 21–30, predominantly working, full- or part- time in the private sector,  they’re not in full-time education and earn  low to average wages. They are disproportionately represented in the hospitality, social care and customer services sectors.

The challenge, to a certain extent, is as it has always been:  Get the membership/engagement offer right for this group and you then have a proven tool that will be transformational.  What’s different this time is the power and energy behind the initiative.

Some very significant research has already taken place, involving a survey population from these target areas.  As a result   it  has been possible to identify  two key  dimensions  that  characterise  the employment experience of  these YCWs – how important do they regard  their job,  and are they more  preoccupied  by  the present or the future?

This leads to four generic worker types described in the table below:


These four types sit under some challenges that seem to be on the radar of all YCWs,  namely Realisation  (they don’t  perceive that  bad,  even illegal treatment at work  is  problematic, Trust (sharing  information or concerns  is  seen as a weakness to be seized upon  by  fellow workers) and Futility (the belief  that any attempt to  effect change will end in failure).

Conceptually, the next stage is to identify a successful series of engagement strategies.  We know already that this is possible – look at Unite’s Sports Direct campaign, or the GMB work in respect of Uber.  But the YCW strategy is an upscaling of these victories on a wider, larger, deeper scale. Something those driving the report – including a specially convened “President’s Group” of senior representatives from TUC affiliates – must recognise cannot be accomplished within the existing spheres of influence of individual trade unions.

The breadth of and foundation for of the YCW project is ground-breaking: This is more, much more than a “we can’t change anything but we’re going to try anyway” throw of the dice. The early response from young trade unionists is determined. But there is a necessity for habitually territorial unions to break out of the Balkanised industrial landscape created in the post war years.  What was once comfortable has been increasingly unfit for purpose for many years.

Of course, this won’t solve all our problems in one hit, but the exciting, tantalising, real prospect of this project is the formation of new collaborative, cross union structures to deliver success in what everyone in the movement knows is an existential challenge.

Shock! Gig Economy Is Not The Only Show In Town


The future workforce of Britain – where the jobs of the future are  going to be and what they are like – has been spotlighted by new research. And the findings will surprise you.

The Changing World of Work, by NIESR’s Jonny Runge (edited by Becky Wright), will be premiered at the Unions21 conference tomorrow.  In a landscape over-populated by talk of robotics, artificial intelligence and the use of technology, one universal truth is that certain industries will rise, and others will begin or continue their descent in the labour market.

This gives three inescapable questions:

  • Where will workers of the near future be?
  • How will they be represented at work?
  • What changes will we need to make in light of the future of work?

For trade unions, the questions are all the more pressing – existential really, given the low levels of union membership amongst the young and also amongst certain sectors pf the economy – retail, hospitality, and social care – especially when the predominant form of employment is precarious.

There are challenges to an “establishment” view that unions are technophobes and laggards when it comes to connecting with the so-called “Young Core Workers”. There is excellent work being done by the TUC and the Good Innovations outfit.  But a key point of the new research is that crucial as it is, we should not put all our eggs in the one Gig economy basket.

This is interesting and innovative territory, and it seems to me to be well-founded.  Runge and Wright have identified and tried to extrapolate  five key  influences on the labour market – demography (growing and ageing population will lead to increase demand/consumption in particular sectors), technology (automation of certain human-only occupations will take place,  but  the extent is arguable), productivity (and what is the post-crash stagnation  become entrenched in the short  to medium term), globalisation (certainly a factor,  but its impact now obscured by resurgent nationalism and protectionism), and changing contractual arrangements of certain services (from, yes,  worker-status contracts (as opposed to employee status), demands  for  a better work-life balance, and  the rise of the “collaborative economy”).

Clearly there is a degree of uncertainty about some of these influences, but using data from the estimable UKCES, Runge and Wright have identified three industries with expected high employment growth – the retail trade (surprised?) hospitality and management services.

Collectively, these three sectors will see employment growth by an estimated 900,000 jobs in the period to 2024, accounting for half of all the new jobs in the UK economy is this period.  There is a noticeable decline in self-employment, a growth in those in workers in these sectors with at least a first degree, and  no dramatic change in the balance between part-time and full-time working, or between percentages of men and women employed.

Three “ones to watch” are also suggested – Construction, Social Work and Information Technology, who between them are projected to add over 600,000 jobs between now and 2024.

The report concludes with a brief over view of UKCES employment projections for over 70 industries, with a preliminary view on the likely impact of Brexit.

From the perspective or worker representation and employee voice, this analysis – with its detailed demographic, hours-worked and occupational breakdown – is very helpful indeed.  The snapshots of the level of  union membership and collective bargaining  give grounds for cautions optimism  that there is a platform for trade union growth in each sector.

Runge and Wright give us the answer to the first of our three questions, and paint a vivid picture of the dynamics and challenges of union organising in these sectors.

Whether it is the overall constructive engagement with workforces that is part of the Taylor review, or practical questions of the extent to which unions focus on particular sectors, geographies and roles, the Changing World of Work is an important contribution.

The Changing World of Work can be downloaded here.

Full disclosure:  I am a board member of Unions21, on whose website this piece also appears

“I Don’t Remember, I Don’t Recall” – Dolls’ Houses and the Future of AI


Over the last two months we have assimilated artificial intelligence (AI) into our homes on an unprecedented scale. The Amazon Echo Dot (aka Alexa) seems to have smashed sales records. Whether we are Alexa’s customers, service-users, partners, hosts or even victims is up for debate. What is clear from many commentators is that it will take a little while to establish an enduring long-term relationship.

As the “rogue” mass-ordering of dolls’ houses by an Alexa conversation being broadcast on television shows, our understanding of the interaction between different types of technology is frail.

One strong message of the Amazon advertising campaign, albeit not explicitly stated, was that we no longer need to remember – Alexa (or any other sufficiently advanced AI) will do it for you.  From birthdays to take-aways to the order and mass of planets in the solar system. Just ask Alexa.

Convenient? Possibly. But by relying on Alexa, we also run the risk of relying on the algorithms or service contracts that connect with and drive the device. “Call me an Uber” instructs one character in the ad – No thanks, I prefer my cabs to be from an outfit that doesn’t treat its workers so badly.

But as well as no longer needing to remember stuff from the everyday to the academic or arcane, we also no longer need to remember how to find information out.

Just dwell on this a moment, remembering Alexa is viewed as a rudimentary even primitive AI device. With AI you do not need to remember how to learn.  You just ask. What is the impact of this concept on research, learning, and education?

Let’s twist the dystopian knife one more turn: AI will become more sophisticated for sure.  No doubt fridges will tell us – either verbally or by text message or both – when we need more milk. Ovens will warn us that the cake is baked.  But we will need to be in proximity to a suitably enabled, connected device – be it an ice- hockey-puck sized device you plug in, or a smartphone.

So inevitably attention will turn to making AI more adaptable, smaller as well as smarter. Google glasses will seem comic. As early as 2004, RFID tags were implanted into willing human hosts. It is surely not too fanciful to speculate that the capacity and sophistication of minute devices will lead us to a situation where you can opt to have Alexa’s great-great-great-great grandchild injected into your veins, linked to you thoughts for nonverbal communication.

The commercial dividends for whoever wins this race would be huge. Imagine the marketing opportunities – you can sell a range of models from basic to deluxe.  There would be endless varieties of upgrades. It would be the gift of choice for coming-of-age or other significant birthdays.

But, “the government of this near-future day will say, “Shouldn’t society as a whole share in these benefits?  Access to AI should not just be for the rich.  And the NHS and social care budgets can be rescued if we programme people to live healthier lifestyle. Yes, compulsory and universal RFID insertion at birth makes a lot of sense.

This may be too fanciful for some. And in some ways the story of such a Brave New World has already been told. But AI is on the move, as sure as a river flows to the sea. We need to be ready for the journey.

I don’t remember, I don’t recall. I got no memory of anything at all….”  Indeed.


This piece also appears in the Huffington Post




Signing Off, Signing In…..

“Bloody hell – you’ve been doing your job longer than I’ve been on the planet.”  That was the response from one of our young activists when I answered his question on my service record.

That made me think.  And then a schooldays friend of mine died. It happens, of course. And as you get older, chances are it happens more frequently.  But it made me reflect that I wanted to spend more time with those closest to me whilst I can.

So, after 27 years at the CWU, and 30 as a national trade union officer,  I will be moving on to other things in the new year.

The union is in a phase of great change – so I’ve taken an opportunity, seized the moment, made the leap (or possibly jumped out of an aeroplane with no parachute) to do something different, to write a new chapter, sing a new song (perhaps even learning to sing before trying this), and do my best to die (though not for many many years) with as few regrets as possible.

Am I quitting the struggle, giving up the fight, selling the jersey?  Not a chance:  Not whilst those “five giant evils” of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness are still enemies to be defeated.

It is a privilege to represent our members. To be trusted by them to negotiate on their behalf individually or collectively.  To be part of a great progressive movement for change.  I am still part of that movement. You can physically take me out of the union, but you can’t take the union out of my soul!

So to all my friends, colleagues, comrades and acquaintances, thanks for the company, counsel, your support, understanding, inspiration and friendship over the years. This chapter is now closing, but this is not me signing off – rather signing in for a whole load of new adventures.

Opportunity visits the prepared mind” someone once said to me – and I’m ready for any eventuality.

This Picture is Worth a Thousand Words


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)

This piece also appears on the website of CWUYouth. To Join the CWU, click here