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.

#HeartUnions is here – but we need more support!


The role of membership data as a crucial asset in unions’ comms and campaigning work is being increasingly understood.  There has always been an obligation, borne of legislation/litigation and common sense, to know who we are talking to and what their membership status is. But the ability to look in more detail at the interaction we have with our members has the potential for us to improve the quality that relationship exponentially.

For example, knowing the email addresses of members who access union on-line services (including websites) enables us to cross-reference that with demographic data to see how effective we are being at reaching certain groups.  This can be fine-tuned in a number of ways:  we could focus on reps rather than members in general.  We could drill down to a granular level to see how much time has been spent on which page of the site.  We can track usage to see when people visit, and what their navigational pathway is.

This means we can tailor and improve our communications   both to and from our members. That’s valuable and important but of course it is limited by the data we hold on website visitors. And the biggest constraint on that is that the fullest – and therefore most valuable – datasets will only be for members.

I readily recognise that there is an arguable point of principle here: We should only be concerned with members because it is their subs that fund what we do.  And by joining, they have signed up for a club (see my piece last week on branding) in a way that non-members or “outsiders” have not.

But with union membership  stubbornly stuck  at  around 6m, and  showing no signs of rapidly expanding,  and with coverage of collective agreements and density  at  depressed levels,  I would argue that  we should, indeed must,  use every opportunity  to  extend our reach  into the workforce.  Once we connect with people, as I have described above, all sorts of other things can become possible. But we have to establish a communication channel to do that.

This is where models of organising and membership come into play.  If we look at many pressure groups, such as Greenpeace, we see that structures that are orientated towards supporters rather than, or in addition to, members.  This two tiered  offering  sees  people  pay a lower  level  of subscriptions –  or possibly  no subscriptions at all –  to sign up.  Their access is restricted in comparison to full-rate members, but that is ok, because their expectation from us is much more basic. This arrangement certainly has lower barriers to entry – but also reduced powers of retention.

Members matter but supporters can play a crucial role too

What would the relationship be with supporters as opposed to members? Here’s my “starter for ten”: Basic generic employment law advice. Local contacts. Campaign material. Information on how to get involved. Calls to Action.  But something that is supporter-specific, an event of some description would be good.  This could be allied to a wider political goal such as the recent “JC4PM” tour, or an appeal to turn out for a local or national demo.

There will be endless permutations of possible and actual support-offerings, but the bottom line is surely this:  we need to reach out to and engage with people for whom a full-blown membership package will not be attractive. We simply cannot afford not to.

Many unions are already engaged in this task.  Forms of organising from Unite’s Community section to the IWGB are actively pursuing new forms of engagement. The NUS explicitly offers a two tier service with their “NUS Extra” programme.  Multi-party campaigns, consisting of unions and other friendly groups,  such as HealthCampaignsTogether and, have a particular focus on a supporter model of engagement, but here there is a specific set of policy objectives as opposed to explicitly promoting trade unions.

In all of this, I believe signposting and co-ordination is key.  There is little value in each TUC affiliate providing generic employment advice.  Partly because that would be duplication and partly because if we ae engaged in a battle for the future of the movement, we need a strong central coordinating body  like the TUC, as the default provider of  such  advice and bespoke centre-of- excellence.

The collection and use of data can give unions individually a key advantage in optimising communications and campaigning.  But it is in the collective space that there is even more to gain by bringing fundamental messages about trade unions to the wider population in a coordinated fashion.

As we enter #HeartUnions week, it is worth remembering that we have no divine right to be the voice of working people. But by aligning   membership strategies with developing an offering for supporters, we give ourselves a hugely enhanced future.

How we can use digital information is an ongoing area of investigation for Unions 21. You can catch up on all their work as well as hear some top level speakers on the key issues we face at the 2017 Unions 21 conference on 21 March. Details, including how to register are here.

This post also appears on the Unions21 website

Why May Must Say Yes to Worker Directors

Industrial democracy has made a welcome return to the political front line. With positive news for workers and the economy in general hard to come by, this could be a glimmer of good news in a fairly bleak winter.

I’m talking of course about the idea of Worker Directors. Theresa May has been tying herself in knots on this – showing rather less poise than Ed on Strictly – having first pinched the idea from Ed Miliband, going big on it on her  way to Downing Street, pulled the plug on it in front of the CBI and finally rekindled interest in response to a question from Gloria del Piero at the fag-end of last week’s PMQs on Wednesday.

But the idea of worker directors is not new – the modern era opened with the Bullock Report into industrial democracy in 1977. As debates at the time illustrate, then, as now, this was seen as something of a magic bullet for solving deficiencies in employee engagement and boardroom arrogance.

Bullock directly lead to six worker directors being appointed to the board of the then-state run forerunner to BT.  The experiment ran from 1978 to 1980, all concerned felt it was successful, but it was allowed to lapse by the in-coming Thatcher government who perhaps already had privatisation in mind.

The value of the worker director concept works on two levels. On the plus side, they have important symbolism. A witness in the boardroom. A civilizing influence to curb corporate excess. An advocate of realism to speak truth unto power.

But a more inclusive approach can also lead to real change, especially as part of a wider democratization of workplaces. The TUC’s 2014 report on workplace democracy set out clearly and convincingly how and why more inclusive employers would also be more effective and efficient.

Both the symbolism and practical effects of Worker Directors speak to issues regarded by employees and workers as being important. UKCES survey work paints a picture of  “a climate of fear [as] employees face greater stress and job insecurity while working harder.”

But nor should the potential of worker directors be over-stated : They can only ever be one part of effective employee relations. And they can actually be very damaging to industry if mistakenly seen as a panacea.

You can immediately see the limitations: What are the terms of reference? What is off-limits? What information has to be disclosed – and when? Is there enough time and detail to form the basis for a proper discussion?  The fundamental constraint is that worker directors are always, always “playing away” – the agenda is set, predetermined. They cannot on their own bridge the gap between boardroom and shop floor. They do not replace effective communications within a company and they are too restricted in number and scope to be a truly effective tool for employee engagement.

And the very real risk is that this then becomes a tick-box exercise. “We’ve got a worker on the board, what more do we need to do?” The answer is likely to be “nothing”.

So worker directors need to sit alongside effective collective bargaining arrangements. They can certainly add value and encourage dialogue at a strategic level.  But we need to be aware of the capacity for worker director arrangements to act as black holes – sucking everything in, generating no light or understanding, leaving nothing outside.

Quite apart from the PM’s acrobatics, the high level of interest in the latest Government consultation on corporate governance shows it remains a live issue. But  if employers try to  weaken  consultative strictures in favour  of more limited and regulated dialogue  with worker directors,  they should not be surprised to find poorer  outcomes as a result.

And we may not even get as far as this debate on practicalities. As the TUC’s  Janet Williamson  observes,  “appointing a non-executive director to speak on behalf of the workforce or setting up a stakeholder advisory body are not the same as putting workers on company boards. Don’t think that working people won’t notice the difference.”

In this era of post-truth left-behind politics, worker directors would seem to be a straightforward win-win issue. The PM has a choice to make here; I hope she makes the right one.

A New Populism? Talk Like You Mean It

There have been growing calls for a new populism – but we have one already. Unfortunately it has delivered first Brexit and now Trump. It is clearly just not the sort of populism we like.

It doesn’t take 20/20 hindsight to see how this has happened. If you simultaneously create a thirst for material things whilst dissolving the mortar in the walls of society, it is not surprising   that there is profound change and instability.  The desire to own and the push to sell Council and social housing is an example.

Then technology makes the thirst become unquenchable – those material goods become ever more alluring, desirable, essential, cheaper.   This is not a new process.  In 1987 the British  labour movement had already  grasped  what was happening – ‘What do you say to a docker who earns £243 a week, owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella? You do not say, let me take you out of your misery, brother.’  said trade union leader Ron Todd.

But although the risk  was  recognised,  the trend  continued and was in many ways accelerated until we end up  with inevitable  dissatisfaction (because  you can never have too much “stuff”) ,  and hyper-individualisation,  with the most important  relationship  being  that  which each individual has with the internet.

The alienation that comes from this dissatisfaction and absence of community, or is borne of straight-forward unfairness in society, pushed many to vote against “the establishment”. A prevailing view is that it was the “left behinds”  that  account for both the shock election results of the year.

What supreme and incontrovertible irony. The Brexit and Trump victories reinforce the factors and structures that widened social inequality and depressed social  mobility.  There will be no “catching up”

So what is to be done? You might say it is too late already. From Black Lives Matter to racist, fascist, murders,  have we passed the  point of no return? Are old notions of community, collectivism and progressive populism  are dead.  If that is not true, it certainly feels that we are teetering on the brink.

Despite some common features, the US and UK are very different political theatres. For us here I think the solution has to be some truly bold political thinking to seize both initiative and imagination.

In policy terms, we are surely going to need to go to where people are rather than where we would want them to be. The people have spoken on Brexit and it would be wrong to ignore that.  So we come up with a progressive Brexit programme that acknowledges the referendum result as paramount,  but  engages the public in  the necessary  discussions about, for example,  public service resourcing  in post-EU UK.

We need to rethink organisation and engagement too. Progressive collectivist and populist ideas are simply not reaching many, especially  young  people.  The excellent TUC report on young core workers shows how things have changed and why this demographic has little option but a “living for the weekend” lifestyle.

We also recognise that people feel policy is made too far away from where they are, so we must  look to an expanded programme of devolution accompanied by electoral reform.

Jonathan Pie says it best in his latest contribution:  We can make these changes and pull ourselves back from the brink.  But it will take sustained self-discipline, stamina and determination. The starting point is to understand just how difficult it will be.

Dads and Childcare – A trade union issue

Cost and Access issues make a childcare crisis for Dads which hurts us all

The All Party Parliamentary  Group on Fatherhood ( ) relaunches today with strong support  from Working With Men ( So  it is a good time to  reconsider the role of dads in childcare.

This is undoubtedly a trade union issue: Many  unions’ rulebooks contain an explicit commitment to challenging and eradicating discrimination. Union involvement can and does achieve better-than-statutory  provision.  And also because of the impact on women of uneven access to and take up of childcare by men. And finally because the statutory  framework  for childcare doesn’t address  problems of  affordability and eligibility.

However, we always need to remember that parenthood does not solely consist of a two parent heterosexual situation, and acknowledge that men need to be careful not to be seen as “muscling in”  on  an area of predominantly  female influence in a world where male chauvinism is still widely prevalent.

But hang on, you might say: Is there really much more to negotiate?

Because there has been significant improvement in statutory provision: 52  weeks Maternity leave, 2 weeks  paid Paternity Leave, 39 weeks Statutory Maternity Pay, 52 weeks Parental Leave, Shared Parental Leave and Pay since 2015, and expanded Unpaid Parental Leave. (  This is in addition to the Gender Equality Duty to make all parents the best parents they can be ( )

We see that 53% of working fathers drop their kids off at school and amongst younger parents,  more  men  do this than women (68%  young (18-35) fathers to 61% young mothers ).  There has been a 10 fold increase in fathers regularly looking after their children in last 10 years. (

Moreover, 52.2% employers offer in excess of the statutory requirement and there is a clear Union premium as 66% of negotiated Paternity Leave agreements were in excess of statutory levels in 2009.  That rose to 76% in 2014

Clearly trade union input has had a beneficial result. And men feature prominently in childcare campaigns, such as the CWU’s recent, efforts to keep open a workplace nursery ( ).  But before we get carried away, there is still plenty to do.

For example :

Shared Parental Leave & Pay since 2015 has had low take up: 40% of working fathers with a child under 1 are ineligible. And the TUC want 6, not 2 weeks, paid Paternity Leave. Fathers’ requests  for flexible working are more likely than mothers’ to be turned down. UK Statutory Paternity  Pay is 25% of full time male median  wage and 50% of fathers do not take their 2 weeks –  rising to 75% for those on lower income. ( )

The Gender Equality Duty has a very low take up and 36% of fathers fake sickness to meet family commitments.  44% lied to employer to meet family commitments and despite that 10 fold increase in fathers regularly looking after their children in last 10 years, still only 10% full-time carers are men and 85% of couples have the father as higher wage earner. ( )

Although 52.2% employers offer in excess of the statutory requirements, this is skewed to public sector and larger employers. Less than 20% of employers received a request for Additional Paternity Leave and those who use it are more in the public than private sector (although the private  sector is more likely to have an enhanced provision – Paternity pay and leave: XpertHR survey 2014 (


So current provision falls a long way short of good benchmarks – like, for example,  Denmark: there parents have the right to a total of 52 weeks leave with maternity subsistence allowance. The mother is entitled to four weeks’ maternity leave prior to giving birth and 14 weeks after; the father is entitled to two weeks’ leave after the birth; and remaining time can be divided according to individual wishes. Public sector employees receive full salary during maternity leave and private sector employees are entitled to a minimum level of maternity benefit, which is subject to negotiation with the employer. Parents who are not entitled to paid maternity leave from their workplace can receive maternity maintenance from their municipal office in their place of residence. ( )

This isn’t about who changes the dirty nappies. No-one likes doing that.  It is a question of what we are going to about this fundamentally unfair and dysfunctional situation. The TUC, RCM and CWU collaborated in organising  a successful fringe event  at Congress this year ( ). We work closely  with  academics and  other campaigners.  NUT do some excellent work on gender stereotyping ( ).  These things already feature on our bargaining agenda – but we must make the links across unions and  sectors. The new WorkCareShare initiative ( )  is a significant step towards this.

The ability of fathers to engage in childcare is inseparable from the ability of mothers to exercise proper choices – and neither should determined ‎by luck or chance. But it is also a contribution and catalyst to further changes in society on greater gender equality across the caring spectrum,  and the mainstreaming of good, shared, childcare arrangements as a critical factor for industrial and economic success.