Last year, there was an interesting story on Lateline about unions and young people, following the ACTU’s Congress. The story reported that union membership amongst young people was low, and that unions were looking at new ways to engage young people.
Communicating to and engaging with young people (which I’m defining as 16-24) is notoriously difficult — even for major multinationals with millions of dollars in marketing budgets. For unions, which are under regular attack from media figures and conservative politicians, it is as difficult for join young people up and engage them in campaign as for any organisation.
A key for effective communication is to understand your audience. Communicating with young people requires this in spades. There is no such thing as generic “young person”. Like other groups of potential members, young people are united by common interests, education, income, demographics, needs, geographies, occupations, goals, communities and ethnicities (amongst other things).
The difficulties of encouraging young people to join unions are obvious, but here are some. Young people are more likely to have precarious employment and many will be working in a job they do not foresee as a long-term career. Being casual means they have a smaller income to pay union dues. Young people are often very mobile, so can change jobs easily (if they can find work at all).
Many young people are unaware that a union exists that would cover them. Increasingly, young people have high expectations for organisations in terms of the quality of communication experience: in print, online and on television and radio — it should be engaging, interactive and relevant. Their expectations upon joining may be quite high: as everything speeds up, everyone, including young people, expect instant responses and solutions to problems. The prevalence of smart phones amongst young people means that they’re more and more expecting organisations to have mobile-ready websites and other communications creative, like videos or games.
Finally, more and more young people want customised responses to their concerns and needs. Big service organisations like mobile phone companies, credit card companies, health insurance companies and media companies have responded by fragmenting their offers and allowing a “pick and choose” approach. These companies aren’t doing this because they like choice, but because their customers are demanding and expecting them.
Unions, unlike behemoths like Coke or Nike, don’t have massive marketing budgets. These multi-nationals spend a small fortune on market research, in an elusive search for “cool”. The result is often awfully superficial, and distils young people down to stereotypes focused on consumption. Where they excel however is their creative execution. Their ads are better produced, their websites more engaging.
Most unions, I believe, understand many of the workplace concerns of young people. In most regards, the needs and desires of young people won’t differ much from their older colleagues. They want recognition and respect, and decent wages and conditions.
Unfortunately, unions are most often let down by their execution. Attempts to pitch at young people are often ham fisted, filled with “grunge” fonts and out-of-date “youth-speak”.
So, having outlined some of the challenges, here are five ideas for unions to use when trying to engage young people at work.
1. Link careers with unions
Most young people who have casual jobs don’t see it as a career, especially if the job in question is one they have while at university. Eventually however, they will embark on a career, and if they’re lucky, it will be one they are passionate about.
Unions should draw more clearly the link between a young worker’s interests and passions, and thus their future career, with the union. This can be difficult for unions covering those casual jobs — but for unions with coverage over those career jobs, engagement with your future members starts before they enter the workforce.
This is most obvious for young people pursuing professional jobs like teaching, nursing or engineering, but can apply for careers like the law, journalism, architecture or graphic design (or even accounting and marketing).
Having a campus outreach program, student membership (so you can give potential members a “trial” membership) and programs to strengthen the specific career is essential.
For unions that cover those casual, precarious work, it’s time to get more creative.
Perhaps investigate joint membership with those career, professional unions. When a teaching student at university gets student membership with the teacher’s union, could they have an associate membership with the union that covers their fast-food job? (This could be organised through a state or national peak body.) Could unions work with universities, colleges or schools, where the educational institution buys “bulk” membership for their students?
2. Don’t talk down to prospective members
Avoid thinking of the current generation like your own. As a thirty-year old, it’s been a while since I could be considered “young” (16-24), but even if it was only a few years ago that you were “young”, don’t think that the next generation thinks and acts like you.
The way that young people engage online or with television, or even with major corporate brands, is changing constantly. When I started university, Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist. Now things like Vine are changing how young people create and distribute content. People who are 16-24 years old have never lived without the Internet.
The bottom line here is that unions need to talk to young workers as equals. For a start, messages that emphasise how vulnerable young workers are, or how they are being exploited, can make young people feel devalued. Even thought it’s true that young workers are more likely to be ripped off or poorly treated, starting from that point is less likely to engage young people
Effective communications are often informal and personal, with engaging imagery. It is delivered across all key social sites, including through mobile and apps. It relies on peer-to-peer recommendation (the “like to like” tagline that many organisers are familiar with), and often uses testimonials from other young people talking positively about their experience.
3. Put out your messages on multiple channels
Young people consume media through multiple channels. The phenomenon of multi-screen consumption is well and truly entrenched.
Moreso than ever, when a young person engages with an issue, company or cause, they do so on their mobile, and their tablet, and their computer, and the television. It’s no longer enough to have your message just in print, or just online, or just on TV or radio (depending on your budget).
Your message will not only be more meaningful, but it will be more engaging if it can be consumed through multiple channels.
At the risk of sounding obvious, unions should communicate with young workers in places they are likely to be. Don’t just launch your website or Facebook page. You need to promote your message in a wide variety of places: at the cinema, on TV, on Spotify, Youtube, out-door, and in apps. In order to cut through the white-noise of modern marketing, you need to (unfortunately) increase your volume and your reach.
Unions are still playing catch up on this front. Most unions are still heavily invested in their print media: journals, posters, flyers. While some are broadening out to improving their websites, email and social media presence, substantial investment is needed still.
4. Use creative that aligns with young people’s lives
By the time they enter the workforce, most young people will have already formed tight social circles, whether through school, sport, music, church or other interests. While unions may not seem like it is their role to help workers “fit in”, it can be an important opportunity for organisers and delegates to engage with young workers. This means simple things like ensuring that delegates welcome young workers and help ensure they are included.
It also means that unions should use creative — that is, graphic design and text copy — that resonates with contemporary culture. I don’t mean that older people should write “cool” lingo. But union communicators and organisers should be aware of communication trends. This is a big challenge, but unions who want to engage with and join young people to the union need to invest more in creative graphic design and communication that is relevant and modern, and be able to adapt.
5. Don’t be stuck to the past
It can be difficult for unions to move quickly or respond to new challenges. Unions in most countries are highly regulated and have strict rules about membership, dues and the joining process. Similarly, as democratic organisations, unions often can only make big (but important) changes through democratic decision-making, such as annual or biannual council meetings or delegate conferences.
However, unions must take a fresh look at what their core message is (not just to young people, but overall). Focus and clarity are essential. What are unions all about? Why does the union exist?
If these simple things can’t be clearly expressed in a contemporary manner, then you will have trouble communicating to young workers.
The essence of all effective communication is focus. Unions must communicate a single thing clearly.
Be prepared to jettison the old ways of communicating — those “ten reasons to join” lists, and out-dated slogans about “workers united will never be defeated”. Also, forget about your communications being one way. The days of broadcast communications being effective are over. Even big brands who advertise on TV find that their ads are being talked about on social media like Twitter or Facebook.
More broadly than just messaging and communications, I think that unions will need to start creatively thinking about membership options and plans. Not just looking at price, but considering options where young people can join without the full “premium” service, or “online only” advice. How unions engage with young people will increasingly be online. Should unions look at 24-hour “chat” services to give advice instead of expecting face-to-face meetings with industrial officers or organisers? How can young workers engage in solidarity actions digitally? Unions need to come to terms with the notion that “full” engagement and commitment is a very high bar.