How to recruit young workers to unions

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In this issue, I want to talk about how unions can organise and recruit young workers.

This is a major issue for the movement. Union membership amongst young workers is low, perilously low.

In the ACT, I’ve focused on engaging young workers with pro-union campaigns run by the Young Workers Centre that I launched last year.

Underpinning the approach I’ve taken is years of research by the movement and by UnionsACT about why young workers join unions, how they see work and workplace issues, and how their perceptions of their career impact this.

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. 

  • Precarious employment. 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).
  • Low awareness of unions even existing. Many young people are unaware that a union exists that would cover them. They may be told that there is “no union” for their industry, or their online search for help may turn up the Fair Work Ombudsman, legal aid or a law firm, but not their union. Increasingly, I am finding that young people have a low awareness of the concept of unions as institutions. And as a consequence, UnionsACT’s research suggests that most young people who have a question about their work rights will ask their parents or siblings first, and then try an online search or go to social media. (We need to encourage union members who are parents to be “proud union parents” to their kids.)
  • Messaging or communications from unions not being up to scratch. Young people have high expectations for membership and subscription 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. Similarly, subscription services like Netflix, and membership organisations like NRMA/RACV or gyms set a high standard of communications and marketing.
  • Membership offering is “not right”. Finally, more and more young people want customised membership choices and responses to their concerns and needs. Big service organisations like mobile phone companies, credit card companies, health insurance companies and media companies like Netflix 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, but struggle to effectively communicate with a younger demographic. 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 ineffective, filled with “grunge” fonts and out-of-date “youth-speak”.

Despite these challenges, most young people are positive towards the idea of unions, see the kinds of services we provide and activities we undertake to be valuable and positive. When asked what would improve their working lives, young people describe collective organisations of workers that share information, negotiate with the boss and provide help when something goes wrong — in other words, a union.

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 or school. 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.

This challenge is most obviously tackled through Trades and Labour Councils and their Young Workers Centres/Hubs.

For example, at UnionsACT, I’ve explicitly made the Young Workers Centre designed to give young workers a positive union experience. Young people are encouraged to join their union (and we of course don’t provide services that unions provide) and to take collective action to tackle issues common to young people — especially wage-theft and sexual harassment at work. Many of the young activists we’ve trained have gone on to be super-star union delegates or even organisers for unions.

For unions that cover those casual, precarious work, it’s time to get more creative. HospoVoice (run by the United Workers Union) is the most obvious example of this — but there are other possibilities.

In New Zealand a few years ago for example, unions experimented with community or tribal union membership for Maori members in forestry. 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-something 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. My staff at UnionsACT includes people in their early 20s, who confess that they’re “out of touch” with people in their teens.

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 Tiktok are changing how young people create and distribute content. People who are 16-24 years old have never lived without the Internet, contactless-payments, messaging apps and surveillance-capitalism.

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 – who won’t want to be victims.

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 — and almost 100% of under 25s in Australia (and most rich Western countries) own a smart phone. 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, and doing multichannel advertising is very expensive. 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 — especially on social media.

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, especially through social activities. (Read more about this here.)

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? What’re your values and your promise?

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 vintage slogans like “workers united will never be defeated”. Also, forget about your communications being one-way broadcasts. 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, or forum sites like Reddit.

Most young people are familiar with digital chat-bots and servicing through messaging apps, rather than face-to-face meetings to get advice and information. How unions provide industrial information, or organise workers will need to change. Some unions are already using webinars and investing in chat features for their websites. At UnionsACT, we’ve set up an AI-powered chat-bot on our Young Workers Centre website that can automatically answer simple questions about things like minimum wage.

More broadly than just messaging and communications, I think that unions will need to start creatively thinking about membership options, and how young people transition from job to job, industry to industry and therefore from union to union.

A major challenge for the movement is to facilitate “life-time” membership of the movement — where a young worker may join one union for their uni job, another union for their first career, and then a third union after mid-life. (Obviously, many workers have more than three jobs in their life.)

Also, how can the movement engage young people in the movement at the pre-joining stage. Once again, this is where Young Workers Centres/Hubs are so important.

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