Georgia Elander explains why it’s important for young workers to join trade unions, and discusses Young Greens’ new Get Organised! campaign, which had its first national week of action last week.

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The launch of Young Green’s Get Organised! campaign, at Green Party Conference Autumn 2014 in Birmingham. (Photo credit: William Pinkney-Baird)

It was announced last week that almost a third of young people aged 16-24 are in poverty – driven in part by high housing costs and a low minimum wage. Zero-hour contracts are more prevalent than ever, as are unpaid internships – and the government’s answer is to force young people into workfare. 2014 is not a good time to be young.

Both students and young workers are growing tired of bearing the brunt of austerity politics. Two weeks ago, thousands of students marched in London to protest against high tuition fees, student debt and education cuts. The march, they hope, will be the start of a growing movement which makes the voices of students heard.

For young workers, however, there has been no such fightback. As individuals most young workers have little power to challenge poor working conditions, low wages or zero-hour contracts, and only 8% of young workers are Trade Union members.

Young Greens are hoping to change this. Get Organised!, a new campaign launched earlier this year, aims to build links between local Young Greens groups and Trade Unions in order to boost membership of Trade Unions among young people. This isn’t important only for young people, who without union support have no defence against the erosion of their working rights, but also for Trade Unions, who need a robust and active youth membership in order to remain dynamic and powerful.

Thom French, who started the campaign, says: “Get Organised! is a firm commitment from the Young Greens of our support for the organised labour movement. We need to make sure our members as supported in the workplace as much as we support our members through the ballot box. While Get Organised! won’t change how much being young sucks, it does give young people a chance to be part of the fight back, a chance to be the generation that chances society for the better and the Young Greens are leading the way.”

Part of the reason for low youth membership of Trade Unions is perhaps that the sectors in which young people are most likely to be employed, such as retail, are those with little union presence; or perhaps in working environments where employees are all on different contracts, working flexible shift patterns, and even employed by different companies, it’s hard to foster a sense of workplace solidarity which in the past was strongly linked to union membership. It seems, though, that this lack of participation is a part of our generation’s more general political disengagement.

This is a further reason why unionising young people can only be a good thing. Voter disengagement among the young comes not from apathy, but from disillusionment and a growing feeling that young voices simply cannot be heard. Joining a union, while not a party political act, gives power to young workers to make changes, big and small, in their working lives.

The Get Organised! campaign has struck a chord with many Young Greens members who have been victims of unfair working conditions and contracts. John spoke of the atmosphere of “fear and bullying” in retail workplaces with no union presence; Vicky had worked in the equestrian world as a teenager for six days a week, being paid £1.70 an hour for twelve-hour shifts with no holiday allowances; Ryan struggles with his zero-hour contract as it means that his Job-Seeker’s Allowance is sometimes cut off without an explanation or even an official sanction.

On the other side of the coin, Young Green Matt reported his union’s quick and effective response to a store’s “open-door” policy meaning that staff were often working in 3℃ temperatures: the union’s action led to new heating, a permanent thermometer on the wall, and the staff’s right to close the door when temperatures became too low.

These are only a few anecdotes, but they form part of a much bigger picture: one in which young workers are routinely exploited by employers and dismissed by the state – and in which one way to fight back against this is to unionise.

Of course, unions alone cannot ban zero-hour contracts, end unpaid internships or solve this country’s huge youth unemployment problem. These are actions the government must take. But if young workers want to demand better treatment from the state and from employers, better to stand united than alone.