This week, on the first day of rail strikes across the UK and under the threat of industrial action from refuse workers, teachers and lawyers, The Sun emblazoned its front page with the headline: “We regret to announce that this country is returning to the 1970s.” Later that day, in a now much-memed exchange, Sky News presenter Kay Burley told the RMT union general secretary, Mick Lynch, that she understood what picketing entails “because I very well remember the picket lines of the 1980s”. And trailing his interview with Lynch a week earlier, the BBC’s Nick Robinson wrote on Twitter: “Is he a champion of workers … or a politically motivated dinosaur?”
While some paint trade unions as outdated and irrelevant, the truth is that it is they who are out of touch. Today’s industrial disputes are about very current demands for higher pay in the face of inflation, after a year of wage stagnation. That’s why it’s not members of a certain age balloting for strike action, but a new generation of energised trade unionists.
In a poll conducted by Savanta ComRes at the outset of the rail strikes, a larger proportion of 18- to 34-year-olds than any other age group said the strikes were “absolutely justified”. It’s no surprise that this demographic thinks so: young workers today are more likely than their counterparts to be in insecure jobs, to be paid low wages, and to face a lack of career progression at work. If any group can identify the inherent inequality built into our workplaces, it’s them.
Young people face an uncertain and unequal future as they run to keep up with ever-increasing outgoings. University has left them saddled with a lifetime of debt and the high cost of home ownership has left many paying extortionate rents. In the background, the existential threat of climate change looms.
In response, climate strikes have been called; tenants’ unions have been established and a new form of trade unionism has emerged. Young people are doing the work to challenge the inequality they see all around them and to secure their own futures.
Unions such as the Independent Workers of Great Britain and United Voices of The World have been established within the last decade, specifically to build a trade unionism that can meet the challenges of today’s workplaces. Alongside diverse members of all ages, each union is made up of large numbers of young workers in jobs ranging from food delivery couriers to yoga instructors, charity workers and childminders.
Within the traditional trade union movement, too, campaigns such as Unite Hospitality are working to gain a foothold in restaurants, bars and cafes that have never before seen so much as a union flyer. Meanwhile, their counterparts in the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers union have successfully organised young staff in fast food and pub chains such as Wetherspoon’s, McDonald’s and Greggs.
And they are winning: from TGI Fridays and Pizza Express staff securing fair tips to Wetherspoon’s workers forcing a U-turn on furlough pay during the pandemic, a new generation of trade unionists are illustrating that age-old tactics are still fit for the 21st century.
None of this is to say that unions don’t need to evolve. There is work to do on diversifying membership and revitalising union democracy. But to consign the labour movement to the past is to erase the work young trade unionists are doing every day to fight against today’s working conditions and force change for the future.
Perhaps it is inevitable that, for those who were there, the strikes of the 1970s-80s will frame their views on unions and industrial action. But it is telling that many who weren’t even born at the time have come to the same conclusion as a generation ago: the only thing that has ever changed ordinary people’s lives for the better is workers coming together to show their strength and just how valuable their work is.
Eve Livingston is a journalist specialising in politics, social affairs and inequalities