Self evident but true: if the union movement can’t attract young people it will die says Richard Marles in this address to the ACTU Youth Forum.

I would like to start by acknowledging Joy Murphy-Wandin – an elder of the Wurundjeri people who are the traditional owners of the land on which we are now meeting.

I would also like to welcome all of you to this, the first ACTU Youth Forum and thank you for your time. This will be a very important two days.

“Union density among young people is low”

Union density among young people is low. 6.7% of those aged between 20-24 in the workforce are members of unions and only 11.6% of those aged between 15-19 are members of unions. This compares with overall union density of 24.5%. So young people are comparatively under-represented within the union movement.

And yet perhaps the primary benefit of being in a union, increased wages, applies as much to young people as it does to older workers. The average wage for those young people in unions is 20% higher than that of young people who are not in unions. So we certainly do perform for younger workers and we need to work out a way in which we can explain the benefits of union membership to them.

In short, we need to get young people to join unions.

“Nowadays young people will only join unions if they want to”

30 years ago young people joined unions because they worked in unionised workplaces. Often they worked for large employers where there existed a traditional union presence. Being a member of a union was simply an incident of their working life. Accordingly, it was not a decision that these people necessarily made. Union membership was just a natural part of entering the workforce.

Now, however, the workforce is far more fluid. There are fewer large employers and fewer traditional union environments. There are more precarious forms of employment. And all this is particularly so in those areas where young people tend to work. So young people do have a choice as to whether or not they join a union.

Nowadays young people will only join unions if they want to. We have to solve the problem of making unions something that young people want to join. This in turn means understanding what young people want from work and what they want from unions.

A tension … exists between an aspirational view of work … [and] the
remuneration that work provides people”

Recently, the ACTU undertook some focus group research about the attitudes of young people to work and to trade unions.

Perhaps an obvious finding, but a very interesting one, was that when young people enter the workforce they go through a time of change about their attitudes to work. Those aged between 15 and 19 tend to see work in aspirational terms. That is, they are perhaps more concerned about what they contribute through their work than how much they get paid for doing the work. And then in the older bracket of 20 to 24, people seem to start considering what remuneration they get for their work and the extent to which their work can enable them to financially secure themselves “by the age of 30”.

In other words people are coming to terms with a tension that exists between an aspirational view of work in terms of what people can contribute, with the remuneration that work provides people for the necessities of life.

Trade unions are uniquely placed to deal with this tension. Our work is about the necessities of life. We are about providing for people better wages and conditions so that they have the money to finance the necessities of life. But we as a union movement also share higher ideals and have social objectives.

It is worth considering that almost 2 million Australians are now members of trade unions. Each would pay about $300 per year which creates an economy across the country of $600 million. As a proportion of the nation’s economy this is not very large, but in absolute terms it is a very significant amount and it gives rise to a very significant place. It is a place in which working people are represented, but it is also a place in which the meaning of work is defined.

Much research says that the happiest workers are those who are fulfilled by their job, who feel that they do contribute through their work. Where this occurs it is clearly fantastic.

But often work does not provide people with that fulfilment. Often it does not give people a sense that they are contributing to their society. When work itself lacks that kind of meaning the union movement can offer a means by which people can still express their need to contribute to society through their working life by being a union delegate or an active union member. The union movement affords people an opportunity to make the contribution that they want to make.

How we explain this twin aim of:

  • improving the necessities of life; and
  • providing a social objective to work,
  • … how we explain this to young people is perhaps a mystery and this conference is amongst other things about trying to solve that mystery. However, that we have these twin aims does uniquely place the union movement in a position where it can engage with young people as they begin to engage with the workforce.

    “A number of simple practicalities”

    In addition to these higher ideas, the focus group research bore out a number of simple practicalities. Often young people do not know which union it is that they should be joining. Often young people do not know how to contact the union they want to join and how much money they should be paying in order to join it. Providing more information to young people is clearly a key issue in having them join unions.

    And while the workforce is not as structured now as it used to be 30 years ago there still do exist some structures that we can use in order to facilitate young people entering the union movement. In a former life I was an office bearer of the National Union of Students and NUS along with a number of other youth groups will be participating in the youth forum tomorrow. It is very clear to me that an organisation like NUS can work well with the union movement. We can help resource and activate the kind of forums which NUS runs and in turn NUS can assist in encouraging young people to enter the union movement.

    “If we cannot attract young people to join the union movement then the
    union movement will die”

    This conference is therefore a most significant endeavour as it is dealing with all of these issues. Senior unionists will be here throughout the conference engaging with you and listening to you as these issues are discussed. And it is essential that we end up making some headway in encouraging young people to join unions.

    It is self evident, but nevertheless true, to say that if we cannot attract young people to join the union movement then the union movement will die. Therefore, your work over the next two days is not just important, it is utterly essential.

    I thank you once again for giving your time in attending this conference. And I wish you all the best of luck in coming up with some of the solutions which may assist in encouraging more young people to join the union movement.

    Richard Marles is ACTU Assistant Secretary.