Even Pope Francis can see that unions need to do more to reach young workers

TUC research also shows that unions are not doing enough to reach young workers

Pope Francis has called on trade unions to do more to reach young people who can’t get decent work, warning that the labour movement should not become ‘too similar to the institutions and powers that it should instead criticise.’ 

Speaking to Italian trade unionists ahead of their national congress, Francis slammed ‘a distorted and short-sighted society that compels the elderly to work too long and obliges an entire generation not to work.’ 

He also issued a stark warning that if unions fail to meet the ‘epochal challenge’ of reaching young and marginalised workers — as many currently are — it will fatally undermine the entire movement.

“The union does not carry out its essential function of social innovation if it watches over only those who are inside, if it protects the rights only of those who already work or who are retired. This must be done, but it is half your work. Your vocation is also to protect those who do not yet have rights.”

Pope Francis was speaking about the situation in Italy, where 40 per cent of under-25s are out of work. But his message also resonates with the situation in the UK. Britain’s young core workers are having a disproportionately bad time at work, but just 6.3 per cent of them are union members.


TUC research bears out the Pope’s argument that unions are simply not doing enough to reach young workers. Our traditional offer, and the way we communicate it, doesn’t seem relevant to their lives. 

In particular, we’ve identified three key barriers to union membership.

Firstly, young workers have extremely low expectations. They feel lucky to have jobs at all, even if they’re badly treated, expected to do work without pay, or stuck in zero-hours contracts.

Secondly, they don’t trust colleagues enough to share concerns about their workplace conditions.

And thirdly, they have a sense of futility and don’t want to put their necks on the line when they don’t expect it to make any difference.

Existential peripheries

These young workers exist on what Pope Francis calls the ‘existential peripheries’ — far from the political and economic mainstream. To reach them, unions must be willing to innovate and to reach outside their comfort zones. As he described:

“Inhabiting the peripheries can become an action strategy, a priority for the union of today and tomorrow. There is no good society without a good union, and there is no good union that is not reborn every day in its peripheries, that does not transform the discarded stones of the economy into its cornerstones.”

This won’t be a simple task. Trade unionists will have to dramatically change the way they organise, while upholding the core values of the movement.

We’re up for the challenge though and have been listening to young core workers all over the country. We now understand much better what they need from trade unions and are figuring out we can deliver it.

After all, if an 80-year-old man who goes to work in a palace can recognise the scale of the threat facing the labour movement, surely union activists can get onboard too.

Clare Coatman is a campaigner who leads the TUC’s young workers programme

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