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December 22nd, 2018

Can millennials save the labour movement?


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Admin

December 22nd, 2018

Can millennials save the labour movement?


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Unions can get reinvigorated by tapping into young people’s energy, creativity and transformative leadership potential, write Maite Tapia, Lowell Turner and Salil R. Sapre.

Millennials – born between 1980 and 2000 – are disproportionately employed in low skill occupations, with nonstandard employment arrangements, and in nonunionised workplaces. Their working conditions in general tend to be worse in comparison to older generations. They are also less likely than older workers to be union members even though they may have a more favourable view of unions. While the labour movement can help young workers improve their working conditions, unions can also get reinvigorated by organising the next generation of members and tapping into their energy, creativity and transformative leadership potential. Nonetheless, while there is enough evidence on unions and their decline, we don’t have a clear understanding of their strategies (if any) towards young people.

In our research, we interviewed young workers and union representatives across four different countries (UK, United States, Germany and France) to understand when young workers actively engage and participate in the labour movement. While there was variation across and within country case studies, we found that the openness and active encouragement of unions to the participation and leadership of young workers as well as the persistence of young workers to promote their own engagement were especially important.

More specifically, our research exposed four themes that ran through the cases.

First, our data indicate that precarity breeds innovation. In other words, as many young people find themselves in precarious job situations, either enterprising young workers or established unions have devised innovative and more flexible ways to improve their working conditions. For example, in the US, the union for retail workers set up a worker centre RAP (or the Retail Action Project), which became a ‘cool’ group for young workers to join. RAP was successful in building a creative, youthful identity and engaged in a series of campaigns, winning back wages against small retail stores such as Yellow Rat Bastards as well as big chains such as Zara.

In the UK, the Fast Food Rights Campaign run by the Baker’s union (the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union or BFAWU), of which young workers were an integral part, was a grassroots campaign focused on ending zero-hour contracts and fought for ten pounds an hour starting wage for all workers. To appeal to young workers, the union amended its branch structures to make them more flexible and allowed them to create town centre branches for all fast-food workers irrespective of their employer.

Second, throughout the cases the importance of linkages between the labour movement and civil society organisations became evident. In fact, many of these relationships were born out of prior ties of young leaders with community organisations. These alliances acted as catalysts for innovation or transformation of framing, tactics, and even organisational structures of unions. For example, young graduates in France set up a new network to fight against multinational companies; ReAct was founded outside of the traditional labour movement. Although France has a rich history of active youth movements and many mobilise, only a few become union members. This case study of ReAct shows how this organisation was originally set up outside the labour movement but worked together with French unions to develop militant organising strategies. Through its partnership with the labour movement, it not only obtained legitimacy and access to resources but also reciprocated by helping to shape community organising approaches of unions and training union activists in innovative tactics.

Third, finding a balance between gaining union support and allowing for local autonomy also emerged as a critical theme. In other words, young worker groups are more likely to succeed when they enjoy sufficient leeway to undertake independent initiatives and have the backing of an established union. In the UK, for example, many unions created specific structures to involve young workers. The PCS, for example, created a young members network for any member up to 27 years old. This network focuses on recruiting, representing, and organising young workers across the civil service sector. While unions through setting up of such structures signal their willingness to be rejuvenated, the success of these groups is contingent upon support from the union leadership as well as the autonomy they have to take initiatives. In Germany, for example, the large service sector union Ver.di initiated a training program towards young workers in the health and elder care sector. Here as well, success depended on the support of Ver.di as well as the presence of youth representatives at the workplace.

Fourth, we noticed through the cases the significance of leadership training for young activists. Critical, however, is to examine whether such training allows for young worker empowerment, encourages thinking outside the box or beyond the traditional union repertoire, and does not merely socialise them into reproducing existing practices of the labour movement. A good example here is the AFL-CIO/Cornell Leadership Institute in the US. Since 2001, the institute has offered leadership development to young people from unions and non-unions, pushing to the forefront the importance of equity, inclusion, and transformative leadership.

In sum, we believe that labour movements remain essential for the survival and renewal of democratic societies. Labour movements, however, need young members and activists not just to revamp membership but also for their transformative potential and experimentation. Conclusively, union leaders need to mentor young activists by bringing them in, teaching them the ropes, while at the same time being receptive to their ideas.

Authors’ note: our research has been generously funded by the Hans Bockler Foundation.

  • This blog post first appeared at LSE Business Review and is based on the authors’ research findings published in five articles as a special issue of Work and Occupations: Young Workers and the Renewal of the Labor Movement, a Cross-National Perspective, Volume 45, Issue 4, November 2018. 
  • This cross-national project was under the guidance of Maite Tapia and Lowell Turner. It included experts from the different countries. Sophie Béroud, Camille Dupuy, Marcus Kahmann, and Karel Yon conducted research on France. Clara Behrend, Dennis Eversberg, Lena Hipp, Lisa Müller, Katrin Schmid, and Marcel Thiel on Germany. Sally Alvarez, Jake Barnes, J.Mijin Cha, Giovanna Fullin, Peter Ikeler, and Salil Sapre did research in the US. Andy Hodder, Jane Holgate, and Melanie Simms were responsible for the UK.
  • Featured image credit: Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.  

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About the authors

Maite Tapia  Michigan State University
Maite Tapia is assistant professor at the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University. Her research revolves around mobilising strategies of trade unions and community organisations in the US and Europe, as well as work, migration, and intersectionality.


Lowell Turner – Cornell University
Lowell Turner is a professor of international and comparative labour at Cornell University, in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. In June, 2011, he was appointed as the founding academic director of the new Worker Institute at Cornell and served in this capacity from 2011-2016.


Salil R. Sapre  Michigan State University
Salil R. Sapre is a PhD student in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University, USA. His research interests are gender and work; comparative employment relations; informal work; worker mobilisation and organisation; and implications of global supply chains for labour.



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