Trade Unions and Young Workers in Seven EU Countries

Friday, 3 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
TW2.1.01 (Tower Two)
Maarten Keune, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Trade unions and young workers in seven EU countries

Maarten Keune AIAS-UvA

This paper presents a comparative overview of developments in the relationship between young people and trade unions in seven EU countries: Spain, Belgium, the UK, The Netherlands, Germany, Hungary and Italy. The percentage of young people joining a trade union has declined to very low levels in many countries. At the same time, they often have a very vulnerable position on the labour market and suffer from high unemployment, precarious employment and limited career opportunities. They can potentially benefit a lot from representation by trade unions to improve their position. Trade unions have often become vulnerable themselves as well as a result of a declining and ageing membership and need new young members to strengthen and rejuvenate their ranks. Recently, they are stepping up their efforts become more visible to young people, to better represent their interests and to organize them (Gumbrell-McCormick and Hyman 2013). Three major factors circumscribe the outcomes of such efforts: labour market structures, attitudes of young people towards trade unions and the strategies of unions.

Where labour market structures are concerned, it has proven to be difficult to organize young people because of their high levels of unemployment and because they work in the less organised sectors where the position of trade unions is weakest (e.g. hotels and restaurants, retail). Also, their often very short-term and flexible contracts and frequent job changes make it harder for unions to establish a relationship with them (Keune forthcoming; Tailby and Pollert 2011).

Where the attitudes of young people towards trade unions are concerned, often low youth union membership is taken to demonstrate that young people do not support trade unions and find them obsolete and irrelevant, contrary to their parents. However, recent research rather suggest that when young people start working they have no clear preferences towards trade unions and that they may even have a more positive view of unions than older workers (e.g. Tailby and Pollert 2011; Haynes et al. 2005). Others argue that the decline of trade union membership should not be mistaken for declining support for collective representation or weakening demand for the protection traditionally provided by union membership (Turner and D’Art, 2012). This point is further underlined by Vandaele (2012): “Yet there is no serious evidence that young workers have negative attitudes towards trade unionism. There is indeed good reason to believe that there is an unsatisfied demand for unionism among young workers (Vandaele 2012: 215).”

 Where union policies are concerned, trade union strategies, structures, communication and internal democracy are often not aligned to the needs and interests of young workers (Waddington and Kerr 2002; Gumbrell-McCormick and Hyman 2013; Vandaele 2012). The same authors suggest that young workers are often not a priority, the financial resources dedicated to youth representative structures are limited and young workers also face obstacles when they want to become active within unions.

This paper examines, for seven EU countries,  the position of young workers on the labour market, their membership in and attitudes towards trade unions as well as union strategies towards representing and organizing young workers.

The paper first of all briefly shows that the position of young workers on the labour market has been deteriorating in terms of unemployment, flexibility and low wages, in particular for lowly educated workers. It then provides an overview of youth membership. It shows that although in the majority of countries membership has continuously been declining, there are also cases of stability at a high level (Belgium), and of substantial increases in membership (Germany), indicating that high levels of membership are possible and that a decline in youth union membership is not inevitable and can indeed be reversed.

It then turns to discuss the attitudes of young people. It demonstrates first that young people do not have negative basic attitudes towards unions, second that they often know little about unions, third that they are critical towards the way trade unions operate, and fourth that instrumental motives are important in membership decisions. This points to union actions and strategies as key factors determining their view of unions and their inclinations to participate in their activities and join them as members.

Finally, it discusses union strategies, their strengths and their weaknesses. Here it shows that there is a growing awareness among unions of the importance of addressing young workers. However, they still dedicate limited resources to them. At the same time, unions do represent the interests of young workers in a  number of ways, for example through collective agreements they negotiate, but these achievements remain invisible and should be made more transparent. It also shows that successful strategies differentiate between different groups of young workers that have different types of labour market positions and trajectories. Also, face-to-face contacts are crucial to reach out effectively to young workers. Finally, it discusses the need for inclusive union strategies in which young members can effectively influence union policy and activities, and which offer career prospects within unions to young activists.


Gumbrell-McCormick, R. and Hyman, R. (2013) Trade Unions in Western Europe. Hard Times, Hard Choices, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 Haynes, P., Vowles, J. and Boxall, P. (2005), ‘Explaining the Younger-Older Worker Union Density Gap: Evidence from New Zealand’, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 43 (1): 93–116.

 Keune, M. (forthcoming 2015) ‘Trade unions, precarious work and dualisation in Europe’, in: Eichhorst, W. and Marx, P. (eds.) Non-standard Employment in Post-Industrial Labour Markets, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Tailby, S. and Pollert, A. (2011) Non—unionized young workers and organizing the unorganized, Economic and Industrial Democracy 32(3): 499-522.

Turner, Thomas; D’Art, Daryl. 2012. “Public perceptions of trade unions in countries of the European Union: A causal analysis”, in Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Mar.), pp. 33–55.

Vandaele, K. (2012) Youth representatives’ opinions on recruiting and representing young workers. A twofold unsatisfied demand? In: European Journal of Industrial Relations, 18, 2012, 3, pp.203-218.

Waddington, J. and Kerr, A. (2002), ‘Unions Fit for Young Workers?’, Industrial Relations Journal, 33 (4): 298–315.