Youthparticipation in unions in 2012 sat below 5% in Ireland (Vandaele,2013), with this fact being mirrored in numerous countries around theEU. There are numerous possible explanations for this fact, but inthis article I want to focus on one in particular.

Whenthinking about it, it might seem at first that young people may nothave a good view of unions as a result of cultural and media biasesagainst them, but this doesn’t seem to be true. The heldthree separate polls on the Nurses and Midwives strike betweenDecember 2018, and January 2019, with all three resulting in approvalof over 75% in each, with Keune (2013), finding that in all countriessurveyed with the exception of Spain, young people almost alwaysviewed trade unions in a positive light.

Goingdeeper, youth unemployment seems the most likely factor in lack ofunion participation by young people. This doesn’t seem to be thecase, either. In Ireland, youth unemployment sits at about 14.8%, asopposed to the general unemployment rate of 5.3%. This is similar tothe UK, sitting at 11.2% and 4% respectively. However, in 2013 in theUK, union membership sat at 25.6% for all workers, but only 7.7% forworkers aged 16-24, and 21% for workers aged 25-34. (Keune, 2013)This demonstrates that it is likely there is another factor at play.

Thisfactor, it seems to me, anyway, is the type of employment that youngpeople find themselves. Vandaele states that 41.2% of young workersin the EU are employed in temporary jobs, and a further 31.1% workpart-time. In her 1995 study, Arleen Hernández showed that, whilethe effect was small, part-time employment reduced the likelihood ofunion membership, while in his 2000 study, Kalleberg found thatprecariousness in employment led to a significant reduction in unionmembership, if not a total loss to the right of union membership insome cases. This would seem to explain why youth participation intrade unions is so low, at the very least in the nations where it isdemonstrably low, if not also in Ireland.

However, this is not to say that lowyouth participation is all, or even mostly the fault of unions.Rather, there are many reasons why young people may not join unions.Considering so many are in precarious or temporary employment, theirlivelihoods may not be reliant on their employment at all, and theymay have little interest in joining a union as a result, the benefitsof unionising maybe not hitting quite as close to home as someonereliant on their income (Hernández, 1995). Further, as demonstratedby Keune (2013) in his investigations of Spanish young people, youngpeople may not view unions as the forces for change they once mostcertainly were, choosing instead to engage in movements outside ofunions, such as Take Back the City, or non-union organisations suchas Young Friends of the Earth. Another reason may be that if a youngperson works part time during university, they may not see much pointin joining a union at all, since there is quite a high likelihoodthey may move to another employer, or need to leave work entirely.

This then raises the question: how do you increase youth participation in unions? According to Mason and Bain (1993), the more active unions are, the more able they will be to recruit. It would follow, then, that specifically pursuing issues that relate to younger workers, such as more regular hours, higher wages, more stable employment, and even issues that affect them outside of employment, such as the housing crisis, university access, climate change, and innumerable other issues, would be conducive to higher youth participation in unions. Even if not, it would serve to produce significant goodwill and connections between these social movements and workers’ organisations.


Article originally published in Forward #27, Connolly Youth Movement, May 2019

Hernández, Arleen, (1995), “The Impact of Part-Time Employment on Union Density”, Journal of Labour Research
Kalleberg, et. al (2000), “Bad Jobs in America: Standard and NonStandard Employment Relations and Job Quality in the United States”, American Sociological Review
Keune, Maarten, (2013), “Trade Unions and Young Workers in Seven EU Countries”
Vandaele, Kurt, (2013), “Union responses to young workers since the Great Recession in Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden: are youth structures reorienting the union agenda?”
Mason, Bob and Bain, Peter, (1993) “The Determinants of Trade Union Membership in Britain: A Survey of Literature”


Connolly Youth Movement (CYM)