Interview: The New Deal
Unions: In the Line of Hire
Culture: Too Cool for the Collective?
International: The Domino Effect
Industrial: A Spanner in the Works
National Focus: Gathering of the Tribes
History: The Welcome Nazi Tourist
Bad Boss: Domm, Domm Turn Around
Poetry: Just Move On.
Review: Reality Bites
The Locker Room
The Secret Life of Us
It Is Still About The Members Isn't It
Too Cool for the Collective?
The latest research suggests young workers need unions more than ever. They feel vulnerable, fear the loss of their jobs, and face increasing casualisation and part-time work with a lack of quality training.
So, why is it the majority still aren't joining unions? Do they just have attitude? Are they all no-good whippersnappers bludging off their hard-working, fee-paying elders? Or, is there another explanation?
The Employment Studies Centre at Newcastle University suggests several alternatives, the most common being that young workers simply aren't familiar with unions, and some don't even know why they exist.
The Newcastle research took place in 2000 but interviews conducted by Workers Online, this month, make it clear some of the perceptions - and misperceptions - still exist.
Sam is a 21-year-old TAFE student who works part-time. "I don't really see the point in having a union", he says, "I mean, you can always look after yourself or seek legal action".
Yet, like others, he is unwilling to reveal his full name or where he works, "just in case".
Sam says entitlements are "all legal now" and it has never occurred to him to become a union member.
Why would it? He wasn't taught about unions in school, they are not part of his work culture and union reps probably haven't even been able to access to his workplace.
Sales manager Karen offers further evidence that unions struggle to reach young workers. The 24-year-old recently had to make a sexual harassment claim against one of her workmates in Sydney.
When the company's industry body conducted a formal investigation, she had to pay for her own legal representation.
"At that stage I was thinking 'oh my gosh, where's the union?'...but if we have an association or a union, I've never heard about it", she says.
Fortunately for her, a lawyer friend provided his services free, but her case shows that often, young workers only think of the union once they've got a problem. Even then, Karen didn't know whether or not she even had access to a union.
Often, there is misunderstanding about what unions do, why they do it, and what they have achieved in the past.
Twenty four-year-old Luke is an air conditioning apprentice who thinks union officials are "bloody bullies". You aren't allowed on a job site in his trade, he says, unless you're a union member. He thinks the movement as a whole might be "alright", but asks, "why should I have to pay $400 bucks every year? What has my union ever done for me?"
Not only does the next generation have little concept of the battles the union movement has fought, and sometimes won, but many are taking their que from employers.
To tackle these difficulties, some unions are going back to the chalkboard.
A number are successfully recruiting younger members through the education system. They visit TAFEs and universities, have stalls at careers fairs and even recruit and organise at the Big Day Out music festival.
The Nurses Association's Judith Kiejda says her organisation realised five or six years ago, "we just had to start at the beginning".
The Association visits university and college campuses putting on barbecues, giving away t-shirts and information about the union. It offers students reduced membership fees, accommodation, scholarships, links up regional students and helps with a student newspaper.
Kiejda says as a result "nurses are becoming more aware".
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) targets the mock theatres and newsrooms of universities and colleges where budding actors and journalists are cutting their teeth.
The MEAA's success with youth may have something to do with the lime green couches and bright blue and purple walls in its retro Redfern office, but there are other reasons for NSW secretary Jonathan Mill's assertion that his is "the youngest and funkiest union around".
The students at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts) welcome Mill, and other union representatives, with open arms, excited by the contacts and knowledge of the industry they bring.
The MEAA's methods of keeping in touch are also in tune with the transient nature of its members. Who wants a home address that is bound to change every few months when you've got email? Who needs a home phone number when you can send bulk text messages cheaper and get immediate responses?
"There's extra pressure with our union to be up with the times. Some of the areas of our work are cutting edge, even though some areas - like activism - have been around for years and years," Mill says.
Despite the successes, though, he admits some potential members still "slip through the cracks".
Janet (not her real name), a cadet journalist who got her free membership at an MEAA uni open day a few years ago, no longer pays membership fees. She says it's partly because she can't afford it, and partly because she's under the impression the MEAA can't do anything for her while she's a cadet.
Meanwhile, her bosses are trying to phase out the nine-day fortnight she's entitled to for giving up her lunch breaks.
"I'll probably join after my cadetship is over, because I think I need to", she says.
Young people are notorious for continually changing their habits. The challenge for the union movement - if it wants to connect with future generations - is to change with the times.
Café blitz is the new phrase buzzing around the MEAA office. The strategy hasn't been implemented yet, but there are plans to visit popular café streets frequented by the young and trendy, and ask each table if they work in the media or arts.
"You're bound to get at least some actors or journalists and if not, you're still talking to the community", says Mill.
He wants to continue to look at new ideas to bring people in.
"I think that unions have to find new ways to engage with young workers, and be prepared to look stupid", he says, "because some ideas will work, and some will flop.
So, it appears, unions haven't given up on young workers. Committees, networks and fresh ideas are popping up all over town. But is it working or has the current generation given up on them?
The comments of at least one young worker give unionists some ground for optimism.
Twenty-three year old Rahul is an apprentice electrician and a member of the ETU. In a prior profession he was a committed member of the AMWU. He says his union membership is "worth paying for".
"It just makes things easier having the union behind you if there are any issues or problems. The union is in a better position to look after you than you are yourself," he says.
Rahul first heard about unions through industrial disputes in the news, but admits most of his views now come from his workmates and the union itself. He is convinced that "without the union, conditions would be a lot worse".
If the union movement is to have a future, it lies with people starting out on their working lives and the latest available statistics show it is behind the eight ball. According to the 2000 Newcastle University study, just 18 percent of teenage workers had taken up the union option and anecdotal evidence suggests that figure might have dipped in the intervening three years.
However, the same research showed that 61 percent of workers aged 18-24 would "rather be in a union ... if (they) were totally free to choose".
The next generation, it seems, is still up for grabs.
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