This weekend sees the Unison young members conference in Cardiff. Writing in a personal capacity, NEC member Lilly Boulby explains why young workers need a union that not only represents their interests, but is prepared to fight for them.

This weekend sees the Unison young members conference in Cardiff. Writing in a personal capacity, NEC member Lilly Boulby explains why young workers need a union that not only represents their interests, but is prepared to fight for them.

For the past two decades, young workers have faced attack after attack on working and living conditions. The pandemic has only accelerated this decline.

This is particularly true in the public sector. I know healthcare assistants who work ten-hour shifts or longer due to staff shortages. And some of my friends who work in care are often paid below minimum wage for their work, with employers taking advantage of legal loopholes.

In a labour market crippled by precarious work and zero-hour contracts, the pandemic has squeezed the position of young workers even further. At the start of the coronavirus crisis, 18-24 year-olds were some of the hardest hit. We comprised a third of those who either lost their jobs or were placed on furlough. 

Even without the pandemic, we are often the first to be given the sack when redundancies are announced. In fact, many young workers are sacked as soon as they turn 21, when the minimum wage increases. 

For the first time in history, our generation’s living standards are set to be worse than our parents. And we face so many other crises – including housing, mental health, climate change. No wonder we are angry.

Currently, there is no serious force in society ready and willing to stand up for the interests of young workers. Nor will one drop from the sky. It must be built and fought for.

Socialist Appeal Unison Young Members conference fringe meeting

Saturday 4 December, 6pm

Ride My Bike Cafe, 26 Park Place, Cardiff, CF10 3BA

Join Lilly Boulby, Unison NEC Young Members rep (speaking in a personal capacity), alongside young ​activists from PCS and Unison, to discuss the problems facing young workers in the public sector, and why we need to struggle to transform Unison into a democratic, fighting union!

For real change

That is why the election of left-wing Unison NEC members – under the banner of #TimeForRealChange (TFRC) – is so exciting. This includes myself as one of the young members’ representatives, alongside Keira Hilder. 

After years of domination under right-wing bureaucrats, who have consistently stifled democracy within Unison, there is now an opportunity to transform our union.

TFRC is committed to doing whatever we can to make Unison a union that every young worker looks towards. With around 1.3 million members, the union’s potential strength is enormous. What is lacking is a bold, militant leadership.

A fighting union could clearly do a huge amount – not only to organise and defend young workers, but to improve their conditions; and to change society as a whole. 

Sabotage and smears

Paul Holmes Unison bannersYet the bureaucracy in the union (with hundreds of full-time officials) and other right-wing elements are holding us back. They are actively engaged in sabotaging the democratically-elected leadership of our union. 

They have attacked and smeared Unison President Paul Holmes. They have tried to legally challenge motions that were passed by the NEC in order to democratise the union; and they have even attempted to rule out an increase in the union’s strike pay rate, saying it was ‘against union rules’!

But these bullying tactics will not stop us from standing up for young members. In fact, the only way we can defeat the right wing and their antics is through galvanising rank-and-file members, and by involving young members in the union as much as possible. 

Currently, Unison has 64,000 young members. This is a very low proportion, however, considering how many young workers are actually out there in the public sector.

But this is of no surprise, given how Unison has been run over the past period – as a union known for capitulation and rotten compromises with the bosses. Why bother paying subs to an organisation like that?

It is these very same people who gave Unison this bad reputation that are now trying to stop the NEC from turning it into a democratic, fighting union.

Transform the unions

Reclaim these streetsThere is huge discontent brewing, particularly in local government and in the NHS. This needs to be harnessed, not stifled. The potential is even there for a public sector wide strike.

It is not the case that young workers don’t want to struggle. But they need to know that they have a union that will back them, and a leadership that is willing to take on the bosses and the Tories.

This means inspiring existing young members in Unison to get active in the union; and showing that left-wing activists in TFRC and on the NEC represent a proper break with the past. 

We must put forward bold democratic demands, such as calling for the election of all full-time officials in the union, so that they actually represent the interests of the rank and file. And we must put forward militant class struggle demands, such as organising for coordinated action across the whole public sector.

We must also organise a national recruitment drive of young workers, with the active involvement of our current young members, so as to reach out to the new layer of class fighters that are looking to move into struggle.

Finally, we need to show young members that the union is prepared to train them, and give them the necessary resources to take on the bosses and the government when they come for our pay and conditions.

If we do this, we will not only energise the members we currently have, but we will win the next generation of young militant trade unionists to Unison as well.

It is these members that will sweep out any obstacles in our way, and transform the union into a fighting weapon to be wielded by workers in the struggle for socialism.

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