The future of unions is not looking good, Professor Paul de Beer said at a debate at the Rode Hoed in Amsterdam yesterday. Few youth are members of a union and union density among young workers is declining. If this were a specific Dutch problem, then you could learn from other countries how to solve this, De Beer argued, but other countries are confronted with the same problem. Even in Nordic countries, were union density is very high, union density among youth is declining. The American example shows that there is no apparent limit to youth union density decline.
To some extent, it is surprising that young workers seldom join unions, De Beer argued. Often, it is suggested that youth and older workers have conflicting interests. However, research has found that youth largely value the same issues as older workers: issues like wages, job security and opportunities for personal growth. Also, it is not true that youth are unwilling to join organisations, although they are more likely to join organisations like Greenpeace and Amnesty and their involvement is more fleeting.
According to De Beer, unions do take a stand for issues that matter to youth, but this is not always visible. In part he blames the media, that prefer to show protesting old men with union caps. Partly, unions are to blame themselves. They might have campaigned more assertively on issues like the absurdly low youth wages in the Netherlands and the erosion of social security for anyone under 27.
Using a study on union density of FNV unions, De Beer showed that there are relevant differences between sectors. Especially in education, young workers are almost as often union members as older workers. A possible explanation is that the teachers’ union focuses on the profession of their members. This conclusion fitted nicely with the Dalfsen Agreement, where FNV unions have decided to focus more on the professions of their members.
Graph (union density among 15-24 year-olds): Paul de Beer, source AIAS/Jelle Visser (ICWTS) Click on image for larger version