Sunday, March 2, 2014

Young Workers' Month

March is a big month; Lent begins on Wednesday, Cheltenham races the week after, and the scramble for three birthday presents in between will occupy a lot of my time. However, if I can distract you briefly from your studying form in the Racing Post or daily Holy Hour, there is a brilliant initiative running for the full 31 days – Young Workers’ Month.

Set up by active, young trades union members (from the grassroots, no astro-turf here), the idea is to stop hand-wringing over the problems faced by young workers and start meaningful, innovative organising to fight back and get over them. Of course, much of the effort will be about young people talking, engaging and organising together, and using our shared generational experience to point out the rough deal young workers are getting under this Liberal/Tory government and in the increasingly unchecked free market.

However, let’s remember that the intention of the current government is to set worker against worker, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the generational divide. Tory talk about ‘gold plated pensions’, the tuition fee betrayal of the Lib Dems, the spectre of removing benefits so as to deny independent living from young people on the basis of their age alone can make it feel that the government reserves a special hate for youth. But we can’t have this distract us – it’s past generations who built our NHS, older workers who struggle to find support for training to keep them up-to-date and employable, and older people who are under-represented on our screens and in popular culture. The feeling that your age group’s voice is marginalised and your skills side-lined is one that’s held below 30, over 50 and everywhere in-between.

Young Workers’ Month is our opportunity to reply with one voice to this strategy of division. Young workers don’t get a rough deal because they’re young – they get a rough deal because they’re workers. Young Workers’ Month is as much about building solidarity between all working people, regardless of age, as it is about young people standing together.

In my work as a full-time trade union official I’ve seen this policy of unity pay dividends. In the steelworks, take-up of pension schemes was so much higher among young people in departments where the workforce was divers in age. Here, older workers spoke with younger workers as peers, not parents, about the complexity of financial security as life unfolded. The ability of older workers to engage with lifelong learning, and have access to high quality training at work, through the employer, was so much higher in the Olympic village. Here, younger workers led the way in making use of the acclaimed learning centre, speaking with older colleagues as comrades, not kids, about how training helped them navigate the 21st century jobs market as much more than a tick-box.

Most impressively, the necessity of mixed-age casts in theatre is, I believe, the backbone of Equity’s strong and growing membership. For every bad story about the closed shop, there’s a young person talking about the union’s support for them on the fringe or a student film. For every complacent graduate, questioning what the union can do for them, there’s a story about the fight to get rehearsal time paid or the hard fight to win subsistence payments for touring shows. It’s workers talking as equals, across age barriers, that keeps the union relevant and strong.

It’s crucial that public policy supports such workplaces and doesn’t undermine them. The age-specific national minimum wage is a key example of where it’s been undermined in the past - legislation that expects an apprentice to feed their family on the promise of higher pay tomorrow. Where youth job offers and guarantees are made, it must not be at the cost of ghettoising workers of certain ages into certain sectors. The flipside of the strength of mixed workplaces on the stage and in the steelworks can be seen in call-centres, with banks of young people, self-conscious and scared, are manipulated into Dickensian systems of working; regulated toilet breaks, zero hours contracts, no union recognition, and unable to speak to a peer with much more than a few years’ experience of working life for reassurance about whether they have to put up with it.

What’s exciting about this Young Workers’ Month is the call to older workers to spend time speaking to younger colleagues – and I’d call on younger colleagues to do the same. It’s right that we have a special time to focus on the marginalising of young people, and the contempt for them held by employers and the government. But let the outcome be not a desire to take from older workers things that they do not possess – from job security to pensions – but instead heed YWM’s call for solidarity. Let’s build a system that treats all working people, the real wealth creators, as equals.

Solidarity to all at Young Workers’ Month!