A decade of precarity for young workers has changed perceptions and expectations around how people entering the workforce relate to the labour movement. Can digital offer a set of tools to boost engagement?

It's no secret that trade union membership in Britain has suffered a severe decline. The Thatcher years and successive governments have all attempted to de-fang collective action, with the most recent example being the Trade Union Act of 2016.

Image: Getty/Tetiana Lazunova
Image: Getty/Tetiana Lazunova

While many of the issues faced by unions can fairly be tied to external political factors – including by the complicit New Labour governments – there are certainly also critiques to be made about how the trade unions have carried themselves and operated in the face of austerity and, especially, 21st-century modernity.

The precarity introduced amongst Britain's workforce has also led to changes in perception of the unions, particularly among young people, who have started their careers knowing only an extremely lop-sided balance of power that's not in their favour.

In tandem with this decade-long drive toward austerity, an atomised, hyper-individualised culture has emerged, both in the realms of consumption and in the workplace.

The consumerisation of everything is a model that private industry has long grappled with, as traditional incumbents in key industries like financial services and retail have had to alter their modes of operation through apps, digital services, and subscription models to keep pace with changing customer expectations.

While this may be common knowledge in business, there is a window of opportunity here for unions too. Surely many old-school trade unionists and socialists would (justifiably) recoil with horror at introducing the language of Silicon Valley – agile, failing fast, "digital transformation" – into the task of creating better, more equitable workplaces and employee-led democracy. But there could be opportunity here too.

Senior campaigner at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Clare Coatman, believes digital technologies will prove "absolutely key" to boosting membership and engagement.

"I think it's fair to say that trade unions have been a bit behind the curve in adopting digital technologies, and they've got a tremendous amount to offer us," she tells Techworld. "There's also a risk here - especially with attracting a younger generation of members.

"The expectations that they come to their interactions with us are so much higher than ever before, and for a digital-first generation's that's used to signing up to Netflix, Amazon, Spotify, and how easy it is to flex their plans up and down, it's really jarring to be handed a paper form."

Challenges

Since 2017, Coatman has been working on an app called Worksmart. Preliminary research with 100 young workers found three main barriers to membership. These were the lack of union reps in the workplace – and so many young workers have not even had a conversation about joining – a shift in perception towards the individual over the collective, and a general image problem where young people just don't think unions are for them.

Over the last decade, many young people have entered the world of work in a period of perpetual precariousness, with zero-hours contracts and changes to tribunal law being just a few examples. The results are disheartening: not only are precarious young employees frequently distrustful of their colleagues, but their expectations of what it means to be at work are very low indeed.

"They don't realise when they're being screwed over," says Coatman. "They think: this is just what work is like. That creates a huge problem for unions if we're going around saying we're your friends when you've got a problem at work – so the first thing we need to do is raise expectations for the world of work and let them know what normal treatment looks like."

To address this, features of the app include clearly explaining workers' rights in plain language. The Worksmart app aims to address this by translating material from the Gov.uk website into more comprehensible language, as well as other initiatives such as developing quizzes for holiday rights.

Other approaches that could subtly nudge users towards better understanding the benefits of collective action include an early piece of content on the app, a poll that asks participants how confident they feel at work. However they respond, it is contrasted with the existing aggregated answers of everyone else. The idea is that this will communicate that if the user does have a problem, that they're not alone.

There are other initiatives to bring together the trade unions and present a united digital front. One such effort is the TUC Digital Lab, which aims to promote cross-union participation on digital organising, as well as setting standards for implementing best practices around digital organising. Led by a colleague of Coatman's at the TUC, John Wood, the work began as a benchmarking exercise to gauge the health of digital in the union movement.

One issue for trade unions is that they are somewhat hampered by the legality of digital engagement. Although a report led by Sir Ken Knight advised trialling electronic balloting for industrial action, this is not yet widespread. So far, unions are able only to run indicative polls among their membership.

The majority of people in Britain, according to a YouGov poll, believe that electronic balloting would be appropriate for trade unions. Benefits would include better turnout, easier, quicker democratic participation, and a reduction in costs. At present, only postal ballots for industrial action are legal.

A new app released by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and designed by NetXtra aims to 'future-proof' the digital offering so that should digital balloting become legal, it could be rolled out easily across the app.

For now, the RMT app focuses on other means of engagement, such as providing information and alerts to interests and geographies, having pulled in information from existing CRM systems so that relevant content is surfaced to the member. As well as indicative polling, news, and contact features, the union is considering introducing digital membership cards.

Speaking with Techworld, the RMT's Andrew Brattle said: "I think the next stage, the next rollout would be to have direct communication with the members so that they can tell us views on any issues that are affecting them at the time."

He added that the RMT faces particular challenges around more conventional forms of communication as some of its members could be serving on an oil rig or otherwise at sea.

"Having anything online, but particularly an app where we've got a form of instant communication with our membership gives us a huge advantage in being able to keep people up to date with news and issues," Brattle said.

But it is when online balloting does become legal that app-based engagement could come into its own.

"The thinking is that this is likely to come at some point in the next five to 10 years," he said. "So we have got to have a system in place that is already operating, to some extent, indicative polling or something like that, that could be further tweaked. Obviously it would have to comply with whatever the law says about online polling, but that's the vision really, to get us ahead of that and in a position to be able to offer our membership online polls, online ballots, as soon as it becomes practically available."

Melissa Wiggins is head of client strategy at NetXtra, an online and digital communications agency that mostly partners with organisations in the not for profit sector, including grassroots groups and trade unions.

"Unions have to change and evolve to connect with new audiences," says Wiggins. "If unions carry on doing as they're doing at the moment, the expiry of their members will overtake recruitment – that's a scary place for them to be in, so they have to become more agile, and they have to adopt digital engagement strategies to connect with the new audiences that has [digital] expectations deep-seated in their DNA, and also expectations around what kind of things they expect a union to do for them, and how they expect a union to connect with them."

Physical meetings "just aren't possible" for some members, Wiggins adds, for accessibility reasons but also because they could be at inconvenient times and locations. "Online meet-ups, forums, and user groups are a much better way for them to connect now," she adds. "I think the digital space for unions is of increasing importance."

Perceptions may also be diminishing and this is mirrored in how many members drop away in the first year of engagement, according to Wiggins.

"They just don't see the need to renew because they haven't experienced the value in the first year," she says. "Those trends possibly track contemporary commercial consumer trends, in terms of 'Why should I continue to subscribe to this service'? If they're not seeing the value in it they'll chop off the subscription – so I think they're having to wake up to the fact that they can't just count on a member renewing because they have to."

The TUC's Clare Coatman adds that the NUS recently replaced their committee structure with a more digital-first approach that centres on community, and encourages members to get involved on issues as long as there's capacity and willingness. Members also don't need to physically be present to get involved with campaigns, similar to an amendment that Coatman introduced into the constitution of the unions for TUC staff, providing better accessibility via teleconferencing solutions.

"We are a bit hamstrung by the law on balloting, and it certainly seems hypocritical not to allow trade unions to do online balloting when it's good enough for party leadership elections," says Coatman, adding that it is something that the movement calls for and "is government dependent".

The Future

There are, then, many challenges ahead. But they're hardly insurmountable.

What could a digital drive across the labour movement look like? Coatman, whose background is in participative democracy, says she would love to see "a whole ecosystem of lots of different uses of digital technologies, as appropriate in each case".

"I think that looks like websites hosting downloadable templates and campaign resources, and it also looks like social media channels with great video content, and it looks like apps, where there's a really, really good case for it."

Digital, for Coatman, also involves bridging the old world with the new. "That's a really interesting challenge that I don't have an easy solution to," she said. "I think it looks like hiring people with knowledge and talent in digital who also have the skills to adapt when new platforms are developed and coming along ... I think it looks like a digital-first approach where it's not a bolt-on or an afterthought. It's not that someone's written a 10,000 word report then at the last minute thought: we should turn it into a PDF."

Digital could also mean participatory democratic platforms where members can upvote or downvote proposals ahead of conferences, and discuss issues that are important to them online.

A parallel political movement that focuses on the fight for economic equality and is friendlier to the unions would of course go a long way. Labour has, for its part, just committed to lifting the much-criticised Trade Union Act 2016 in its recently launched manifesto, something Coatman says would be "very helpful" for organising.

The sharp fall in union membership since the Thatcher era is directly tied to starkly rising economic inequality, according to analysis from the Institute for Public Policy Research, so while public perceptions surrounding the benefits of trade unionism may be low, the numbers suggest that the stakes are sky-high.

"Workers all over the economy still desperately need trade unions, they're always going to need trade unions to address the fundamental power imbalance, and unions are still relevant," says Coatman. "But we're in real danger of losing our relevancy if we don't adapt to the changing world of work – and that has to mean digital."