HOW CAN TRADE UNIONS INEUROPE CONNECT
Trade union density has almost universally declined across Europe in recent
decades (Visser 2016), although substantial cross- country variation still exists.
Among the dierent categories of under- represented groups in unions, young
workers are considered the “most problematic group” in this regard (Pedersini
2010, 13). ere is ample evidence that they are generally less inclined to un-
ionize (see Section 22.2). ree major (and not mutually exclusive) explanations
for this group’s low unionization rate have been identied in the literature (Payne
1989; Serrano Pascual and Waddington 2000).
e rst involves the assumption that the propensity of young workers to un-
ionize has decreased because of intergenerational shis in values and attitudes.
e second explanation is that the opportunity to unionize has been structur-
ally hampered by the individualization of working conditions (driven by human
resource management policies), new developments in work organization (e.g.,
telework), and changing labor markets for young workers (Blossfeld et al.
2008). ese workers are more likely to be employed in nonstandard employ-
ment arrangements and in those workplaces, occupations, and economic sectors
marked by weak union representation.1 Finally, the sociology of unionism
matters:In light of the developments outlined previously, the current policies
and organizational structures of many unions are likely to be ineective for en-
gaging and organizing young workers, and their predominant (decision- making)
culture could be considered unattractive and unfavorable for youth participation
Trade Unions in Europe 661
in union democracy and action (Vandaele 2012, 2015). We need to understand
that the ways in which unions perceive and prioritize (or not) young workers
play a pivotal role in shaping their eorts to address this problem (Esders, Bailey,
and McDonald 2011). Moreover, given that there is a signicant overlap between
young workers and the phenomenon of precariousness, unions’ strategies toward
precarious work have, by denition, important consequences for these workers
(Murphy and Simms 2017).
Based for the most part on a literature review, the aim of this chapter is to
explore what kind of strategies unions in Europe could develop to reconnect
with the new generation on the labor market.2 In developing our main argu-
ment, we refer rst to the main motives for union membership because their rel-
ative presence in a sector or country will inuence unions’ strategies and policies
for organizing young workers (Heery and Adler 2004). e chapter broadly
focuses on three areas of motivation (Ebbinghaus, Göbel, and Koos 2011):the
signicance of union membership as a traditional custom embedded in social
networks; instrumental/ rational motives that are inuenced by a favorable in-
stitutional framework for unions to lower the costs of organizing and servicing
(young) workers; and, nally, the principle of solidarity, the identity- forming
function of union membership, and the ideological convictions promoted by
unions. In the literature on youth unionization, each motive largely corresponds
to a dierent research focus (as shown in Table 22.1), and the dierent sections
of this chapter are accordingly built around this framework. Bearing in mind the
diminishing impact of traditional motives and the pressure that employer organ-
izations or governments exert upon “union- friendly” institutional frameworks
in the labor market, the argument will be made that union agency takes on a par-
ticular importance in the eort to counteract the deunionization trend. Decisive
union action in the form, for instance, of comprehensive campaigning can be
instrumental in reviving or strengthening these traditional and instrumental/
rational motives (Ibsen and Tapia 2017).
If the diculties in organizing young workers continue unabated, this situa-
tion will represent an increasingly serious challenge for existing unions. It could
impede their generational and imaginative renewal, exacerbate their already bi-
ased representation of today’s more diversied workforce, and even seriously call
Table22.1 The linkage betweenmotives ofunion membership and theresearch focus
Motives of union
Traditional social customs Young people themselves:Their believes and attitudes
Instrumental/ rational motives Young people in the labor market:School- to- work transitions
Union agency Young people and unions:Sociology of unionism
Source:Author’s own typology.
662 CHALLENGING FUTURES FOR YOUTH
into question their legitimacy vis- à- vis employers and political authorities, as
well as their own organizational survival. Eventually, other or new organizations
or social movements might emerge or gain further prominence for representing
young (vulnerable) workers (and particularly in specic segments of the labor
market such as the “gig economy”). At the same time, many young workers
could potentially benet from union representation. Since the Great Recession,
inequalities in the labor market between adults and young people have accel-
erated, with labor market exibility tending to disproportionally aect young
workers (France 2016). erefore, the idea will also be developed that young
people’s early labor market experiences should be placed center stage in any
union recruitment or organizing drive toward the young. However, young people
entering the labor market are not a homogeneous bloc, a fact that becomes espe-
cially clear in their transition from school to work. is crucial phase in young
people’s lives is marked by dierences in the timing, duration, and sequence of
labor market events. Distinctive trajectories in the school- to- work transition
imply dierent challenges and opportunities for unions in terms of recruiting
and retaining young workers, as well as engaging their participation in union
activities, because their exposure to unionism is not uniform.
e chapter is organized as follows. Section 22.2 explores the extent to which
an individual’s age inuences his or her decision to join a union, and it examines
the patterns in youth unionization across Europe. Section 22.3 focuses on young
people themselves in a discussion of their beliefs and attitudes toward unioniza-
tion. It then explores the demise of unionization as a traditional social custom as
an alternative explanation to simple cohort eects. Section 22.4 examines the sig-
nicance of school- to- work transition regimes for organizing young people:e
opportunities and costs of organizing are dependent on the degree of union inte-
gration in those regimes. e internal adaptation and diverse initiatives of unions
across Europe toward engaging and organizing young workers are discussed in
Section 22.5. Section 22.6 concludes the chapter.
22.2. YOUNG WORKERS ASA DEMOGRAPHIC CHALLENGE
In this section, we explore the relationship between age and unionization to as-
sess to what extent there exists an “age decit” within unions. Based on a litera-
ture review on the determinants of unionization (of studies from the 1980s until
the early 1990s), Riley (1997, 272)found “conicting evidence,” with age only
sometimes having a signicant eect on union membership. Some years later,
however, in the UK context, Machin (2004, 430)claimed that age is “a more im-
portant determinant of who joins trade unions now than it used to be.” Asem-
inal study by Blanchower (2007) concluded that union density in 34 of the
Trade Unions in Europe 663
38 advanced economies investigated follows a similar pattern:An inverted U-
curve in regard to age shows that workers in their mid- to late forties have the
highest likelihood of being unionized, compared to lower membership rates for
both younger and older workers. Controlling for existing cohort eects in the
United Kingdom and the United States, Blanchower found that the concave age
eect on unionization remains. More recent research on individual countries
or across countries has either conrmed the concave age/ unionization pattern
(Kirmanoğlu and Başlevent 2012, 695; Turner and D’Art 2012, 47)or questioned
it (Scheuer 2011; Schnabel and Wagner 2012). us, in the latter cases, it is found
that the probability of unionization increases monotonically with age.
At rst glance, the typical pattern of relatively low youth unionization should
not, in itself, worry unions excessively because there might be an age eect at
play. As young workers grow older and settle into (if it can be assumed) stable
working careers, they might naturally “mature” into unionism. However, Figure
22.1 illustrates that in most European countries considered in this study, the me-
dian age of union members increased between 2004 and 2014; the same cohort
eect applies to union activists and representatives in many sectors.3 In fact, in
some countries, the median age indicates that a great number of union members
are in their mid- forties to early ies. Because middle- aged workers currently
dominate the overall union membership composition, the median voter the-
orem would suggest that their policy preferences are dominating union strategies
(Ebbinghaus 2006). If indeed unions are primarily representing the interests and
needs of “insiders” (i.e., older workers), they might appear relatively unattractive
Median age change in years compared to 2004
43 44 45 46 47 48
Median age in 2014
49 50 51 52
Figure22.1 Median age of union members in 2014 and its change compared to 2004 in Europe.
Source:European Social Survey.
664 CHALLENGING FUTURES FOR YOUTH
to “outsiders” (i.e., young workers). However, such a rationale, based on assumed
member preferences, ignores the structural context of labor market dualization
and betrays a biased reasoning regarding statistical labor market outcomes.
Apart from its rather manicheistic tendencies, this framework disregards “the
constraints under which unions operate and the drivers of union strategies be-
yond their members’ interests” (Benassi and Vlandas 2016, 6).
Nevertheless, today’s smaller birth cohorts and young people’s later labor
market entrance (due to higher tertiary education rates) might further con-
tribute to this “graying” of unions.4 Figure 22.2 provides evidence that, by and
large, most unions in many countries are struggling to organize young people
or, at least, cannot keep membership developments in line with growing em-
ployment rates. e gure compares the unionization rates among “youth” and
“adults” at the aggregated level (thus masking sectoral dierences) in 2004 and
2014. Here, “youth” is dened as unionization until the age of 24years and
“adult” as unionization between 25 and 54years. In practice, unions generally
use a broader denition by setting the maximum age for “youth” at 35years
(Vandaele 2012, 208). Yet the denition of “youth” used in Figure 22.2 makes
it easier to discern the possible diculties unions have with attracting young
people; it is also more in line with youth studies. ree observations can be
made from the gure.
First, country dierences in adult and youth unionization are generally per-
sistent over time. Looking at, for instance, the level of youth unionization, there
is a strong positive relationship between the country rankings in 2004 and 2014
Unionization youth (<=24 years)
0%0% 10% 20% 30% 40%
Unionization adults (25–54 years)
50% 60% 70% 80% 90%
2004 2014 Linear (2004) Linear (2014)
Figure22.2 Unionization rates among youth and adults in Europe, 2004 and 2014.
Source:European Social Survey.
Trade Unions in Europe 665
(rs(20)= .86, p < .00). Second, there is an equally strong positive association
between youth and adult unionization in 2004, which still holds 10years later.
Although the youth/ adult gap in unionization in the Nordic countries is rela-
tively substantial because of the very high levels of adult membership, youth un-
ionization is still higher in those countries compared to the others. Finally, there
is a drop in both youth and adult unionization rates in most, but not all, coun-
tries, with a relatively stronger decline in youth unionization. In other words,
during the past 10years in most European countries considered here, less young
people have joined a union, more oen than not resulting in a widening of the
youth/ adult gap in unionization. e fall in youth unionization is especially con-
spicuous in Denmark, Ireland, and Sweden. Youth unionization has increased in
only a small number of countries, notably Austria and Germany.
Figure 22.2 illustrates the strong self- perpetuating tendencies of early union
membership and demonstrates that early unionization is key. Indeed, although a
typical union member is middle- aged, the rst experience with unionism is very
likely to happen when a worker is still young (Booth, Budd, and Munday 2010a,
48). Evidence from, for instance, Denmark (Toubøl and Jensen 2014, 150)and
the Netherlands (Visser 2002, 416) suggests that the likelihood of rst- time
union membership is higher when workers are young and entering the labor
market than it is later on:ey seem “sensitive to reputational eects even at
low levels of workplace union density” (Ibsen, Toubøl, and Jensen 2017, 10). In
other words, there are many “rst- timers” but far fewer “late bloomers” in unions
(Booth, Budd, and Munday 2010b). is essentially implies that the window of
opportunity for unions to organize workers becomes decidedly smaller the older
they get (Budd 2010). Moreover, the early stages of unionization are crucial be-
cause the rst years of union membership are the period when the probability
of member outow seems to be at its highest (Leschke and Vandaele 2015, 3– 5).
However, the crucial question for many (but not all) unions is not so much why
young workers are resigning from membership but, rather, why so many of them
“do not join a union (or at least join a union once they get a stable job)” at all
(Peetz, Price, and Bailey 2015, 64).
Further contributing to this bleak picture of the continued existence of unions
is the increasing percentage of workers who have never become a union member,
a trend that has been evident in Germany (Schnabel and Wagner 2006), the
United Kingdom, and the United States (Booth etal. 2010a), as well as across
other European countries (Kirmanoğlu and Başlevent 2012, 695). e rise of
never- membership can be considered a “demographic time bomb” for unions if
organizing young workers is not prioritized. Crucially, although the employment
shi— from the traditionally highly unionized manufacturing industries to the
less unionized private service sector— has signicantly contributed to the rise
of never- membership, this is not the whole story. Deunionization would have
occurred even in the absence of such a structural employment shi in the labor
market (Ebbinghaus and Visser 1999).
666 CHALLENGING FUTURES FOR YOUTH
22.3. THE YOUNG PEOPLE THEMSELVES:THEIR BELIEFS
AND ATTITUDES TOWARDUNIONS
Among many other causes (see Vachon, Wallace, and Hyde 2016), intergen-
erational change in beliefs and attitudes toward unions is considered an addi-
tional explanation for deunionization. Cohort eects in attitudes and beliefs
toward collectivism are consequently a central concern in this section, which
investigates whether such eects can explain the low youth unionization rate.
Many young people do actually seem to demonstrate trade union sympathies
(although they have less knowledge about unions), but the traditional sources for
the transmission of favorable attitudes and beliefs toward unionization are disap-
pearing. erefore, instead of “problematizing youth,” it is important to under-
stand how young people develop their behavioral attitudes toward unions rather
than simply comparing them to those of previous generations.
22.3.1. Framing young people’s attitudes and beliefs
via cohort effects
Studies on youth unionization that focus on young people themselves predom-
inantly emphasize cohort eects. Such a social generation approach claims that
young people’s attitudes and beliefs toward collective behavior diverge sharply
from those of previous generations. ere is no consensus here as to how a
young worker should be dened, in the sense that dierent age boundaries are
used; when these are too large, this entails the danger of masking signicant in-
group variance (Tailby and Pollert 2011), which in turn might be inuenced by
dierences in school- to- work regimes (Booth etal. 2010b). us, it remains an
empirical question whether the attitudes of very young workers, with little labor
market experience, are always similar to those of older young workers with more
Above all other factors contributing to the low level of youth unioniza-
tion, it has been speculated that young workers, being associated with increas-
ingly individualistic beliefs and values, are less motivated by the collective
ethos of unionism compared to previous generations (Allvin and Sverke 2000;
Kirmanoğlu and Başlevent 2012). However, there are good reasons to be cau-
tious about this claim. First, conceptually, individualism does not necessarily
exclude the belief that collective behavior is required to achieve common
goals (Goerres 2010). Nevertheless, collective behavior needs backing by col-
lective mechanisms, which are increasingly breaking down or are no longer
supported by the state or employer organizations (Peetz 2010). Second, meth-
odologically, ndings on dierential intergenerational attitudes toward unions
are oen based on small- scale sociological studies, sometimes even of an an-
ecdotal nature, so generalizing them is problematic (Haynes, Vowles, and
Trade Unions in Europe 667
Boxall 2005, 96). Finally, empirically, pointing to period eects, there is little
evidence that young union members are more individualistic than their older
counterparts, although there may be dierences between the unionized and
the nonunionized (Paquet 2005). Instead, employers’ hostility to union mem-
bership and a fear of victimization among young people may play an impor-
tant and dissuasive role (Mrozowicki, Krasowska, and Karolak 2015; Hodder
2016; Alonso and Fernández Rodríguez 2017).
Although a narrow interpretation of young people’s individualism oen nega-
tively associates it with “atcher’s children” (in the UK context; see Waddington
and Kerr 2002; Bryson and Gomez 2005), recent studies referring to “millennials”
cast young people in a good light in terms of political engagement (despite their
individualism). Again assuming cohort eects, millennials are considered a gen-
erational group that is loosely dened as those people who reached adulthood
aer the onset of the new millennium. us, specic attitudes and beliefs have
been attributed to this “tech- savvy generation,” especially concerning work, such
as the minor importance of paid work in their value system. However, many of
the intergenerational dierences in the workplace could be explained by age and
period as opposed to cohort eects (Hajdu and Sik, this volume). It has also been
claimed that millennials constitute a new political generation whose dierences
from their predecessors have become especially apparent in the anti- austerity/
pro- democracy movements that have been active since the Great Recession
Although the participants in the anti- austerity/ pro- democracy movements
dier in their sociodemographic composition— being younger and more
educated— and they are more likely to identify with the middle class, these youthful
activists do share the same discontent and le- leaning political orientations as
unionists (Peterson, Wahlstrom, and Wennerhag 2015). Still, tensions between
them, if employed (and more oen in vulnerable employment positions), and
established union confederations rose notably in those European countries that
were heavily aected by the Great Recession, such as Greece (Kretsos 2011)and
Spain (Fernández Rodríguez etal. 2015; Köhler and Calleja Jiménez 2015). In
these countries, the union confederations’ original strategy of political inclusion
through co- managing the crisis has contributed to a general decline in trust in
them or to a perception of them being “bureaucratic dinosaurs” (Hyman 2015).
But the union strategies adopted in the early stages of the recession also show
that the disconnection between millennials and unions in those countries should
be considered in a specic context. In fact, compared to previous generations,
there is little reason to believe that most young people today are born with an
“antipathetic union gene.” Studies examining their attitudes toward unions paint
a less negative picture than the assumed cohort eects suggest; in fact, strong an-
tagonistic attitudes toward unionism in principle are not at all common among
668 CHALLENGING FUTURES FOR YOUTH
22.3.2. Virulent anti- unionism is not theproblem
Studies actually point to an underlying and unmet demand for unionization
among young workers. Basing their research on European Social Survey data,
D’Art and Turner (2008) report largely positive attitudes toward unions, irre-
spective of age, and the persistence and even strengthening of this view among
workers since the early 1980s. In fact, young workers seem even more inclined
to join unions compared to their older counterparts. Such ndings come
from studies in Australia (Pyman etal. 2009), Canada (Gomez, Gunderson,
and Meltz 2002), New Zealand (Haynes etal. 2005), the United States (Booth
et al. 2010a), and the United Kingdom (Payne 1989; Serrano Pascual and
Waddington 2000; Waddington and Kerr 2002; Freeman and Diamond 2003;
Tailby and Pollert 2011). Also, as a corollary, a comparison between Canada,
the United Kingdom, and the United States concludes that “workers have
broadly similar preferences for unionization across age groups and borders”
(Bryson etal. 2005, 166).
Signicantly, this pattern of unmet demand for unionization can be conrmed
for a large range of very dierent countries beyond the Anglophone world, in-
cluding Belgium (Vendramin 2007), Denmark (Caraker etal. 2015, 97– 111),
France (Contrepois 2015, 94– 95), Germany (Oliver 2011, 246; TNS Infratest
2015, 36– 37; Nies and Tullius 2017), the Netherlands (Huiskamp and Smulders
2010), Sweden (Furåker and Berglund 2003; Bengtsson and Berglund 2011), and
elsewhere across Europe (Turner and D’Art 2012); Hungary seems to be an ex-
ception (Keune 2015, 15). Furthermore, although results based on focus groups
or individual interviews cannot readily be extended to young workers in general,
such research methods do allow for a more enhanced dierentiation between
various youth segments in the labor market.5 Again, interview- based research
in, for instance, Poland (Mrozowicki etal. 2015), Portugal (Kovács, Dias, and da
Conceição Cerdeira 2017), and the United Kingdom (Hodder 2016; TUC 2017,
25– 28; the latter conrming previous results) highlights the (critical) support
toward unions among certain labor market youth segments.
Although young people’s attitude toward unionization is generally positive, it
has been found that young workers possess very limited knowledge about unions
(Fernández Rodríguez etal. 2015, 147; Hodder 2016, 13). Because young people
are largely unaware as to what unions actually do, the overall majority of young
people seem to be largely “blank slates” (Freeman and Diamond 2003, 40)when
they enter the labor market. Even if they have some understanding about unions,
it tends to be a stereotyped view, especially because the press and mass media
are “biased toward selecting events about actual or impeding strike actions”
(Gallagher 1999, 249).6 Unions’ negative public image might feed into the view
that they are “representing a dierent type and culture of work and dynamics in
employment to that experienced by young people” (Fernández Rodríguez etal.
2015, 157). In Australia, for example, it was found that young people think that
Trade Unions in Europe 669
only “victims” on the labor market need unions, being powerless to bargain ef-
fectively for themselves (Bulbeck 2008).
Young workers’ lack of knowledge about unionism is particularly evident
when they experience concrete problems at work (Paquet 2005). When this
is the case, at least in the Australian (McDonald etal. 2014, 321– 23) and UK
contexts (Tailby and Pollert 2011, 511; Hodder 2016, 66), unions are rarely
considered a source of advice. For basic information and assistance on
employment- related matters, popular internet search engines are common
resources.7 Young workers also informally approach management for advice.
Finally, young workers rely on parental and family support and their circle of
friends as a source of information to address job- related dissatisfaction. e lit-
erature on union attitude formation has specically identied parents, family,
and friends as socialization agents who could shape young people’s union
attitudes prior to their labor market entrance; it is to these pre- employment
sources that we turn now.
22.3.3. Union attitude formation beforelabor
Two theoretical approaches are helpful for identifying sources that could inu-
ence young people’s attitudes toward unions before their rst entry into the labor
market. First, applying insights from marketing theory, the “experience- good”
model of unionism emphasizes that workers can only truly appreciate unions
if they sample membership or become a member (Gomez, Gunderson, and
Meltz 2002, 2004; Gomez and Gunderson 2004; Bryson etal. 2005). Joining a
union requires some degree of prior knowledge, given that most union- provided
benets are rather unclear for nonunion members; in particular, nonmembers
may have diculty discerning the nonpecuniary benets of union membership.
is problem is especially relevant for young people because most of them do
not have rst- hand experience with unions. Still, the importance of unionism
as an “experience good” should not be overemphasized, for indirect experi-
ence through contacts and networks is also important for learning about union
benets. Second, social learning theory likewise highlights the importance of
embeddedness in union- friendly social networks in which positive union
attitudes are socialized (Kelloway and Newton 1996; Grin and Brown 2011).
Social interaction with parents, relatives, and friends who support unionization
increases the probability of young people having favorable union attitudes, and
this might also act as a counterbalance to the predominantly negative public
image of unions.
us, if favorable attitudes toward unionism (as a social custom) are
transmitted from one generation to another, family and parental socialization
can be identied as a potential source for the development of positive union
attitudes among young people (Blanden and Machin 2003; Oliver 2010, 515;
670 CHALLENGING FUTURES FOR YOUTH
2011, 253; Ebbinghaus etal. 2011, 109). However, it can be expected that such
intergenerational social learning has relatively lost its importance in most
countries because, given the rise of never- membership in a union, parental
union membership has itself diminished (Freeman and Diamond 2003, 33–
35; Schnabel and Wagner 2006; Kirmanoğlu and Başlevent 2012, 699). Even in
a high- union- density country such as Belgium, the traditional social custom
of union membership has become a less important motive for unionization
among the younger age categories (Swyngedouw, Abts, and Meuleman 2016,
35). Favorable attitudes to unions can also come from young people’s union-
friendly social networks (Grin and Brown 2011, 95– 96); in fact, with regard
to joining a union, peers seem to be a more important source of inuence
on young workers compared to older people (Freeman and Diamond 2003,
45). Yet, particularly in low- union- density countries, it is again questionable
whether such pro- union networks are still strong enough for sustaining the
norm of union membership. Finally, social networks in the context of edu-
cation could also be a source of union attitude formation. us, students in
certain elds of study, such as the arts and social sciences, seem to be partic-
ularly receptive to unionism (Oliver 2010, 515; 2011, 253; Grin and Brown
2011, 96). Whether this is a consequence of the self- selecting tendencies of
these disciplines, which perhaps mainly attract students who already have
pro- union attitudes, or whether other factors (e.g., the curriculum of certain
courses) are more signicant has yet to be ascertained.
One question that arises is whether the initial socializing agents con-
tinue to have an influence on young people’s union attitudes as they gain
experience on the labor market. Based on the experience- good model of
unionism, it is expected that the agents will lose their influence somewhat
when young people have left full- time education and fully entered the labor
market, for the youngsters will then gradually rely more on their own, in-
dividually accumulated “sampling history” (Gomez and Gunderson 2004,
108). This point is confirmed by a study on labor market experiences via
student employment in Australia (Oliver 2010, 2011):Once young people
begin to gain experience on the labor market, norms and influences at the
workplace seem to gain greater importance as determinants of union mem-
bership compared to parental socialization (Cregan 1991). As Figure 22.2
indicates, the key period for unions to organize young workers is when
they first enter the labor market because this gives unions a crucial op-
portunity to shape young workers’ attitudes (Booth etal. 2010b, 66– 68).
This timing does not necessarily correspond with the completion of edu-
cation or labor market entrance on a full- time basis; it could also concern
student employment. Analyzing the influence of these early labor market
experiences and transitions from school to work on union attitude forma-
tion is therefore vital.
Trade Unions in Europe 671
22.4. EARLY LABOR MARKET EXPERIENCES AND SCHOOL-
TO- WORK TRANSITIONS
Concerning the timing of labor market entry, one event in the school- to- work
transition that deserves special attention is student employment. It provides
unions with an opportunity to specically target students, and it enables students
to gauge the benets of union membership for themselves rst- hand (Oliver 2010,
2011). Acrucial question is whether these rst- time experiences with unionism
in student employment serve as lasting impressions for when young people
begin their careers aer graduating. is exposure to unionism might be partic-
ularly dierent to what young people go on to experience in their future sectors
of employment (Booth etal. 2010b, 61– 62). Although there are few studies on
young people’s attitudes toward unionism during student employment, their de-
velopment does seem to be inuenced by these formative experiences of work.
Two conclusions can be made.
First, young people in lower quality (student) jobs or who have encountered
concrete labor market diculties (e.g., temporary or involuntary part- time em-
ployment or unemployment) seem to have a greater desire to become union
members compared to their counterparts with higher quality jobs (Lowe and
Rastin 2000; Vendramin 2007, 59– 61; Oliver 2010, 2011). is indicates that
those in lower quality (student) jobs believe that unions could improve their job
quality, which is especially the case among young workers with a longer involve-
ment in the labor market, suggesting that they realize that “exit and dierent
jobs are not necessarily solutions to problems at work which repeat themselves”
(Tailby and Pollert 2011, 514). Second, workers with previous union experi-
ence generally hold more positive views about the ability of unions to improve
working conditions and job security compared to never- members (Kolins Givan
and Hipp 2012). Likewise, those who were union members during their pe-
riod of student employment are more likely to join a union aer nishing their
studies compared to those young people who have never been a union member
(Oliver 2010). However, conrming the experience- good model, it is not union
membership per se that seems to matter but, rather, the positive experience of
that membership during student employment. Communicating with new young
members in a personal way and educating them about their social rights could
contribute to such a positive experience (Paquet 2005).
Of great importance, naturally, is whether unions are embedded in the work-
place, because the extent of union representation inuences (young) workers’
perception of the eectiveness of unions (Waddington 2014). It is no coinci-
dence that unions’ diminishing access to the workplace (linked to the rm size
via legal eligibility requirements about union representation) is clearly associated
with lower youth unionization (Spilsbury etal. 1987; Payne 1989). It is therefore
crucial to map what proportion of those in student employment are exposed to
672 CHALLENGING FUTURES FOR YOUTH
unionism and to analyze their experiences at work; the same principle, of course,
applies for young workers in general (TUC 2016, 2017). It is certain that being in
paid employment alongside studying has become widespread throughout Europe
(especially for those in tertiary education) out of the need to nance costs or to
improve the standard of living (Hauschildt etal. 2015, 95– 102). Notable varia-
tion in student employment rates exists between countries and between study
disciplines, for instance, which alludes to dierent patterns in school- to- work
transitions. At the same time, student employment is especially concentrated in
the wholesale, retail, accommodation, and food sectors in most European coun-
tries (calculations based on Grotti, Russell, and O’Reilly, this volume)— the very
sectors in which union density is far below the national average. us, in most
countries, the odds are not very high that young people have direct experience
with unions at the workplace for the rst time during student employment, es-
pecially in low- union- density countries. But even in unionized workplaces, one
particular nding is that nonunionized students or young workers are not al-
ways actively recruited:In other words, nobody asks them to join (Cregan and
Johnston 1990, 94; Pyman etal. 2009, 12– 13; Oliver 2010, 511).
School- to- work transitions are marked not only by variation in young people’s
labor market entry speed (via student employment or otherwise) but also by
dierences in the sequence and duration of employment statuses. e distinc-
tive patterns of school- to- work transitions are associated with dierent degrees
of job stability and security, and they have long- lasting eects on labor market
outcomes (Berloa etal., this volume). Patterns depend on dierences in educa-
tional and training systems, sectoral and national labor market institutions re-
garding employment regulation, and changing macroeconomic conditions such
as the outbreak of the Great Recession (Grotti etal., this volume). Individual
characteristics such as gender and educational attainment also clearly inuence
young people’s early employment and career history. All of this explains why
the dominance of certain patterns in school- to- work transitions varies across
sectors and countries (Brzinsky- Fay 2007). Based on several institutional char-
acteristics, ve country clusters or regimes of school- to- work transitions have
been identied (Pohl and Walther 2007; Pastore 2016; Hadjivassiliou et al.,
this volume). It is beyond the scope of this chapter to explore each regime in
detail; rather, it is sucient here to give an account of the degree of integra-
tion of unions into the institutional framework of these regimes and how they
are (perceived as) helpful in smoothing young people’s entrance into the labor
market. us, in the Northern European universalistic regime, unions play a
role (together with public employment services) in the management of income-
support schemes and active labor market policies, which increases the proba-
bility of young workers’ union exposure. Above all, union- managed voluntary
unemployment insurance schemes (the “Ghent system”) act as a selective in-
centive for unionization in Denmark, Finland, and Sweden (Ebbinghaus etal.
2011). However, the state- led “erosion” of this Ghent system or the promotion of
Trade Unions in Europe 673
new institutional alternatives or both have weakened the close relationship be-
tween unions and insurance schemes, especially for new labor market entrants
(Høgedahl and Kongshøj 2017). Nonetheless, these countries, together with
Norway and Belgium (the latter a quasi- Ghent system country; Vandaele 2006),
record high youth unionization in both selected years (see Figure 22.2).
While belonging to the employment- centered regime, Belgium has a fairly
stable youth unionization rate, explained by the relatively unchanging de facto
Ghent system and the quadrennial social elections in large rms in the private
sector, which oer unions an opportunity to reach out to young workers (Faniel
and Vandaele 2012). In other countries belonging to the employment- centered
regime, especially Austria and Germany, the dual educational system plays a
central role, helping young people gain specic occupational skills while still
at school by providing vocational training opportunities via apprenticeships.
Historically supported by a legal framework of rm- level representation (the
Jugend- und Auszubildendenvertretung), apprenticeships have been unions’ dom-
inant and most successful channel for organizing young workers in Germany
(Holst, Holzschuh, and Nieho 2014). Since the late 1980s, however, vocational
training has slowly lost its signicance as an entry point into the labor market.
German school- to- work transitions have become characterized by precarious
employment or by tertiary education students entering the labor market di-
rectly or via dual studies, with those taking the latter route combining study with
practical training or work experience in a company. ese dierent school- to-
work trajectories have prompted German unions to strategically rethink their
organizing approaches; for instance, the dierent strategies toward organizing
young workers of the IG Metall union have been identied as key to its success
(Schmalz and iel 2017). Nevertheless, apprenticeships remain a signicant
recruitment channel for unions in large rms, especially in the manufacturing
industry (which continues to be an important provider of employment in
Germany). It has therefore been suggested that German unions would do better
to focus on young people’s apprenticeships and traineeships within their eld
of study rather than on their possible experiences in non- study- related student
employment because this is weakly clustered in particular sectors (Oliver 2011).
Finally, in the three other school- to- work transition regimes— with obvious
dierences between the liberal, subprotective, and post- socialist regimes— the
education, training, and welfare systems generally allow less room for union in-
volvement. In the case of the subprotective regimes, it should be noted that unions’
associational power is less oriented toward organizing union members. eir
power is predominantly based on their mobilization capacity for demonstrations
and strikes (as in France, although it belongs to the employment- centered regime;
Sullivan 2010)or on the social election results at the company level (as in Spain;
Martínez Lucio, Martino, and Connolly 2017). Although these dierent union
identities reveal the various ways in which unions prioritize the organization of
young workers (and to what extent), it is important for all unions to renew their
674 CHALLENGING FUTURES FOR YOUTH
base of union activists, candidates for social elections, or union representatives.
In any case, across the ve regimes, today’s school- to- work transitions are more
oen than not complex, unstable, and nonlinear. From a historical perspective,
this level of complexity and nonlinearity is not typical for contemporary school-
to- work transitions (Goodwin and O’Connor 2015). Even so, today’s employ-
ment has been increasingly plagued by precariousness and the quality of youth
jobs has deteriorated, with an increase in part- time and temporary jobs since the
Great Recession (Lewis and Heyes 2017; Grotti etal., this volume; Hadjivassiliou
etal., this volume). In this respect, given young people’s turnover rates, it has
been claimed that unions should opt for a life cycle approach to organizing in-
stead of a job- centered approach (Budd 2010).
22.5. UNION AGENCY:UNIONS REACHING OUT
TO YOUNG PEOPLE?
Historically, and highlighting their weaknesses in terms of eld- enlarging
organizing strategies, unions have long found their relationship with young
workers to be a challenge (Williams and Quinn 2014):e “generation gap”
in unionization between young workers and their older counterparts is not
new. But today’s positive attitude formation regarding unionization through
socializing agents and union exposure at the workplace is becoming a less
eective means of reaching out to all young workers. However, the shaping
of union attitudes also depends on the agency of the union— in the eorts it
makes toward developing the collective consciousness, identity, and actions
of the young workers (Blackwood et al. 2003). Unions across Europe have
gradually (although too slowly) begun undertaking dierent (small- scale)
actions to better engage with young people. Unions’ growing awareness of low
youth unionization and the economic context of the Great Recession, with
its increase in youth unemployment, have both enhanced this engagement
As illustrated by brochures on “good examples” from the United Kingdom’s
largest union Unite (2014) and the European Federation of Building and
Woodworkers (Lorenzini 2016), among others (Pedersini 2010; Keune 2015),
several unions are using a vast array of (not necessarily new) tactics to engage
young workers. Reach- out activities include visits to vocational schools, higher
education institutions, and job- information conventions; self- promotion; and
providing information about young people’s social rights and challenges in
their school- to- work transitions where unions can provide specic services.8
Fostering alliance- building between unions and relevant youth organizations,
such as student organizations, is another way to achieve a better understanding
of school- to- work transitions and young people’s problems, also outside the
workplace. Some unions are also present at youth events such as music festivals
Trade Unions in Europe 675
or advertise in cinemas. Furthermore, although face- to- face communication and
traditional forms of mass communication continue to be of importance, young
people’s media consumption is heavily oriented toward the internet and social
media via apps on mobile computer devices. Although unions have increased
their presence and activity in this regard, there is oen a lack of strategic co-
herence, meaning that their potential communication power is underutilized
(Hodder and Houghton 2015), especially because young people’s preferences to-
ward social media communications are based on the opportunities it oers for
participation (Wells 2014).
ere are also abundant examples of unions oering a reduced- price or free
union membership so that students and young workers, oen in low- paid or even
unpaid work (e.g., in the creative industries), can sample the benets of union
membership. Meanwhile, some unions— for instance, in Italy, the Netherlands,
and Slovenia— have set up separate organizations or networks for representing
atypical or freelance workers, whose jobs are oen characterized by precarious-
ness (Gumbrell- McCormick 2011; Lorenzini 2016). Furthermore, regarding re-
cent labor market developments, so- called “self- employed” workers in the “gig
economy” (more likely to be younger) have been building solidarity outside of
the traditional unions to deal with employment issues. ey have set up their
own grassroots campaigns, collective actions, (virtual) community- based self-
organizations, and “labor mutuals” (Bauwens and Niaros 2017; Tassinari and
Maccarrone 2017). Alliance- building between these self- organizations and ex-
isting unions, as well as imaginative and diversied union strategies that make
innovative use of technology to connect spatiotemporally distributed workers,
is needed now more than ever to “#YouthUp”— that is, to attract the millennials
and future generations. However, apart from legal arrangements, current union
statutes and representation structures might oen act as obstacles to union
membership for those workers who frequently change employment status (in-
cluding “gig workers”).
Furthermore, some unions have set up targeted campaigns demonstrating the
benets of collective representation and action in order to alter their media pro-
le and public image among potential (young) members and the wider public
(Bailey etal. 2010). Although the ndings presented here are solely from the
perspective of an observer, the relative success of the Dutch “Young & United”
campaign illustrates the possibilities of union agency. In 2015, the Federatie
Nederlandse Vakbeweging (Dutch Federation of Trade Unions), together with a
diverse range of youth organizations, launched this campaign to reach a dispersed
young workforce that is dicult to organize, given that many young people are
employed in companies and sectors with a high turnover rate. Shining a spot-
light on age discrimination, the well- prepared Young & United campaign was
launched with the aim of abolishing the low “youth minimum wage” for young
workers aged between 18 and 23years.9 Intriguingly, this issue- based campaign
was successful in terms of political agenda setting and the partial abolishment
676 CHALLENGING FUTURES FOR YOUTH
of the youth minimum wage, despite the fact that this low wage had not been a
public issue in the Netherlands for several decades.
Because the sharing of media content is a social driver, and union- friendly
networks are socializing agents for union attitude formation, one of the key
challenges of any union youth campaign is “to tap into these networks of young
people and provide information in a way that can be easily shared” (Geelan 2015,
77; see also Johnson and Jarley 2005). e Young & United campaign seemed
largely eective in gaining a foothold in youth networks by using a language,
visuals, and messages that appealed to young people. Inspired by methods from
the “community organizing model” (Lorenzini 2016, 24– 25), the campaign made
heavy use of social media and escalating direct action, oen with a festive di-
mension and led by a large and diverse group of young people who were engaged
via like- by- like recruitment. However, research is needed on the extent to which
the campaign succeeded in raising awareness among young people about un-
ionism and triggered an ongoing increase in youth union activism. Furthermore,
new young members might develop false expectations if they think of unions
as primarily social movements, for this ignores the realities of daily, routine
union work and the fact that most unions are hardly permanent mobilization
machines, especially in the Dutch context. Nevertheless, the Young & United
campaign turned its attention in 2017 to problematizing temporary and zero-
hour contracts for young workers and putting better employment contracts on
the political agenda.
e Young & United campaign demonstrates that, if it is successful, com-
prehensive campaigning can forge a collective identity and sense of solidarity
based on salient (workplace) issues that are politicized and could be addressed
by better regulation (Murphy and Turner 2016). e potential for better regu-
lation is crucial, given that young people’s interest in unionism is based on the
condition that “they feel that their contribution can make a dierence” (Byford
2009, 237). From the perspective of union membership as an experience good,
campaigns that make sole or predominant use of formal advertising channels are
likely to be relatively unsuccessful in inuencing young people’s union attitudes
(Gomez and Gunderson 2004, 107). e Danish “Are you OK?” campaign,
launched in 2012, illustrates this point. Although this campaign highlighted
the importance of collective organization and the concrete benets of collec-
tive agreements, its network embeddedness among young people was weak be-
cause of its top- down character; thus, young people’s union attitudes were only
marginally altered (Geelan 2015). In contrast to a simple marketing campaign,
comprehensive campaigning combines a top- down approach with youth- led ac-
tivism at the workplace or beyond.
Furthermore, it is doubtful whether campaigns that address young workers
uniformly as an age- dened or homogeneous group will be successful. Adem-
ographic characteristic such as age might be a meager basis for identifying is-
sues of concern because young workers do not necessarily think of themselves
Trade Unions in Europe 677
as a group with shared interests (Kahmann 2002). Given the variety of school-
to- work transition regimes, young workers’ dierent labor market experiences
give rise to dierent interests and needs, although not necessarily dierent from
those of older generations; still, the precariousness of young people’s working
conditions might be an issue that is salient and common across the dierent
regimes.10 Although union campaigns might capitalize on issue- based forms of
civic and political participation and the “resurgence in youth activism,” youth
engagement seems largely to mirror existing national patterns of political par-
ticipation, which can be clustered into country groups that are similar to the
school- to- work transition regimes (Sloam 2016; Bassoli and Monticelli 2018).
is indicates that campaign strategies should be contextualized within these
Finally, if unions want to help young workers develop agency in their
working lives, eective internal structures for youth representation are also a
necessity, insofar as they make unions more responsive to and knowledgeable
about the aspirations, interests, and needs of young people (Vandaele 2012,
2015; Bielski Boris et al. 2013). Increasing unions’ responsiveness toward
young workers might help disprove the pessimistic stereotype that they are
hostile to unions because of individualistic tendencies. In addition, although
it could be speculated that “generational dierences have perhaps been more
apparent to activists than to academics” (Williams and Quinn 2014, 140), the
possible misconception about young workers’ excessive individualism is cer-
tainly not without risk for unions; it could turn into a self- fullling prophecy
if the resulting behavior of union ocials and activists ends up impeding a
satisfactory engagement with the new generation on the labor market (Esders
etal. 2011). Similarly, certain groups of young workers, at least in the United
Kingdom, have internalized the principles of today’s labor market exibility
(Bradley and Devadason 2008, 131), which indicates that “how they see the
world diers from the union ocials who seek to organise them” (TUC 2016,
33). Asimple replication of formal union decision- making structures via par-
allel structures for youth entails the danger of a ghettoization based on age,
weakening the articulation of young workers’ own agendas and ideas (Dufour-
Poirier and Laroche 2015). Furthermore, such age- based structures, unlike
gender structures or those for under- represented groups such as migrants,
would face regular changes in the membership composition (because of max-
imum age criteria). Integrating young workers into union activities solely
through forms of representative democracy seems insucient for instigating
a more transformative change in union strategies and practices. New forms
of participatory democracy and self- expression, informal engagement around
issues (e.g., precariousness), and training and education (also via mentoring
and union leadership development programs) may contribute to a greater—
and more politicized— involvement of young unionists in union life and activ-
ities and also empower them (Laroche and Dufour- Poirier 2017).
678 CHALLENGING FUTURES FOR YOUTH
Demographic change is a fundamental issue for membership- based organi-
zations, and this is equally applicable to unions. Many of them are in trouble
today because union membership is not only heavily skewed toward workers
in industry and the public sector but also noticeably “graying.” Although youth
unionization is persistently higher in the Northern European countries and
Belgium than in all other European countries considered here, a decline in
youth unionization, at the aggregated level, almost represents a common trend.
is representation gap in unionization between younger and older workers
is not new. However, it is oen explained by attributing specic attitudes and
beliefs to the new generation of workers. is is a recurrent popular narra-
tive:Public perceptions, media representations, and political discourses tend
to stress intergenerational shis, although empirical evidence of cohort eects
is oen lacking. Rather than a deciency of collectivist beliefs and values, there
are other, more signicant reasons for unions’ diculties in engaging and
organizing young workers.
us, socialization via parents and social networks is a less eective means of
positive attitude formation for unionism than in the past. Furthermore, young
workers are predominantly employed in workplaces, occupations, and sectors in
which the social norm of union membership is simply weak. If union leadership
continues to hold generational stereotypes about young people, the risk is that
it will not be self- reective or self- critical enough to tackle low youth unioniza-
tion. Apart from a broad strategic vision on the future of unions, a vast shi in
resource allocation is needed for overcoming the widening representation gap
and for turning small- scale, local initiatives into large- scale organizing eorts,
especially in those growing occupations and sectors in which young workers are
employed and need unions the most. In this area, early unionization and demon-
stration of the eectiveness of unions is crucial. e research on unions and stu-
dent employment highlights that only student workers with a positive experience
have a higher probability of future membership, compared to workers reporting
that unions made either a negative impression or little impression at all. Rather
than providing historical accounts of the achievements of the labor movement,
union activities for engaging young people would do better to emphasize how
unions are addressing salient issues that matter to them today.
Furthermore, the continued cross- country variation in youth unionization
points to the relevance of unions’ institutional embeddedness in school- to- work
transitions, inter- related with dierent union approaches to organizing young
workers. In other words, it appears that age itself is a less important factor for
explaining low youth unionization; the decision to become a union member
is rather “embedded in the context of an individual’s work history” (Lowe and
Rastin 2000, 217). It is young people’s early experiences on the labor market and
Trade Unions in Europe 679
their (workplace) issues— either via student employment or when they begin
their career aer graduating— that matter, along with their direct exposure to
unions at the workplace. Analyzing in detail the institutional arrangements
within education, training, and welfare systems could contribute to a better un-
derstanding of how unions can strengthen their relevance for school- leavers in
their transition from school to work by designing tailor- made union strategies
for young people in precarious work and other nonstandard forms of employ-
ment. Youth unionization is not doomed to failure because of an intergenera-
tional shi, and unions should therefore not resign themselves to such a fate but,
rather, should recognize— it must be stressed, the sooner the better— that there
is still room for maneuver.
1 is latter issue has been the result of either a lack of legal provision for
such representation or a lack of deliberate managerial or state strategies of
avoiding or resisting union representation in the (ssured) workplace (due
to contracting out and subcontracting).
2 Iam very grateful for the constructive remarks and suggestions from Carl
Roper, Mark Stuart, and the editors of this book.
3 Retired members and other categories of passive members are included in
Figure 22.1 because they can also inuence union decision- making. Notably
in Italy, pensioners have an incentive to become or remain union members
because specialized union oces help them access welfare benets (Frangi
and Barisione 2015). Obviously, the overall median age in each country
drops slightly if only active union members are included in the count; the
country trends over time remain, however.
4 Youth emigration could be another explanatory factor.
5 Disaggregating survey data within the young age group is seldom done be-
cause the size of the survey sample usually does not allow for this.
6 In particular, a public transport strike might disproportionally distress young
people because they oen make use of this means of transport (Schnake,
Dumler, and Moates 2016).
7 It remains an open question whether unions are found at the top of the
search engine results page.
8 In several countries, unions are legally prohibited from going to schools
or campuses, but creative tactics can be employed to get around this
9 See https:// www.youngandunited.nl.
10 ose problems could include issues beyond the workplace, such as aord-
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