Precarious solidarities

Unions, young workers and representative claims

Melanie Simms, University of Glasgow

» Full paper: ilera-2019-paper-26-Simms.pdf

It is widely accepted that union movements in many countries face profound structural challenges organising and representing young workers, despite often significant investment in this area (Hodder and Kretsos 2015). This raises questions about the limitations of current activities and what might be necessary to improve outcomes. This paper draws on two forms of claims that unions make when representing any group of workers; solidaristic claims (Hyman 1997) and representative claims (Saward 2010).

After an exploration of the theoretical basis of these two forms of claims, this paper addresses two central research questions:

  • What soldiaristic claims are being made when unions seek to organise and represent young workers?
  • What representational claims are being made in these processes?

The presentation draws on evidence from three research projects undertaken by the author since 2011. The first was a Eurofound survey of social partner responses to helping young workers during the crisis. The second was a British Academy Small grant comparing the UK, Ital and France. And the third was a large-scale international comparative project comparing the USA, UK, Netherlands, France and Germany. Despite slightly different research questions and methodological approaches, all three projects have resulted in a wealth of data from trade unions regarding their efforts to organise and represent young workers.

Using evidence from these studies, the paper argues that solidaristic claims are extremely important ‘rallying cries’ (Hyman 1997) but, in practice, often precarious because they are typically invoked when there are few avenues for effective bargaining and representation. Evidence shows that unions are keen to stand in solidarity with young workers, but often have few mechanisms to represent their interests. In this space, new representative claims are being made by unions. In some cases, institutional arrangements allow unions to make ‘expert claims’ (Saward 2010) and represent young workers despite very low membership. This is typically the case where unions are embedded in extensive networks of nationally supported representation systems. Where that is not evidence, or perceived as ineffective, we sometimes see the emergence of new representative organisations such as San Precario in Italy, which make ‘alternative claims’ (Saward 2010) in the spaces where unions are absent or ineffective.

This presentation argues that solidaristic claims are important but not sufficient to build effective representation of young workers. Too often the debate is framed in terms of what young workers can do for unions with regard to survival and renewal, rather than what unions can do for young workers.

  • Hodder, A. and L. Kretsos. (2015) Young Workers and Trade Unions: A Global View. Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Hyman, R. (1997). ‘Trade unions and interest representation in the context of globalisation’. Transfer. 3 (3) pp 515-533.
  • Saward, M. (2010) The Representative Claim. Oxford University Press.