Statement by the Youth Committee to the ITUC Congress

The economic crisis has focused the world´s attention on the struggles of working people: soaring unemployment, increasing poverty, failing social safety nets, and the degradation of work. Yet, as young workers, we experienced many of these problems well before the crisis, and we fear we will continue to confront them after the crisis ends…unless we in the trade union movement succeed in changing the trend of insecurity, precariousness, and reduced rights for young workers across the globe.

The current crisis has had a disproportionate impact on employment for young workers, particularly young women. As the last ones into the labor market, we are the first ones out when trouble hits…that is, if we can even get in the first place. Too often, we can’t: Worldwide, at least 71 million young people are unemployed.

At a time when workers in many industrialized countries are facing cuts in their pension payments and the erosion of their social security benefits, many young people are entering the labor market with no form of social protection whatsoever.

As governments cut back on basic social services, many countries are not just losing public sector jobs now, but also opportunities for decent work in the future. For every teacher laid off, for every job training program eliminated today, a young person loses his or her chance to prepare for a decent and secure job tomorrow.

As young workers, we have limited opportunities for decent work. We are forced to take jobs where we can find them, be it in the informal economy, on short-term contracts, as temporary workers, or as part-time employees. Furthermore young workers are often subject to special contracting regimes, limited access to unions, and reduced rights at work. Many young people aren´t even aware of their basic labor rights. Our jobs often don´t provide us the wages or social security to provide sufficiently for ourselves, let alone to plan for starting and supporting our families.

Yesterday, we and many others in this room stood with our young brothers and sisters on strike at Hertz Rental Cars here in Vancouver, where the company is trying to change full-time jobs to part-time jobs, which results in lost of benefits. Trade unions must not accept that young workers be given anything less than full and equal rights.

Although young workers are sometimes seen as a special interest group that need only be wooed with catchy slogans, cool music, and flashy graphics—it is not just marketing that will bring young workers to unions. Rather, it is an answer to our very basic needs, needs that are at the core of the trade union agenda. Quite simply, young workers want decent work: safe work places, good wages, adequate social protection, secure employment, and rights and a voice at work. But we also look to unions to answer the challenges we face in today´s changing labor market: flexible labor laws, mobility between jobs, the efficient transition from school to work, and balance between our working and family lives.

But we don´t just need unions… unions need us. Young workers are the future of the trade union movement, and we are its present. Well before the crisis began, we argued the duty of recruiting, educating, and retaining young members and activists falls squarely on trade unions themselves. Only by creating inclusive trade union structures and practices can young workers achieve our full potential, in our unions and our workplaces.

Unions need our numbers, but they also need our strengths. Young workers bring new perspectives, unique communication skills, and creative activism to the trade union movement. Although the global crisis presents our movement with an enormous challenge, it also gives us a new opportunity to renew our relevance, replenish our strength, and to call more workers, especially young workers, to our cause.

But few young people will come to trade unions on their own, and there are many obstacles that prevent young people from joining unions. Young workers have come of age in an era when trade unions are being systematically dismantled, when governments are breaking strikes, and when footloose employers are traversing the globe in search of cheap labor and lax labor laws. As a result, many young workers have no exposure to and experience with trade unions, and no understanding of the important role that unions play in the workplace and society. Unions need to better explain their work and goals, educate young people about the value of trade unionism, incorporate young workers concerns into union policy positions, and demonstrate their commitment to advancing young workers´ interests.

Unions have to prioritize actively recruiting young workers and aim to become an essential and visible part of young workers´ day to day lives, in education, in training, in work, and in communities. This will require some unions to change their organizing strategies to reach young workers in new sectors and those employed in non-traditional employment relationships. New media and technology is important in outreach and we need to use it. But we must also recognize that many young workers have no access to such technology. Good communications must support, but cannot substitute for real organizing in our workplaces and communities.

Unions will also have to change internal practices to encourage young workers to participate and lead. To be an effective voice for young workers, trade unions must fully involve young people at every level of their regular business, activities, and leadership—not simply relegate them to a youth committee and to discussion of young peoples´ issues. Unions do need formal youth structures; but moreover they need youth structures with sufficient resources to carry out activities and outreach, space to participate in debates, and opportunities to expand youth leadership.

Brothers, sisters—young people need unions, and unions need us. Young people across the globe are facing unprecedented challenges, and so the ITUC and its affiliates worldwide must pay a role in confronting them. We ask for your support for resolution #7, A decent life for young working men and women , and we stand ready to work with you as we lead our movement, and indeed, our societies, into the future.