Against the trend of the past years, trade unions have been gaining new members since the corona crisis. And these members are in fact young. This to the surprise of trade union experts.
For years, the number of workers affiliated to a trade union has been decreasing and aging. Despite that, the largest unions in the Netherlands, FNV and CNV, have announced that they are now gaining new members. Trade union De Unie also sees an increase in the number of new members.
It amazes trade union historian Sjaak van der Velden. “History shows that in times of crisis people leave the union,” he says. According to him, the explanation for this is simple. “In times of crisis, people want to save as much money as possible. Canceling the trade union membership fees is also a part of that.”
But this time things are different. According to the union FNV, the largest union in the Netherlands, it is mainly young people who have joined the union in recent weeks. “We suspect that this is related to the uncertain economic situation they are in, or to their own work situation.”
CNV has also gained many young members recently. The union says it will receive 20 percent more registrations compared to March and April last year. “It concerns hundreds of members,” said the union. “There are many young people among them, probably because they are more affected by the crisis.”
A fascinating development, says Ton Wilthagen, professor Labour Market at the Tilburg University. “It is not at all in line with expectations that young people will join a union. You can see that young people generally close memberships less often than their parents or grandparents,” he says. “Young people may spend 10 Euros on Netflix or Spotify, but they are no longer members of the ANWB (Royal Dutch Touring Club) or a broadcasting station, let alone a trade union.”
Great opportunity to implement new forms of campaigning
Nevertheless, it is not entirely incomprehensible that young people do become members now, Wilthagen explains. “Many young people and also students work in tourism and have flexible side jobs in, for example, the catering industry. And precisely those jobs are now at risk. It may well be that young people join a union in the hope that they will be in a better position to keep their job.”
According to the professor, it is also possible that the new members see the union as a guardian of certain sectors. “That they think unions can help to further open up certain sectors during this time of crisis. Think of the catering industry or the event industry. After all, a union with more members is also stronger. This is not an superfluous luxury now that we have to organize the one-and-a-half meter economy together.”
But even if that is the explanation, it is an unexpected development, he says. “In general, young people believe more in the power of social media and what a social network can accomplish than in the work of unions.”
According to Wilthagen it would be interesting to see if this development continues. “It would be a great opportunity for unions to rejuvenate,” he says. “Old-fashioned strike on the Malieveld will be difficult anyway due to the one-and-a-half meter norm, so unions will have to work more digitally. If they succeed to appeal to an even larger group of young people, it could certainly be an opportunity to grow bigger.”