Amplifying young voices within trade unions in the COVID-19 new normal

published 5 April 2022 updated 17 June 2024

Education International has joined other global union federations (GUFs) in a project aiming to promote union renewal and train young unionists.

This three-year project, “Amplifying young voices within trade unions in the COVID-19 new normal”, is underpinned by Education International and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Public Services International (PSI), International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), IndustriALL, and the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI). The project received financial assistance from a German foundation, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES).

Clear impact of COVID-19 on young workers

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, young workers were disproportionately represented in precarious/non-permanent forms of work - including agency, temporary and informal work, the GUFs deplore. These types of work are characterised by a lack of labour rights and protections, low wages, poor working conditions, and lack of/or inadequate access to social protection.

The social and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have simply exacerbated the situation of young workers. Young women have been particularly negatively affected. Recent research by UN Women shows that the health crisis has a clear gendered impact. Globally, women have lost (and continue to lose) income because of the lockdowns. In addition, the significant amount of unpaid domestic and care work women already did prior to the pandemic increased exponentially.

GUFs’ actions for young workers

GUFs are already working to bring young workers together from different sectors, unions, and regions. The aim is to discuss and share concerns and ideas in terms of new challenges young workers are facing amidst the pandemic. The GUFs have taken a clear stand to promote decent wages and working conditions for young workers and to enhance their representation and active participation within the trade union movement.

Two webinar sessions on “Amplifying Young Voices” were organised by the GUFs in July 2020 and two online (pilot) training sessions were held in November 2020. Participants actively engaged in the discussions during the two webinar sessions and called for more extended discussions to be organised on relevant topics.

Young workers have faced specific challenges for years, and these were exacerbated by the pandemic. The challenges include a high rate of youth unemployment, precarious and insecure work, new forms of work, deteriorating working conditions, and discrimination and inequalities at work.

Arising from these challenges, the GUFs’ project, has the following objectives:

  • Develop leadership among young union activists
  • Enhance young workers’ understanding of, and capacity to, analyse complex global issues affecting (young) workers in the world of work and their ability to include such issues into their trade union work
  • Increase young workers’ active participation and representation in unions
  • Strengthen international solidarity amongst young workers within and across sectors

Indeed, Education International’s strategic plan for this Congress period (2019-2023) includes a strategic priority on ensuring young activists are actively engaged at all levels within its member organisations and within its own structures.

Diverse activities under the FES/GUFs programme

By the end of 2023, a working group of young union leaders will meet, discuss, and agree on the key issues affecting young workers across sectors and in all of their intersecting diversity, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its implications for new and existing forms of work.

The working group will also make recommendation identifying key opportunities for action by the GUFs.

It is also expected that:

  • The issues and concerns of young workers are included in trade union agendas at all levels and within campaigns and decision-making structures during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
  • Young union activists’ concerns and ideas are taken into consideration in Governments’ short-term, mid-term, and long-term responses to address the current public health, social, and economic crises at local, national, regional, and global levels.

To attain the project objectives, several activities are planned:

  • A global working group on young workers and new forms of work. It consists of 18 young trade unionists from the participating GUFs’ affiliated member organisations from around the world. After regular workshops, it will, among other actions, report on the key priorities for young workers across sectors. It will also develop recommendations on the modalities, mechanisms, format, and/or approaches to inter-generational, cross-sectoral dialogue within and between trade unions at national, regional, and international level, as a critical dimension of (re)building union renewal in a world of work impacted by COVID-19.
  • A young workers’ global academy in the form of virtual and physical education modules. Its function is to empower 20 young trade union leaders and activists to shape a “new normal” that is grounded on economic, social, climate, gender, and racial justice.

The GUFs will cooperate with the Global Labour University to develop the academy’s curriculum and programme. The conclusions and recommendations of the working group on “young workers and new forms of work” will also feed into the curriculum and programme of the global academy.

Young leadership is “vital” in a union

Ruby Ana Bernado, a member of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers in the Philippines, was chosen to be part of the working group. This was based on her experience in organising, advocacy, and campaigning on young workers in new forms of work.

“Generally, the struggle of all Filipino teachers is also experienced by all young teachers, from being overworked, underpaid, and under attack up to the problems related to distance learning,” she explained. “To have young teachers among the leadership in the union is also important,” including having their voices and opinions heard.

Bernado acknowledged the value in meeting different union leaders across sectors and countries, which increased her understanding that young leadership is “vital” in a union.

As a member of a committee focusing on social media, Bernado finds it “a big help to spread the word about what the unions among the countries are doing and for my fellow young unionists to see that we are not alone and there is the spirit of solidarity. I can share how we disseminate information on social media platforms. I can organise a membership campaign among our youths and re-echo what I’ve learned in this programme.”

She admitted that her greatest expectations lie in social solidarity, that union campaigns on human rights, labour rights, and education for all be heard in the international arena.

“Young people are essential in the union because of our innate character to be strong, idealistic, vibrant, and we have a lot of time and commitment,” added Bernado. “We are also creative in thinking of strategies in campaigns. From the global perspective, we can also see how young people take action in climate justice, the fight for democracy and, even in the Philippines, sovereignty and human rights issues have been improved in many countries.”

Equip young teacher unionists with knowledge

For Geneviève Ngo Djon, head of the Youth Cell department at the Fédération camerounaise des syndicats de l’Éducation (FECASE) in Cameroon, “there is a growing, fundamental gap in working conditions between rural and urban teachers, especially among young ones”.

The latter suffer from a non-existent educational infrastructure in remote areas, she said. “For the most part, they are not directly cared for, but supported by their families. They also have to engage in another job to make ends meet.”

She also regretted that, often, “when we leave the teacher training school, we are abandoned to ourselves. It is important to have more experienced peers to guide you.”

She highlighted that unionisation is not automatic and is poorly perceived by the general public. “It is a real problem when unionisation is no longer automatic. People talk about corrupt people in unions; unionism is directly associated with opposition to the government, the public authorities. The perception of others matters and weighs heavily in the refusal of workers to unionise. So there is pressure from society, from the government. We should therefore return to systematic unionisation, and let the unions find ways to mobilise at the grassroots level.”

Another issue for teachers, and above all young ones, is the lack of ongoing education, she noted. “That is why the FES/GUFs’ project is so important to remedy that. And I didn’t expect the quality of the training we get through it!”

Giving the example of a training session on union communication, she underlined that teachers in Cameroon lack knowledge, and being equipped with adequate knowledge is the first step.

“At my school, people look at me with fear, due to my union involvement and my training, but they come to see me for a job well done. At the professional level, one gains knowledge, for example in conflict management. At the union level, when I came back from the training session in the FES/GUFs’ programme, we managed to talk about the union, we discussed it with people who joined our cause, by using the tool of persuasive power I’d learned.”

Since the training, Ngo Djon has also been tasked by the union’s Executive Board to manage the contents of the union’s website and Facebook page. She now wants to create Instagram and TikTok profiles for the union, investing in social media to mobilise young people in rural areas. She will also organise and moderate training workshops, explaining what she has learned during the FES/GUFs training.

Join a union, have a friend before you need that friend

Like Bernado and Ngo Djon, Anthony Kennedy of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) benefitted from the training offered by the FES/GUFs project.

“A lot of young teachers fail to rise to leadership position and lack opportunities to grow,” he insisted. “We need a change of mindset, and it is already changing slowly. Young teachers’ abilities are not used as they should be.”

On the campaign trail for the JTA presidency, he observed “the mindset that I was too young and had to wait for my turn like other young people. Also, people do not see the teachers’ work and contribution to society.”

His message during his campaign was: “I want to bring about union revitalisation, rebrand the association, change what it means to be a trade union.”

For Kennedy, a campaign about what a trade union is is much needed, as young teachers are not interested in unions, and information does not reach teachers at the union’s grassroots level.

However, there are opportunities, he said. “The future does look good for us. A key element is to work on organisational strategies. Young teachers must have a voice for themselves.”

A way of speaking to young teachers, Kennedy said, is to highlight that, “the way the government is going forward, you are going to need a friend. Have a friend before you need that friend. Join the union, so when it comes to that point when you need someone to be there with you against what is there, what is coming, you have that friend.”