Trade unionists are labouring under an image of being "clapped out'', old and obsessed with internal battles, John Monks, the general secretary of the TUC, said.
In a speech aimed at galvanising recruitment, Mr Monks urged his colleagues to catch the imagination of young people among whom the movement was at its weakest. Only one in five of 20-year-olds was in a union, compared with four out of 10 workers in their 40s, according to research published yesterday.
The average trade unionist was 46 years old and the only consolation was that the typical Conservative Party member was 65, Mr Monks said. And unions were increasingly concentrated in the public sector where six out of 10 employees were members, compared with fewer than two out of 10 in businesses.
Mr Monks derided the old-fashioned labour-movement notion that non-union workplaces were hotbeds of discontent. "We know of horrific practices and bad employers, but that's not the general picture. In a period of reasonable prosperity, relying on the bad boss to be our recruiting sergeant won't organise the missing millions,'' he said.
He pointed out that research conducted by the London School of Economics found that three million people worked for organisations where unions were recognised for collective bargaining, but were not union members. At least five million were in non-union workplaces, but wanted a union voice. The challenge for trade unionists was to ensure they joined the ranks of the labour movement, Mr Monks said.
He said: "Our critics say we are clapped out. Others say we are locked into the world of work as it was, rather than what it will be. And they say we are beset by rivalries, which can make us look like supermarkets scrambling for market-share rather than a great crusade for social justice.''
But workers needed a "best friend'' to whom they could turn. "We are that sword of justice and agent of freedom,'' he told the conference.Reuse content