Jack O'Neill

Jack O'Neill

Leading Out Front: Scotland’s Organised Youth

Reading Time: 6 minutes

This weekend marked the Scottish Trade Union Congress’ 78th youth conference. Youth committee member Jack O’Neill reports from the conference and says its key lesson was that young people, who continue to bear the brunt of many vicious austerity-driven policies administered by this government, need to come together to influence the economic agenda in years to come…

Youth conferences always offer an opportunity for young trade unionists, many of whom are new to the movement, to come together, build on organising skills and learn more about the context behind issues that affect them on a day-to-day level. As a new elected STUC youth committee member, I see it as a great opportunity for young people to really get involved and take control of the industrial and civic narrative.

This year’s conference was not just a talking shop. It was an arena for young trade unionists to provide strong detailed analysis and lead support for young worker led campaigns that have both immense organising potential and transformative yet achievable aims. This was a weekend where those in attendance committed to a year of coherent and coordinated action to build upon last year, in which action was often inspiring but disparate and lacking in depth of analysis. And so the theme of the conference was ‘Controlling the Future’ – making clear that we are determined to have autonomy over our lives, both within work and our communities.

The conference was addressed by Jamie Hepburn, the Scottish government’s minister for business, fair work and skills. From the outset, his contribution was certainly welcomed for multiple reasons: he committed the SNP government’s continued support to union modernisation and their intention to build a relationship with young trade unionists through the Better Than Zero (BTZ) campaign. The fact that BTZ’s visible and tangible successes in the past year has caught the governments attention is revealing and promising.

But there were also frustrations as many who attended the May Day Summit with Hepburn were not offered the opportunity to ask questions on what progress had been made on his various commitments. These included the possible use of licensing laws to implement a Safe Home obligation on licensed premises. As a result, the keynote speech felt a little lacklustre and unsatisfying. The real substance came in the workshop that followed, hosted by two active PCS organisers.

There’s a tendency to assume union conferences just involve advice around work disputes, but this workshop kicked the day off with a thorough analysis of media bias and how to combat it. The importance of language and semantics can’t be understated – many organisers (and indeed unionised journalists) face an uphill battle in this area.

We need to be able to deconstruct media narratives and understand their language and objectives. This isn’t just so the left can combat spin; it’s so we can counter arguments, create our own stories and direct the news agenda. PCS was the perfect union to deliver this workshop given it’s currently orchestrating a member-led pay campaign, which will need to be voiced in various outlets.

The conference also supported a number of motions, ranging from industrial and community organising campaigns to calls for increased mental health support and support for the Sink UDT campaigners. From the PCS pay campaign to the Living Rent tenants union, the conference unanimously backed motions which provided analysis of power and control and included strong action points which the new STUC youth committee can take forward.


A particularly inspiring motion was titled ‘Sex for Rent’ – a worrying and surprisingly common experience among young working class women. Activists shared their own experiences of being targeted and landlords offering reduced or free accommodation in return for sex. Speakers highlighted the motivations behind this exploitative practice: the housing crisis, a lack of affordable or locally controlled housing and increased personal debts. The motion also highlighted just how patriarchal our housing system is. Speakers were clear that the motion wasn’t in any way related to condemning sex work but an attempt to resolve social problems which culminate in the exploitation of working class women.

This was followed by an open session which included Craig Dawson, chair of the TUC’s Young Members’ Forum, and Brendan O’Reilly, chair of the ICTU’s Youth Committee. It was styled so that members in attendance could learn more about how different trade union centres are organising young workers. The session proved more frustrating, lacking the same level of analysis of previous sessions and only briefly touching on the fundamentals of organising.

Perhaps this is something worth considering when we seek to unify young workers. Youth wings in different unions have differing approaches when it comes to organising and strategic priorities. For example, the TUC is concerned about Brexit due to a loss of workers’ rights, but the fact that the trade union movement itself was responsible for concessions such as the working time directive, which limits the number of hours it’s legal to work in a week, was glossed over.

As young trade unionists, we must always remember that existing rights are never handed down from up high but won through persistent campaigns. The TUC’s WorkSmart app was similarly mentioned and I got the sense that the TUC believes there to be a distinction between ‘real work’ and part time or menial work. It’s a position that’s contrary to that of the STUC and the Scottish unions which have invested heavily into organising precarious workers and diversifying membership as well as supporting campaigns led by workers on minimum wage and zero hour contracts.

There were positives, too, though. It’s clear we all believe apprenticeships need significant increases in investment. Industrial education is extremely important and must be protected and taken forward. But there must also be investment from trade unions in organising apprentices – they must have the power in their numbers to ensure their good education is followed by well paying, high skilled work.

Three campaigns were discussed at the next session: Better Than Zero’s Home Safe campaign, Unite’s Not on the Menu campaign and USDAW’s Freedom From Fear Campaign. Again, we can take heart from the fact these campaigns are member-led and have focused on safety at work, an area where trade unions have untapped organising potential. The inspiring testimony of Nilufer Erdem from Unite broke down the unfair tipping system and explained how it contributes to a lack of safety for female workers.

As a server in hospitality you are considered part of the customer’s experience and are expected to fully partake in the ‘experience’ if you want to receive your tips. Customers’ have financial power over their servers when the tips they hold are what’s needed to make a living wage. It’s partly for this reason that sexual harassment is so prevalent – without a union, hospitality workers have no means of standing up on their own. Unsurprisingly, this session’s response was far more positive.

And so one further workshop followed, which looked at automation, an area young people understand and are expected to get to grips with more than most. Hosted by Dr Karen Gregory, the session served a reminder that ‘futuristic’ technologies are in fact already here. Already, such technology is being used againstworkers’ interests: wearable tech produces data which enforces a new layer of micromanagement as workers can’t access any of the key information.

Additionally, gig economy companies such as Deliveroo and Uber, though happy to exploit workers, take more interest in the data that they can collect. It’s this data that private companies want to use to predict human behaviour as they see it evolving. Such data can also be used to make profit if it’s sold to the state. Not only does this challenge leftist preconceptions on automation and provide food for thought on the upcoming challenges, it serves a reminder that young workers need to be confident to take a stand against data misuse.

The conference closed by electing a new youth committee, which now has a mandate to organise campaigns and take on precarious employment, dodgy landlords and the mental health endemic facing young people. The lesson from the conference is that we urgently need to come together and take a stand to take control of our own futures. The struggle is enormous but I firmly believe there’s an opportunity for the young trade union movement to influence Scotland’s institutions and prepare for the future. The campaigns which will transform our society will be designed by us, organised by us and led by us. We stand up now.


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