Trade unionists get up to many things. You’d be surprised how many. The amount of times when I’ve come across a situation and there has been a union presence that I really didn’t expect.
Around a year ago, there was one of those times. I had a chat with Mary Sayer, the passionate head of Unite the Union’s Unite in Schools programme. I’d never heard of it yet what they do is impressive: a coordinated national programme of going into schools and teaching the young people there all about trade unions and their rights at work. And, never being a woman to rest on her laurels, Mary seized the opportunity. “I’ve got a little job for you,” she said. “It’s with Nacro.”
Many people know of Nacro as the charity focussed on rehabilitating offenders. In recent years though, they’ve expanded their horizons and now support hundreds of NEETs – young people not in education, employment or training – across the country. These are adults from some of the most marginalised communities and disadvantaged backgrounds who have struggled to cope in the mainstream school system. “Talk to them about their rights and about unions,” I was commanded. “You’ve taught in prisons, so you understand the barriers they face.”
What followed was a series of visits to most of the Nacro centres in England. From Barrow to Boston, Chatham to Middlesbrough, I spoke with young people about the world of work, trade unions and their rights. The experience was profound and a sobering one for the movement. “What’s a trade union?” I’d ask. Blank stares were the usual response. Some tried to guess: “Is the EU one? It’s a union that trades, isn’t it?” The learning: if we want young people become involved, we have to start at the very basics.
Even more sobering was when they talked about their experiences at work. At every centre I met young people who had worked part-time and been subjected to some horrendous work abuses. Below minimum wage pay packets, false apprenticeships, bullying… the list goes on. No one had ever talked to them about their rights before and when I did, they were surprised.
There was enthusiasm too. When I told them about what a real apprenticeship entails, when I asked them what the issues that concern them are, when I told them that they had a voice and explained how unions help them to use it. They devised strategies to tackle the issues they face at Nacro, mapped-out upon fundraising campaigns for issues that they are passionate about and thought about their future careers in a whole new light.
For me, the Nacro lesson was fascinating. It offers both a warning and hope to the movement. It was an honour to have heard it.