A damning study showing a quarter of young workers are being paid under the table in Australia’s illegal “black economy” will form the basis for a fresh organising drive by the ACTU and a gaggle of fresh-faced union youngsters.

The Essential Media survey of 1000 people, released on Friday, showed workers toiling in black market jobs received on average 50-60% of their proper benefits, including penalty rates, annual leave, superannuation, sick leave and adequate notice before their sacking.

The findings were set against the backdrop of the 2012 Young Workers Conference — addressed by ACTU president Ged Kearney and Affluenza co-author Richard Denniss — which mulled strategies to arrest the massive declines in membership and activism among the precariat of casuals and freelancers the labour movement has traditionally skipped over.

Aside from sketchy wages and a lack of benefits, there is also strong anecdotal evidence hundreds of thousands of young employees — especially in the hospitality industry — are working “half on and half off” the books so employers can avoid statutory obligations.

The two-day convergence was attended by 80 officials from left-leaning unions including the Community and Public Sector Union and the Maritime Union of Australia and the Right’s National Union of Workers and adopted a number of recommendations including youth-specific positions within and across the labour movement and the enforcement of “appropriate” dues because current rates are drawn from a full-time template.

Organisers also agreed to lead a push into university campuses and schools where activism has tended to be hijacked by the Trotsyite Left and party political hacks hell bent on securing lucrative jobs as ministerial advisers.

They’re facing a massive task because, according to the latest statistics on trade union membership released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in April, a small rise in union density in the aftermath of the global financial crisis driven by male full-time workers has atrophied to leave the current rate at a sick 18% of the workforce. And those numbers are dominated by older workers in the public sector.

An accompanying explainer titled “Decline in trade union membership” illustrates the precipitous falls since 1992 when a robust 43% of men and 35% of women were members. In the part-time space over-represented by young people, just 14% are signed up in their main job.

The fundamental problem facing most organisers is the reality that recruitment would have to top about 40,000 each year in order to keep current density steady. For example, at Victoria’s largest single-site private employer, Crown Casino, the yearly employee churn is so great that organisers from United Voice have to continuously bash their heads against a wall just to keep up.

As ACTU assistant secretary Tim Lyons noted in his annual “urgency & opportunity” analysis released in July, a total of 133,500 new members would be required by 2016 to bolster  numbers to 1,971,200 and maintain density at 18.4%.

And on an industrial level in the hospitality industry, the campaign run by the business lobby to abolish penalty rates has been bubbling away since The Power Index revealed MasterChef judge George Calombaris’ aversion to weekend wages at his suite of schmick food dens.

Tactics may have to be drawn from left field. Long-running programs such as the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s Union Summer (a useful feeder into other programs such as Organising Works utilised by Bill Shorten during his ascent to the helm of the AWU in the mid-1990s) are likely to be buttressed by a broader reassessment of the changing social terrain on which unions operate.

As the most recent social movement literature argues, union strategists should be trying to harness the fact of contingent work and social fluidity to re-energise the “collective frame” through which mobilisation occurs.

“Mobilisation theory” might serve as the ballast for a new trade union movement focused on social movement dynamism as opposed to the narrow strategies of luring recruits through the top-down servicing model focused exclusively on the negotiation of enterprise bargaining agreements.

At one session last week titled “new and old school ways of winning”, attendees discussed new ways of organising that break from a strict “solidarity” model epitomised by the CFMEU’s mantra of  “touch one touch all”. But the jury’s still out on whether the new generation can effectively herd the cats the trade union hierarchy has traditionally written off as a feral underclass.