New teachers are turned off trade union business because it is swamped by bureaucracy and dominated by "old gits", according to a young member of the National Union of Teachers.
Natara Hunter, 25, a student teacher from Birmingham, told the union's annual conference in Gateshead that it had to take a more high-profile stance on key issues or risk alienating new teachers.
Although membership of the NUT has increased to 255,000 in recent years, the number of young teachers playing an active role in union business is waning.
Members backed overwhelmingly a conference motion calling for the launch of an annual young teachers' conference and the promotion of weekend getaways by branches to galvanise young teachers.
Gerald Clark, who has been teaching for five years in Camden, north London, said that heavy workload meant most new teachers had little time for trade union meetings.
"Working 60 hours a week or more is not unusual for a newly-qualified teacher," he said.
Miss Hunter, who teaches psychology, sociology and citizenship, said: "The one thing that puts young people off is inertia: we want change, we want action. If we want to draw young people into the union, we have got to change the way we vote and the way we organise conference. Issues are just talked about but no action is taken." Addressing the conference, she added:
"Support the motion, you old gits."
This week, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers named its first Young Activist of the Year in memory of Eamonn O'Kane, its former general secretary.
Susan Kambalu, 28, a religious studies teacher at Swanwick Hall school, Derbyshire, was the inaugural winner for her part in fighting changes to the teachers' pension scheme, her efforts to recruit new teachers to the union and her commitment to reducing teachers' workload.
But she admitted she was reluctant to attend her first union meeting.
"There were four men sitting at a table - they all had beards and most were bald and wore glasses," she said as she received the award at the NASUWT annual conference in Brighton. "But they were very friendly and some women did arrive. I soon realised they weren't fuddy-duddies."
The runners-up were Sarah Pyke, 27, a teacher at John Randall primary in Telford, Shropshire and Jennifer Brooks, 25, a teacher at Walmsley Church of England primary in Bolton, Lancashire.