Monday 5 March 2012

Some Thoughts On Unite's New Community Membership

Back in December, my union Unite announced that it would become the first trade union in Britain to open its membership to the unemployed, students and others not in paid work, including retirees. For 50p per week, community members would have access to the union’s financial and legal support, but as Unite’s press release made clear, they hope that community members will become campaigners against cuts in services:

Community members will be developed as community activists, bringing together people across their locality who have felt left down or excluded by politics to ensure that they too have a voice at a time of economic turmoil and social change for the nation.

The idea not only reaching out to a new constituency but specifically training new members as campaigning community organisers is an exciting development, one that I really want to succeed. I was delighted to receive an invitation to take part in Unite’s first Community Members training course last week. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite what I expected.

The first problem was that Unite forgot, in their enthusiasm for what is undoubtedly a ground-breaking approach for British trade unionism, that there are very few genuinely new ideas – and community organising certainly isn’t one of them. There is a wealth of experience out there already about building permanent community-level campaigning networks. Saul Alinksy’s book ‘Rules for Radicals’, has been in print since 1971 and there are organising models from grassroots activist groups in the US like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and MoveOn to faith-based organizations like Citizens UK to learn from. There are some very useful resources online, including this from Education Action. Even the government is funding a Community Organisers programme as a pillar of its ‘Big Society’ nonsense, although inevitably this version avoids any critical perspective on economic inequality and seems more concerned with self-help and reducing ‘dependence’ on the state.

Whether people agree or disagree with Alinksy’s insistence on working inside the system, are troubled by the evangelism of Citizens UK and its rather dismissive attitude towards mobilising individuals rather than institutions, or even endorse the concept of full or part time "Community Leaders" (I don't, as it happens), the point is that there is no need for Unite to start from scratch. At the very least, it would have been sensible to consult first with the union’s own voluntary and community sector branches and then talk to local and national organisations (the National Coalition for Independent Action, for instance), to draw up materials tailored to the specific needs of training community-based campaigners.

For that’s the second problem to overcome: organising in the workplace is very different from community campaigning. People are usually in daily contact with their work colleagues, union meetings are usually held in the workplace and the solidarity of trade unionism is built predominantly around employment issues. Staying in touch with a community network of members, particularly those who are stuck at home, who are busy searching for work or who have childcare responsibilities, throws up completely different challenges. How do they stay in touch and where do they meet? There is the question too of what interests and issues are likely to motivate people to become community organisers - and if we want durable community branches, how do we ensure members remain motivated? The argument has to be more than ‘the cuts are bad’, which may be a reason why people might support a local anti-cuts coalition, but how is union-affiliated community membership different? And who are Unite hoping will become the coordinators of local community branches – presumably not overstretched workplace organisers? So who?

I attended the Unite course hoping to find some answers to these questions, but instead sat through a rehashed version of its workplace activist training and was expected to flag up the many problems with it. This was incredibly frustrating, especially as I had taken annual leave to attend (those of us who aren’t already shop stewards don’t get time off for union work and as I’ve said, busy workplace organisers are the last people who should be at a course for a completely new way of campaigning). It struck me that in its haste to roll out its new level of membership, Unite had carried out too little preparation and had simply taken too many short cuts. I was almost relieved that unexpected events at work meant I couldn’t attend the second day.

In a slightly mischievous article in 2008 on the difference between community organising and other forms of activism, Aaron Schultz said:

Activists feel very good about how they are "fighting the power." But in the absence of a coherent strategy, a coherent target, a process for maintaining a fight over an extended period of time, and an institutional structure for holding people together and mobilizing large numbers, they usually don't accomplish much.

I largely agree - this could almost be a fifty word explanation of the general failure of the left to build sustainable institutions and movements. In the context of Unite’s community membership, it’s not enough to just announce a new way forward with little understanding of how to get there. I still really want this initiative to succeed, but based on experience so far, there is still an awful lot more thinking and planning to undertake if this is even a possibility.


Anonymous said...

Screw UNITE. They supported the building the third runway at Heathrow.

Never mind the damaging effect of the third runway on Climate Change or air quality.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent article; thoroughly researched and superbly accurate. Although never an employee of Unite (and never likely to be) I was involved in delivering education programmes for some years - working for a partner HE institution delivering solely for Unite education. I attended a meeting, arranged by a regional education officer,the purpose of which was to 'engage tutors in delivering the organising strategy buy in sessions'. I sat through a 25 slide powerpoint presentation that focussed on the 100% campaign and why Unite needed to sustain its membership component. Foolishly, I expected to hear that the reason was so that Unite could continue providing support, advice, guidance and leadership in helping shop stewards organise their workplaces. I say foolishly because that is what I thought my role as a tutor was and had been for twelve years. What I sat through was a tedious, pitiful exposition of how much money Unite were losing! It was explained to those present that if membership numbers continued to drop, then x number of jobs within Unite would be lost. It was all about revenue and not once was any concern expressed toward a diminishing level of support for the members. It was becomming painfully obvious to me that Unite were starting to panic about the potential loss of £35k+ annual salaries within its closed shop ranks. More recently, the concept of 'community organising' became a very attractive prospect for collecting revenue from the unemployed, retired and students in return for very little in terms of support. One of the 15 selling points is that by being a member of Unite Community, Unite will help you recover any overpaid tax from HMRC. They state that Unite do not make any charge for this - well, they don't that is true. However, the company that Unite use charge 40% commission for this service. If Unite were in any way interested in helping their members, those community organisers could quite easily guide the members around the fairly simple form that HMRC provide to claim overpaid tax. The other 14 selling points of cummunity membership are just as weak.

Annonymous said that Unite supported the building of the third runway at Heathrow. Not exactly true. Unite were viciously opposed to this and campaigned against the building of a third runway on environmental grounds, noise pollution, CO2 emissions, loss of social housing, road congestion, safety issues etc, etc, etc. Hooray for Unite! Then, a slight change in direction for Unite as it slowly began to dawn on them (actually it was during the BA strike)that another runway would need some hefty construction work to be done, lots of transporting of goods and materials, many builders and when completed, would bring in more flights, more passengers, more hungry mouths and more people needing hotels, trains, busses and taxis. Hang on, that would mean more baggage handlers, check in staff, immigration staff, fuel tanker drivers, apron staff, security staff, porters, cleaners and lots more low waged people. Unite would have loads of members working at Heathrow and with the increase in numbers of jobs the potential to recruit more members - this is starting to look very lucrative - how much money can we make out of this third runway? Suddenly, its not such a bad idea to build the third runway so Unite now think it is a wonderful thing to boost the economy (Unite bank balance more accurately).

Unite fail to grasp the basic concept of 'community' - if there is money to be made then they will try and get in, if no money then no interest.

lipsticksocialist said...

I am an unemployed Unite member in Gtr Manchester and whilst believing in and having been involved in both trade unions and community campaigning I am wary of the community union project. Unions are losing their membership due to not fighting the cuts, particularly the public sector, and therefore losing hope within a wider community that unions are part of the process for defending working class people against a wholesale attack on our way of life.
Since I was made redundant,although I have kept up my union subs I have had no contact from Unite - not even for the Oct 20 March - which I wouldnt have gone on anyway. Its not good enough to get people out on the streets if you cannot save their jobs and people are not fooled by these public displays. We need to support people in jobs to save them not just wait until they lose their jobs and can be recruited into community unions.

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