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:
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.
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 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:
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.
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.