Dr Jane Holgate
Dr Jane Holgate is a Senior Lecturer at CERIC.
In December 2011, Unite – the UK’s largest private sector trade union – announced it was introducing a new membership scheme to ‘to ensure those pushed to the margins of society can benefit from collective power’. Unite’s new ‘community membership’ category is aimed at students, people who are unemployed and others not in work – categories of people who normally do not have a relationship with unions. Unite claims that their community organising initiative will ‘organise the marginalised and revolutionise British trade unionism’. While this may be a little overstated, it is argued there that Unite’s move into community organising is an interesting and significant development in the way UK unions are starting to think about and engage with the idea of community organising.
Other unions have also recently taken steps in this direction but often taking different approaches – some of it project-based or ad hoc (for example in Unison, GMB and PCS), and others like Unite and the TSSA, where there has been a strategic decision taken by unions to invest considerable resource into community unionism. Nevertheless, it would seem from my observations of unions over the last few years there has been a significant – although as yet not that well-developed – turn towards community unionism. But what are the factors driving these community/union organising initiatives?
Firstly, the global economic crisis beginning in 2008 appears to be a major push factor. A national officer from the PCS union told me that ‘General Secretary after General Secretary wouldn’t have stood up [at TUC Congress in 2010] and talked about community organising in other environments if we’d still had a reasonably benign economic environment’. And, it is evident from most of the case studies I have looked at in the above unions, that where the campaigns have been allowed to spontaneously develop, that these have taken place around the impact of the cuts on communities. This is particularly the case in Unite, where the union is opening up its membership to ‘non-traditional’ members – with a clear objective of creating a ‘fundamental shift’ within the union to bring people together, in their own communities to organise.
To date, four months after Unite employed 6 community co-ordinators, nine Unite community branches have been established in Liverpool, Wirral, Salford, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, London (Camden and Islington), Glasgow and Edinburgh – all (except London) in traditional working-class communities with a tradition of high union density among workers.
What appears to be a the heart of Unite’s view of community organising is an attempt to tie together a trade union consciousness and a community consciousness – going back to the trade unionism of the nineteenth century where there was a convergence of trade unionism and popular politics – with people drawing on strong social networks in their communities. It is noteworthy that it is mainly in the trade union heartlands of the north of England and Scotland where the first Unite community branches have been established. Here trade unions remain embedded in local communities to a greater extent than in many other regions of the UK – albeit much weakened from earlier times.
The Unite community organising that has taken place in the cities mentioned above has drawn upon strong social networks that have been in place in these communities for decades (for example, ex-miners in Yorkshire, retired union members and ex-dockers in Liverpool and the Wirral), making it easier to establish relationships of trust much more easily than would be the case if starting from scratch as an outsider.
A second factor in driving the turn to community is also a recognition that, as manufacturing employment and Fordist mass-production declined, and welfare benefits have been cut or reduced, labour has been re-commodified so that workers are more tenuously attached to their jobs and their workplaces meaning a loss of occupational and class identities that previously bound (unionised) workers together.
As such, declining worker bargaining power – at the point of production – has led some unions to begin to think about how to widen their spheres of influence and to assess the value of community as well as industrial-based organising. Whether this turn to community organising will have an effect in revitalising unions in the UK remains to be seen as most of these initiatives are only yet in their infancy – but what is evident is that there is growing interest in this area.