Unions doing community organising

This was a session from a Unite the Union organiser, talking about a new community membership project they’ve launched.

In their own words, they want to invite “those not in employment into the union family” to provide “a way people can find and use their political voice”.

The logistics:

  • Costs 50p/week to join (diminished union subs)
  • Promoted within community e.g. noticeboards, leafletting at job centres
  • People “not in employment” welcome: students (over 16 year old), unemployed people, retired people, etc.

Good points of the scheme:

It’s led locally. Unite realised that their way of working (“service user involvement”) wasn’t enough, and are working to try and change that.

They have a lot of resources that local unresourced groups would appreciated e.g. legal training, language courses, national reach with its voice.

Criticisms of the scheme:

Unite think of it as a community scheme, but in reality it doesn’t look like one: it’s not bottom-up either in origin or in structure, and it costs money. It’s hard to imagine an organisation as big as Unite successfully adapting to all local diversities.

Workplace organising will always be front and centre for Unite, which may affect how they interact with local groups. Community members will still be lesser members than workplace members e.g. they’ll be able to join some union committees, but not the workplace-specific ones.

Unite can’t have the purest intentions here that other community groups would – for example, one of their measures of success is more people joining their workplace groups. Sketchy intentions! What if a group launched a campaign against a company Unite don’t want to openly attack? Would the groups split off and become autonomous?

As most the participants are unemployed people, it may have been more effective to launch an unemployment union (cf. one organiser’s description of the scheme as “aims to unionise the unwaged”). With the current structure, people would have to leave their community group if they got employment, which wouldn’t be a problem with a parallel union structure.

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