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.

What is Plan C?

Plan A = austerity

  • Austerity is the same policies as neoliberalism (cf. War on Want talk)
  • Deregulation meant banks could give out more credit to the Global North. This covered for the fact that wages were staying still or falling… for at least a bit.
  • Long struggles in the Global North and Global South left few ‘safe bets’ for investment other than housing. When housing stopped giving good returns… crisis.

Plan B = “saving” the economy

  • Government intervention in markets to increase demand and create jobs.
  • All plans (from Green New Deal to VAT reduction) still centre on profit logic, competition for scarce jobs, etc.
  • The New Deal came about because of the labour organisation at the time, nor directly repeatable without a similar level of organisation (and also it was built around exploitation of Global South resources, women etc.)

Plan C = the way forward

  • People are dissatisfied with old political movements because they’re no longer structured to make political gains…
  • …so there is a need for any organisation that wants to be successful to devise proper strategies and plans to make austerity (a) costly (b) impossible
  • Proper planning really lacking on the radical left. Plans should be concrete, achievable, flexible plans.
  • In times of austerity, it’s even more important to address the societal rifts that capitalism creates (race, class, gender). It’s not as simple as just shouting slogans to “unite!”
  • There’s not a single strategy to move forward. Multiple strategies.
  • Create antagonistic alternatives, not just mini-utopias – go after the state and appropriate its infrastructure.
  • Should critique what counts as politics e.g. a creche for October 20th, can’t do politics on the street without considering child-care.
  • Does the group you’re in have a chance of winning? If not, what group would?
  • A single-issue campaign, no matter how intersectional its analysis, still isn’t enough on its own. Needs good linking up between a wide variety of groups.
  • Fears raised about how running public services may play into the Big Society. Solutions: (a) no-one cares about the Big Society, so don’t worry (b) as long as you keep apart from the state terms e.g. commodification and marketisation.

About Plan C

  • Membership is based in activity, no forms
  • Experimenting with non-standard organisational form
  • Not a vanguard!