Community organising is so important – in all its forms

I was privileged recently to spend some time in the company of iconic US community/union organiser Arnie Graf. Part of his current brief is to revitalise the Labour Party’s links with the community and his work has won many plaudits.


As someone who passionately believes that the future of trade unionism in the UK depends on us meaning as much to people in their communities as we do to them at work, the occasion,   a fringe event at the TUC, organised by Unite, on Community Trade Unionism, was “no miss” event.


There are, self-evidently, many models of “community organising” on display.


Unite has its Community section, now 4000 strong which is deliberately aimed at recruiting – and dare I say organising – unemployed people. Philosophically and practically you can see the attraction. High levels of unemployment undercut the terms and conditions of those in work. The young unemployed have no experience of trade unionism and involvement in the Community Section will mean that they already have access to support when they enter the workplace.  And it is also empowering for the individuals.


In fact, this  seem to be the most  noticeable achievement of the section so far – enabling people  who  do not have a voice,  or  who  feel they cannot exercise influence, the means to do just that.


But whilst self-empowerment and the democratisation of society are central aims of trade unions, they are not our only defining qualities.  The Unite initiative arguably takes unions into new territory. “Ultimately isn’t about numbers signed up?” asked someone at the fringe event.


I think that is a question for another day.  The increase in people who are active is the most important thing of all at present. Whose logo they have on their t-shirt is a secondary issue.


An alternative model of community organising in TSSA, the small but impressive Transport and Salaried Staffs Association, is articulated by their National Organiser Nadine Rae.  There is clearly a community of interests shared by all those who use the rail network, either for employment, commerce or just travel.  TSSA has appointed three organisers whose brief is to make the links with the users of the services their members provide – principally the travelling public.


I believe that this is important in a number of ways.


First, it broadens the alliance of people with the same overall strategic objective – better funding for and management of the rail network. More people equals louder voice.


Second,  it  isn’t just numbers -  it  broadens the base of the campaign, and it is  a fair bet that many commuters in, say,  the Home Counties  may not  share the same overall politics as the  union – so there is a real increase in the “reach” of the campaign.


And third, it makes trade unions a relevant voice in  the community and not just the workplace.


Incidentally, a potential hypothetical criticism is that the campaign does not add to the “bottom line” of increased   numbers of members.  But I think (and it is  for the TSSA NEC, of course, not me  to say) the advantages  could well eclipse the membership issue – not least the way in which   this has helped make  rail  a key political issue now and in the 2015  general election too.


There is a   third model of community trade unionism that my own union, CWU, has developed. This takes the form  of  specific campaigns to  root  trade unions in  the communities where  our members live, rather than   have a  dedicated resource for  community  organising  that  is  separate   to those campaigns.


That is clear a prerequisite for our largest campaigns – Keep the Post Public and Save Our Royal Mail for example. But that is more about engaging the public as part of a grand coalition, than getting our members to take our union home with them.


Our campaigns on Climate Change, Mental Health and Housing are all about practical ways in which the union can – and does – respond to issues that affect members at home and at work.  These issues self-select by virtue, for example, of policy motions to our conference. They are therefore being generated and driven by our members and local reps, and not Head Office.


The advantage of this approach is – clearly – that is it “organic”.  It grows up from the roots of our union. The next stage of development would be see if these stand-alone campaigns should or could to be joined together to make a comprehensive “community programme.”


In my view, the approach adopted by the NZCTU is one which deserves much wider recognition. There, affiliates have ceded some autonomy and money to create a dedicated organisation looking to mobilise support from the community for trade unions and issues identified as trade union priorities.  Here, the emphasis is on additional resource and leverage initially through attracting supporters in this way and from this constituency rather than increasing membership.


Graf himself talks of   the transformational value of focussing on Community Leaders – essentially this means that these leaders bring their supporters with them rather than the union having to try to engage the self-same supporters directly.  Within the CWU, we have had direct examples of this with pockets of potential members from the same non-English speaking demographic.  Making contact with and then working with a respected member of this group’s community was not just an effective way to step up recruitment of this group – it was the only way.


In some unions, historically there has been a close overlap between community and workplace  – Community’s membership, for example, was based in what were known as “steel towns” or “mill towns”. For much of the last century,  the  NUM occupied  similar   territory  with  pits  dominating  (or in some cases  generating)  the surrounding  communities.


But now we have a different challenge – on the one hand we are living through a political hurricane, uprooting old certainties and structures. As one senior shadow cabinet member remarked to me recently “Who would have thought that everything we built over 13 years could be swept away so easily.”  The effect on our values is chilling and destructive.  So we need a political, organisational response.


But on the other hand, our members and potential members, our supporters and sympathisers are suffering and many feel marginalised and disempowered.


And that is why community organising is so important – in all its forms – in 2013. A movement rooted in both workplace and community is better placed to withstand attacks on either. Informed, and empowered and organised people are not only a defensive tactic – it also increases the resources and power of progressive agents for change. We must not let any confusion about what is meant by “community organising” distract from that key objective.


Read the Unions21 publication The Future for Union Community Organising



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