I’m not on commission, and I’ve only met the bloke once, but if you are interested in what more we can do to rebuild and reinvigorate unions in the workplace and the community you could do worse than checking out ‘Together: how small groups achieve big things’ by Henry Hemming. This is not a ‘union focussed’ book – and at times its a challenging read (that’s TUC-speak for I often disagreed with the author!), but its engaging and insightful nonetheless.
There is a common perception in the UK (and indeed across much of the industrialised world) that people are becoming less and less likely to engage in community and voluntary activity. In the UK – as Becky has vlogged – membership of both political parties and trade unions has fallen markedly in the last 3 decades. In the US, the phrase ‘bowling alone’ taken from Robert Putnam’s book of the same title has come to express the sense that society is becoming more and more fragmented; that the traditional informal and formal groupings that bind us together have become weaker and less prevalent; that our social ‘networks’ are increasingly based in the virtual world rather than the real one.
Politicians have seized upon this narrative. David Cameron has prescribed the Big society as the cure for ‘Broken Britain’ (stop sniggering at the back); the mainstream left have countered with the ‘Good Society’ and a clear strand of the Blue Labour project is to (re)create the ‘organizing structures and practices’ which can help people come together around local campaigns and shared political aspirations.
It’s this traditional narrative of ‘Broken Britain’, the sense that our social realm was in decline that Henry Hemming set out to write about. What he actually ended up writing was very different. Rather than charting the death of associational activity, ‘Together’ highlights what Hemming describes as ‘a nationwide surge of associational activity in Britain’.
Acknowledging that many of the larger traditional ‘associations – the WI, Rotary clubs, Working Men’s Clubs and, yes in many cases, unions – have experienced decline, Hemming charts an explosion in the number of clubs, associations,
community organisations and voluntary groups active across the UK.
But as well as charting the unheralded growth of associational behaviour in the UK, and the positive impact that has for individuals and society more broadly, ‘Together’ also offers practical insights for unions and others as to what helps groups form, sustain themselves and be effective.
Those that Hemming identifies as ‘Machers’: people who ‘articulate what an association could be’; who co-ordinate their group and remind people of their responsibilities; who step back and give others the space to develop and shine; and who have a thick enough skin to take the flak when things go wrong, unions will readily identify as activists and potential reps. How we identify union ‘machers’ and ‘maintainers’ – those who help to sustain local organisations – how we support and develop them, are key questions for unions at a time when our rep base is declining and aging.
‘Together’ also helps highlight the important role that the internet can play in helping ‘real-life’ groups can coalesce and sustain themselves. On-line activity is not a substitute for meeting face to face, and basic human interaction but it can help groups keep in touch, to sustain their conversations between formal meetings and enrich the quality of those conversations and activity.
We have such a strong starting point – over 6 million members; 200,000 workplace reps; the ability to organise and mobilise when we really put our minds to it and work together (March 26, or the 35,000 we turned out at Conservative Party conference just 3 weekends ago).
Our organisational DNA is infused with the practical experience that by coming together, we are so much more than the sum of our parts. ‘Together’ is a useful reminder that solidarity lives and breathes in many different ways, and in many different places. For every national demo, there are dozens, if not hundreds of small anti-cuts groups meeting in church halls, community centres and front-rooms (the False Economy web-site lists over 200 such anti-cuts groups). Knitting together these disparate but essential strands of our movement, is a an essential part of our wider campaign to stop this government’s programme of cuts and reforms in its track, and our longer term objective to build stronger, more effective unions.