From the TUC

Unions and community organising: Power with to power over

19 Sep 2013, By

This article written by Kevin Rowan, TUC Head of Organisation & Services and Carl Roper, TUC National Organiser also appears in the recent Unions21 publication ‘The future of union community organising’

Over recent years the use of the terms ‘community organising’ and ‘community campaigning’ has increased considerably within the trade union and wider labour movement. They have been used to describe a range of activities from genuine community based organising to community campaigning and coalition building. The increased prevalence of ‘community’ in the discourse around how to establish and maintain ‘strong unions’ reflects a growing aspiration of trade unions and other organisations to reach out to new groups of people and to give voice and through that power to those in society in most need of it.

A number of trade unions now have community organising strategies and have employed dedicated community organisers. To take a few examples, TSSA is using community organising practices of coalition building to build support amongst commuters for their rail campaigns and last year Unite launched its Community membership scheme, an attempt to engage with and mobilise unemployed workers. Unison has a programme of reaching into communities through ‘Community Learning Champions’ and many unions have used the Union Learning Fund ULF to take the ‘learning offer’ into community groups and organisations.

The Labour Party, particularly since the election of Ed Miliband as leader, has embraced community organising and has employed American community organiser Arnie Graf to advise on how it can revitalise its constituency parties; and of course Movement for Change, although not formally linked to the Labour Party was established in 2010.

This is all enormously welcome and encouraging. At a time when the pressures on ordinary people from government policies and employers can appear overwhelming, the increase in community and people centred organising that has the specific purpose of capturing and using the power that people create when working in collaboration with each other is massively important.

Whilst the jury is still out in respect of evaluating the impact of these and other initiatives, they do show a propensity to innovation and a determination to reach parts of the community and sectors of the economy where union presence and influence is limited.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume all communities are ‘unorganised’. Regardless of whether the community is defined by place or locality, common identity, or just common interest there is often some form of organisation to be found. It is often the institutional cultural clash that is a source of tension between disciplined, democratic, well-established, trade union organisational structures and the more spontaneous, often issue-led, bottom-up dynamics of community organisations.

These tensions are, of course, also opportunities that afford unions the chance to identify common cause, and to collaborate and coalesce on the basis of genuine dynamic activism. This aspiration is certainly central to the TUC’s recently launched ‘Campaign Plan’ which seeks to place the TUC on a much stronger campaign footing.

Of course unions were the original community organisers, and indeed existing union workplace reps are eight times more likely to be active in their local communities than other members of the general public. On this basis, the relationships that we develop with other ‘community organising’ advocates and organisations should be based less on them teaching us how to organise but rather on that all important question of how we can turn the power we create working with each other into power over campaign targets.

That is not to say that unions have nothing to learn from others in respect of actions, tactics and strategies but all too often the representatives of community orientated campaign groups and organisations display an ignorance of what unions are and have achieved whenever they speak of us and sometimes even to us.

There can sometimes also be a tendency in the determination to embrace community organising to forget the strengths of trade union organisation and what it has achieved. Compare the number of times you’ve read glowing testaments by progressive journalists (and even some trade union officials) to the great work of London Citizens in respect of the Living Wage, to the scarcity of coverage given to the wage increases secured by unions, the jobs and services saved or the work of our workplace reps who every day make life at work better or even just more tolerable for tens of thousands of people.

Last year the TUC as part of its Future that Works campaign ran what were in effect three community organising pilots in the North West, the Midlands and North London. They were useful not only in that they produced some innovative and effective campaign work, but also in what they revealed about the awareness of and capacity to engage in collaborative community organising at a local and even hyper-local level.

Whilst the pilots received support from some unions nationally and regionally, engagement by local union branches was less consistent. There are good reasons for this, not least the massive pressure local reps are under in the current political and industrial context, but just as reps are the real face of the union at work, they can make the biggest union contribution to community organising.

The pilots also revealed what we have long suspected, that in the UK the extent of structured and purposeful community organising and what the Australian community organiser and academic Amanda Tattersall has called ‘power coalitions’ is limited. Although subject to a great deal of discussion and attention over recent years, there remains a significant lack of understanding about community organising in the UK and relatively few examples, particularly outside London, of it being practiced. This suggests that organisations (unions and others) aren’t yet geared up to make the necessary investment of resources and compromises in respect of policy and modes of operation that are required to both engage with and make community organising and campaigning effective.

As well as drawing lessons from this recent initiative, unions might draw some lessons from the early years of the New Unionism project that saw the development of the Organising Academy. We would do well to avoid what has been called ‘organising fundamentalism’ – a tendency to see the process of organising, rather than the outcome, as more important; and linked to this, we should not be afraid to rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of what we are doing.

The most basic test of the effectiveness of any campaign is ‘are we winning?’ but if you’re looking for something more sophisticated you may look to the aforementioned Amada Tattersall, Janice Fine from the US and our own Jane Holgate; all of whom have produced excellent work studying and evaluation community organising in a variety of contexts.

All three suggest that successful community organising and coalition building initiatives contain the following elements; they create and strengthen alliances; they build an understanding within communities of power and leverage and use innovative tactics to successfully mobilise people against clear campaign targets (whoever it is who can give the constituency what they want). Unions might also ask if we are increasing our reach, influence and organisational capacity.

There is clearly a sense that reaching into communities increases the trade union voice, both in terms of how loudly it is heard and also how widely. There is also little doubt that broader campaign coalitions, particularly those that embrace groups and individuals hit hardest by the coalition government’s austerity and cuts programme, add considerable weight to the relevance and legitimacy of TUC and union campaigns.

In the context of public services campaigning, for example, trade unions are often unfairly characterised as ‘provider interests’. Community based campaigning helps to demonstrate that trade unions are not merely concerned with jobs, employment standards and pay (not that there is anything wrong with that), but that their priorities also extend to service provision, both in terms of quality and of scope.

This is important as here is a gap between public opinion and experience of trade unions. The concept of trade unions and being in one is certainly more popular than both the statistics on union membership and the coverage in the media would suggest. The problem for unions is that too many people have never had a lived experience of being in a union and think that unions are a good idea for people other than themselves, so finding new ways for people to hear about and experience the campaigning dynamic of trade unions is important.

The extent to which this genuinely collective voice is resonating with audiences that don’t already share our values and influencing those who are the target of our campaigns, is less clear. There is little evidence, yet, that the government is inclined to change course in respect of its economic policy and whilst the majority of the public believe that the cuts are unfair, they still believe that they are necessary.

To conclude, it is clear that a more strategic, properly resourced and widely supported emphasis on community organising offers unions the opportunity to supplement the all important task of increasing union membership and recognition and improve the work they do in relation to three key areas of activity.

Firstly, reaching out to the majority of workers in the UK who don’t work in a unionised workplace, in a way that enables us to demonstrate our relevance to them and effectiveness as campaigning organisations. Secondly, improving our industrial leverage by bringing pressure to bear on employers from a much broader base than just the union members in a particular workplace or company. Finally, to win wide public support for political and economic campaigns on a range of issues from a new economy, decent services and rights and respect at work.

Learning from what has been undertaken and achieved so far will be critical, as will finding the answers that enable the movement to cover the hard yards of turning membership of community coalitions into membership of stronger unions that can create not just better workplaces for our members but a fairer society for all.