Birmingham Depending on whether you are looking east or west, Birmingham is either the Chicago of the United Kingdom or Chicago is the Birmingham of the United States. Carrying the analogy too far, Manchester is Cleveland to Birmingham’s Chicago. I better stop. The key point is that these are amazing, bustling cities with deep, historical roots as champions of the working class from Marx and Engels to coal miners, unions, and now regeneration as something else, though a little more uncertain of their direction and how to align it with their history.
Not surprisingly, ACORN now has vibrant chapters in both cities that are growing because of the strength of our members and leaders since we currently have not hit the membership numbers that would allow self-sufficient staffing. We do have friends though. Literally, the Manchester branch showed “The Organizer” in the huge Friends or Quakers Meeting Hall in the central city. There were three other rooms having meetings at the same time we were and there were large occupied rooms downstairs, so there was no question that the Friends were meeting a need there. We also had friends in Birmingham that are making all of the difference to our work and growth, particularly in the labor movement and especially Unison, the second largest union in the country, and its dynamic and visionary West Midlands regional director, Ravi Subramanian, in whose hall twenty-five of our members gathered to see the film and talk about ACORN and its work.
After the ACORN leaders welcomed everyone, Brother Ravi made some important remarks. More than the usual, “glad to see you here” and “nice to have some younger people in the hall,” Ravi was clear that his support and open arms to ACORN was based on the union’s own self-interest. He wanted more activism in the community and in the housing blocks, because he argued that would create more activists in his union and, importantly, they would have experience in the crucible of conflict. He wanted there to be more democracy and in a startling admission from a leader of institutional labor, he wanted more accountability.
After the documentary as questions were asked from one and all, Brother Ravi returned to the theme and more pointedly challenged ACORN and our tenants’ union to make recommendations to him for how he could make his union stronger and win great victories, and then called for a community-labor partnership of the kind we have often advocated. He had laid out the challenge, and it was exciting to contemplate what our future might be in this big, brawling city.
When one of our activist members dropped me at the train station, I called out, “I hope I see you soon!” as I looked for the door, and I meant it. The roar of opportunity for lower income and working families drowned out the sound of trains as I entered the station.