Building New Organizations in the Birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution

Ravi Subramanian, Unison regional director of the West Midlands

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.

Sam Lowe gives the membership rap as Becca Kirkpatrick and Ravi Subramanian listen

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.

tables is the screening in Birmingham

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.

screening in Manchester

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We Need More People’s History Museums!

Manchester      “The Organizer” was screening at the Friends Meeting House today, and the members and leaders of the newly organized ACORN branch in Manchester were working, so I had the opportunity to not only visit, but also observe and work from the People’s History Museum and The Left Bank café and bar.  What a great way to tell the story of people’s struggles for democracy in civic life and a voice in the workplace and political space.

Fittingly, the museum is located in the Spinningfield district, named for all of the spinning mills that heralded the Industrial Revolution virtually birthed in Manchester.  Additionally, signaling the working-class roots that made Manchester wealthy and imprinted the politics for years, the museum is retrofitted into an old pump house along the river with some remnants of its former life still visible. The museum was supported by labor unions in the United Kingdom, but also the European Union, national arts councils, and, importantly the Manchester City Council, but don’t think that diluted the message of the museum:  this is people’s history.

The museum had many, many strengths.  Viewers were encouraged to participate.  Pushing buttons meant hearing historic speeches by politicians of all stripes, union leaders, and others.  At one-point yellow police tape was on the floor and when I walked across the entryway and picket line chanting greeted me as it if I had cross the line during a strike, making the experience very realistic and dramatic.  Speckled throughout in various time periods visitors were encouraged to open suitcases to see what people might have being carrying or wearing at the time, or visitors could try on hats that union leaders and managers might have worn. Visitors could open cubbyholes to see whole exhibits.  Very smart!

The museum was also aided tremendously by dramatic visuals.  Sweeping and intricate banners made by early trades group for their meetings and demonstrations were as creative as tapestries we saw only days earlier in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.  Posters for demonstrations or political rallies both modern and one-hundred or more years old were fascinating and forceful.  The sections on the suffragette movement and the fight to win the vote for women in England were outstanding, especially the separate pride in Mrs. Pankhurst from Manchester, as they called their native daughter and key leader of the fight.

The development of political struggles from the Levellers and Chartists to the Communist and radical elements as well as the more mainstream Labour Party were well documented.  One amazing illustration on a wall running from floor to ceiling several stories up showed a timeline of British history and the various movements, strikes, demonstrations, and repression that marked the time to either victory or defeat.

Workers, women, and various voices were celebrated everywhere here, as well.  Critically, the museum was not simply about organizations, winners and losers, but the importance of struggle itself.  The People’s History Museum’s motto tellingly was: “There have always been ideas worth fighting for.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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