UK’s Unite is Another Case Study of the Difficulty of Union Transformation

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005-15-reasonsNew Orleans    Unite is the largest union in the United Kingdom with almost 1.4 million members launched a brave and exciting experiment four years ago to organize the unorganized. In this case it was not the unorganized who were workers, but the unorganized in communities. They established Unite Community with minimal dues (50 pence or about 75 cents per month), hired or assigned ten organizers, one to each region of the union, and set about building local chapters around a host of self-directed issues. Now, four years later, they have about 10,000 members, more or less, in over 100 branches around the country, so perhaps it’s time for a good look, and luckily they allowed University of Leeds professor, labor expert, and community activist, Jane Holgate, a front row seat and access to their process and people to evaluate, academically, their progress.

Professor Holgate’s analysis is tentative and still a work-in-progress that she is sharing with colleagues and graciously allowed me to also take a peek, having been an advocate and organizer of many of these union-community amalgamations. Even tip-toeing around her early conclusions, being a cheerleader for Unite’s efforts for better or worse, and not wanting to step on Professor Holgate’s toes, her work, when it is finished, is going to be something organizers, and, perhaps even more importantly, union leaders will want to read and study closely if they are serious not just about community organizing, but the duty of transforming unions to meet the difficult challenges for our organizations in the 21st century.

At a fundamental level a look at Unite’s experiment with Unite Community and community organizing is an example of the organizing principle I’ve often argued that “the beginnings prejudice the ends” in organizing. Professor Holgate makes the case, as she has in her past work that a union has to be clear about its purpose. She invokes earlier work that positions a union’s identity between market, class, and society that synthesizes its ideology accordingly and informs its internal and external practice. It seems simple and obvious to say, before a union – or any organization – can transform itself, it has to understand who and what it is and what it is trying to do, but that doesn’t understate the importance. Furthermore without an operating consensus on these issues that aligns leadership and staff, especially in the complex bureaucracy of large organizations, the success of any new project, particularly one that would be historically unique and potentially transformative, would be difficult to achieve.

Having met with Unite’s leadership and staff on this project, I would say that they have found real utility in Unite Community, but it has been grafted to the union as an appendage, rather than integrated fully, thereby lessening its value immensely and leaving its future somewhat confused and uncertain. Professor Holgate finds this separation of the community project from the basic worker organizing operation equally stunting, and makes a more important point from her closer perspective that the inability to fully integrate the membership of Unite Community with the larger Unite membership has been critical. Though she is not ready to say this yet, a reader would conclude that this problem could be terminal to the project, and at the least means that even if the community efforts were successful and continued robustly, they would not be transformative in terms of the union’s identify, practice, or future.

Normally, I would say, none of this is fatal, and that Unite – and other unions – might learn tons from this work and allow it to be another building block in the critical transformation that has to happen. Unfortunately, Holgate anticipates my Pollyannaish hope here by noting, too starkly for me to avoid, that the separation of Unite Community from the rest of the organization, means that there has also been little “learning,” as she calls it, throughout the union. Sadly, I’ve reflected similarly on how much we have learned as organizers from work we have done with Walmart, hotel workers, and labor-community alliances in the past, and how we have often failed to effectively communicate the lessons or have them stick sufficiently to influence leaders and organizers later, so, what can I say, but here’s hoping. We have no choice, but to try and try again, lest these organizations all die on our watch.

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