Tag Archives: London

Unions Building Community Organizations in Britain

public_1919045cLondon    In an interesting development several large labor unions, including Unison and Unite, are building what they call community organizing programs in recognition of the increasing importance of communities in building their programs. 

In the case of Unite, the country’s largest labor union with more than 2 million members, organizers meeting with me in London told me that see their emerging program as critical in filling the gaps in some of the deindustrialized areas of England where they once were dominant. A significant union commitment of close to a million dollars has staffed community organizing coordinators in all of the union’s districts and has added several dozen organizers to the program along with creating partnerships with community centers and others to deepen their outreach.  For Unison, a largely public sector union, the main emphasis has been in the Birmingham area where they have a partnership with Citizens, the formation expanding from London Citizens in recent years around the country.  London Citizens, drawing heavily from the faith-based institution model closely identified with the Alinsky-influenced Industrial Areas Foundation in the USA, in this project has increasingly made the union its main partner there.

In a lengthy conversation with the community organizing department at Unite, it was fascinating to hear their ambitions and commitment in figuring out how to develop a community membership with a fifty-pence per week membership “subscription,” which is around $3.30 per month.  There was clarity that they wanted these community members, and eventually the groups formed when a 50 member threshold was reached, to be able to support the labor union when it had struggles, and in that vein they shared several stories of picket line support that had already emerged in some fights.  There was also a deep trade union commitment to providing robust services for this membership in the same way that they heavily serviced their existing bargaining units.  They were still working out various organizing models though and trying to calibrate the issues involved in building power through these groups on community issues as well as their position on the necessary levels of autonomy and, eventually, sustainability, all of which are hard issues for any organization.

Nonetheless at this point their target constituencies are the unemployed, retired, and others in their areas and much of their literature reads along the lines of the AFL-CIO’s Union Privilege program and various US-union “associate membership” programs or perhaps even the AFL-CIO’s Working America program.  Recruitment is directly to Unite as a community member of the union and though the literature and program is aggressive in talking about campaigning on issues that are deeply important to the public due to austerity cuts in the country, like the “bedroom tax” raising the rents on social or public housing tenants and the council or local government tax support in reducing benefits, when ticking off the “reasons to join” the list though is largely benefits and service from debt counseling to legal advice to job training skills.  

The pilots are promising and serious.  Doubtlessly, part of the push by labor is also political.  The alienation from the existing government led by the Conservatives and the disaffection with the neo-liberal policies of “New Labour” under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have left labor in the United Kingdom looking to unite with others to also find common political cause to protect and advance their members, and the community can’t be overlooked.  All of this is worth watching.

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Training Government Community Organizers in England

1957794_727106530675687_235673834_oLondon  For a fascinating 8 hours 35 community organizers working throughout England in various communities in London, Newcastle, Bristol, Leeds, and elsewhere along with a sprinkling of organizing and trade union activists and organizers put their shoulders to the wheel in a meeting room of the London University Union to learn about the ACORN organizing methodology in an amazing exercise of “organizing as a second language.”

            Ok, what in the world am I talking about now?

            Several years ago the Conservative government was responsible for one of those “what the heck” moments when in the midst of almost draconian austerity proposals in their own version on “compassionate conservatism” they announced their commitment to create a government funded community organizing program which would train and deploy 500 so-called community organizers over a 4-year period throughout the country.  Hard core readers may recall that we discussed the program extensively in a series of blogs at the time, largely because of the role of London Citizens, loosely affiliated with the IAF, and its national offshoots which had widely been expected to train and supervise the organizers.  In a surprise the training and supervision contract had gone to others and is now held by two UK nonprofits called ReGenerate and Locality.

            Somewhat reminiscent of the old US-based VISTA program, largely young people were recruited for a two-year program.  The first year places the person as an “organizer trainee” and then through several certifications, you are deemed a trained organizer.  In preparation for my workshop, I read the training materials given to the organizers.  Listening is presented as a fundamental tool for the organizers, which is inarguably essential.  The model is not a model, but more a process of sorts where by listening to people in the community the organizer will hear interests and issues and will be able to assist in their realization or implementation in some way, shape, or form, though it was never crystal clear in my reading that anything approaching an organization was meant to evolve, though, when all was said and done, there might be some small community teams that would be the legacy of the program.  Organizers are assigned to local sponsors, who are in the main, nonprofits and social services agencies, but the lines of supervision are somewhat muddled it seems between Locality, the national overseer, and the local sponsor of sorts.  Meanwhile the expectations are modest and involve each organizer visiting through doorknocking or whatever with 500 families in the course of the year. 

            The reason I have to describe some of my dialogue with this great group of hopeful community organizers as “organizing as a second language” is that so many of the terms, doorknocking, house meetings, listening, models, and even the bandying about of Saul Alinky’s name were similar, though in almost all cases we were having to redefine each other’s understanding of what we really meant and intended by these phrases and concepts.  Organizing is about communicating though and the spirits were willing so by the end of the day, we had all made great progress.  They ended up with a nodding acquaintance with the ACORN Model and a sense of how community organizers work around the world, and I had a crash course in their local issues, campaigns, and almost palpable frustration at wanting to organize to make change or at least a difference and feeling frustrated, not that they were being instructed by the government to not be successful, but were not being given the skills or direction in order to succeed.

            It turns out to almost be impossible to connect the dots for an organizer, when there is really no expectation that their work will in fact produce an organization as a vehicle for peoples’ action and potential victories.  After a long day though all of us hoped we might have actually given this great team enough skills to give people in the community the real help that they might want and need to build organization and even power, leaving the intentions of the government and its contractors a mystery for some other time and place and of no real interest.

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