Leveraging Elections for Change

IMG_2661London      The ACORN London organizers working in East Brixton thought they would try to see what might happen with a combination training workshop and fundraiser. The topic they settled on, given that elections are on people’s minds for both 2015 and 2016, were how community-based groups could use the opportunities they present for accountability to advance the agendas of their constituency or make progress on their issue campaigns. All of which found fifteen of us in an upstairs room of the Apple Tree pub in central London ready to tackle the topic.

The diversity of the groups represented was wide. A union activist from Unison involved in trying to organize Polish members of the union, two organizers from the National Students Union representing seven million UK students, two organizers from the national autism association with branches throughout the country, the director of Generation Rent, a UK tenants campaigning organization, an organizer for the 37000 member Action for Happiness, and several other independent community activists and organizers. With such a mish-mash of diverse interests you might think the meeting should have been moved downstairs in the pub closer to the hard spirits so that we might be able to all make it through, but in fact it was fascinating how deeply engaged people were in figuring out the opportunities in the two hours we spent together.

After introductions and a half-hour of presentation of some of the key history, principles, and ACORN’s own experience in using elections to “prove” the base and win on everything from living wage elections in the US and Canada to huge slum improvements in Lima and potable water in Mexico City, we broke the group into three to discuss the questions more intimately. Central to those discussions was determining the strengths of each organization’s base, actions that could be taken on specific campaigns and the follow-up necessary to convert the issues and opportunities into power.

It felt like the floodgates had been opened. A buzz of discussion and animated back and forth poured from every one of the small groups. Everyone wanted to share their experiences, good, bad, and ugly. One group in looking at their base ended up with an interesting discussion on leadership and staff relationships that clearly had been much on their minds and looking for a forum. Another ventured more deeply into tactics and actions. Another vented frustration with the new “gagging” limits on their activity ridiculous situation that they now found themselves confronting in so much of their organizing.

In reporting back the discussion was as high-pitched. Whatever this cultural rumor is about the much vaunted “British reserve,” it turns out when the topic is related to community organizing, it’s “no holds barred,” and ready to go fifteen rounds. There’s a hunger here, and we might just be stumbling into something big.

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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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