Uniting the Community

Unite, the largest union in Britain, has come up with an imaginative response to the current austerity crisis by creating a community arm that supports people hard hit by the cuts. GERRY LAVERY reports on how it helps them campaign for change.

Unite Com - logoThe aim of Unite Community, set up by the Unite union, is to unionise and embrace people “being pushed to the margins of society”, including the unemployed and others not in formal paid employment, such as volunteers, students, carers and people who have retired. Community membership, says Unite, “places organising and activism at the centre of local communities; it provides a structure through which people can use their political voices to campaign for change.”

Unite has supported its community arm by appointing regional co-ordinators to develop the initiative. It has set up branches in many parts of Britain and established largely part-time community support centres, staffed by volunteers. In the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside region there are now two community support centres, in Barnsley and Durham,  both housed in NUM premises. Another centre is due to open very soon in Leeds.

Membership of Unite Community costs 50p per week, although local Unite branches usually sponsor members if affordability is a problem. Apart from community support, activism and campaigning, individual Unite Community membership includes access to free legal guidance, advice on a range of matters and discounts of various kinds.

In many areas, a core of activist volunteers has emerged while branches are an interesting mix of people from cross-class backgrounds. The Leeds branch, where I am a member, includes people seeking work and people who are retired. The retired members provide continuity when the unemployed members find work, although some of the latter have chosen to hang on to their Unite membership. Volunteers are offered training by Unite and given support.

Unite Com - Joe RolinThe North East, Yorkshire and Humberside region is lucky to have the able, committed, energetic and supportive Joe Rollin (pictured left) as its full-time co-coordinator. Under Joe’s stewardship, regional membership has more than doubled in the last year and now stands at 1,000. One of his recent exciting initiatives was to organise a Unite Community regional workshop with representatives from Barnsley, Doncaster, Grimsby, Huddersfield, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield and Teesside.

I was inspired – not a word I use lightly – by what emerged from the workshop, especially hearing about the work going on in various parts of the region, as well as reports from a variety of campaigns. The grassroots initiatives revealed, not only what is happening as a result of the crisis, but also how people are responding.

Anti-poverty initiatives

Many branches are providing support to people who are feeling the impact of austerity and the punitive restructuring of social security by the coalition government. Anti-poverty initiatives include welfare rights work and access to food, clothing and furniture where necessary.

The Barnsley, Durham and Newcastle branches have well established welfare rights advice services, which have made a real difference to people’s incomes, while they also support claimants dealing with the harsher aspects of the benefits system. Unite also arranges training in welfare rights – in Leeds, for example, a welfare rights course was conducted by the estimable Child Poverty Action Group.

Several branches provide support to people facing appeal tribunals. Representatives from Huddersfield reported on some impressive local advocacy where 35 bedroom tax appeals were taken to court for review because the local authority had under-used its bedroom tax relief fund. Twenty nine of the appeals were successful, although they are now themselves subject to appeal by the Department of Work and Pensions.

Networking with other groups is crucial, according to Unite Community activists, and in several areas there are links to local organisations offering food, clothing and furniture. Links to food banks were reported in Barnsley, Doncaster, Grimsby and Newcastle, while in Durham the Socialist Clothing Bank was established recently following research by two women members. It was attacked by a nearby Conservative MP for being politically motivated (as if this government’s social security reforms are not politically motivated!).

Opportunities for education and training are also offered to Unite Community members. Barnsley’s community support centre has offered training in basic computer skills, while Durham provides access to computers acquired through a recycling scheme. In Newcastle members have been offered courses in public speaking and in Barnsley Unite Community has set up a ‘radical library’ with donated books on politics and trade unionism.

At the workshop, area representatives spoke about how their efforts were not merely compensatory, a way to offset the increasingly punitive welfare regime, but also educational, offering people explanations and understanding of their plight.

Consciousness-raising has paid dividends and callers to Unite support centres have shown a willingness to join the union. In Barnsley, for example, most visitors seeking help end up joining the union. The Barnsley volunteers sum up their approach as “solve, alleviate and recruit”. But consciousness-raising does not stop there, for it is necessary to operate on a variety of levels simultaneously.

Campaigning

Evidence from individual cases, and from across the country more broadly, is used to inform the other side of Unite Community’s work – campaigning. Certainly, there are many local campaigns across the region in relation to cuts, disability benefit assessments, benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax and workfare.

Sheffield Unite Community, which prides itself on democratic decision-making at branch meetings, bases most of its work on campaigning. The branch has objected to benefit sanctions by occupying a DWP building, while Sheffield members joined others chaining themselves to railings at a protest about disability benefits in Westminster.

They have also campaigned against nursery closures, and protested outside the premises of a local charity which participated in a workfare scheme. The Sheffield campaigns have helped to swell the membership of Unite Community, which now stands at 300.

Unite Com - Freedom Riders smallThe impressive Jennifer Bush, a Sheffield member, reported on the Barnsley Freedom Riders campaign (left), which began when free travel was withdrawn from senior citizens and people with disabilities in South Yorkshire. They carried out regular non-violent direct action protests, such as boarding trains and withholding fares. Free travel was eventually restored for people with disabilities, but the campaign continues seeking the same result for senior citizens.

On 23 June this year Tony Nuttall and George Arthur were arrested forcefully by British Transport Police during a protest at Sheffield Railway Station, an incident filmed on a mobile phone. Initially, Tony and George were charged with obstructing the police and not having valid rail tickets, although the CPS has now decided to drop the charges because of lack of evidence.

Barbara Jackson, another Sheffield member, gave a compelling and riveting account of recent developments in the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, which dates from the 1984 miners’ strike and the notorious confrontation at Orgreave when miners were subjected to unusually violent policing. At the subsequent trials of arrested miners it became clear that the police had colluded over their statements and the trials collapsed.

In the wake of the Hillsborough investigation, South Yorkshire Police referred themselves to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which promised to undertake a scoping exercise to see if there were grounds for an inquiry. This exercise has now lasted more than two years so a protest was held outside the IPCC’s London headquarters on 14 November demanding speedier progress, and a delegation met representatives of the IPCC. South Yorkshire Police have agreed to release papers they had previously withheld and the IPCC are due to report in January 2015.

Meanwhile, in Leeds Unite Community members have been involved in, and given financial support to, Hands Off Our Homes, which campaigns on the bedroom tax and welfare benefits. Leeds members have also been supporting local workers on strike for Fast Food Rights, the Barnsley Freedom Riders and the Orgreave campaign.

In Doncaster members have protested against an active anti-abortion group, and in Huddersfield activists have given support to two activists who occupied a Barclays Bank to protest against the bedroom tax. One was acquitted while the other was given a year’s conditional discharge.

A representative from Grimsby reported on his campaign to defeat a UKIP candidate in a local election. Following Austin Mitchell’s imminent retirement as the local Labour MP, there is fear in some quarters that UKIP could take the seat at the general election.

Campaigns around social security have also been a striking feature of Unite Community activity. The union has produced some impressive leaflets and made links with PCS, the union which represents job centre staff. In Huddersfield one member came up with an inspired slogan for job centre protests: ‘No sanctions for claimants, no targets for staff’.

Union links

Unite Community and the Unite union often work closely together. When community support centres are set up, Unite branches assist with rent and equipment, while Unite Community members have supported workplace struggles by Unite members and other trade unionists. Members from Leeds, for example, supported the recent NHS strikes while the Sheffield branch supported a local Tesco lorry drivers’ strike.

Much of the local work done by Unite Community is necessarily of a defensive kind. However, it is also highly supportive, and can lead to opportunities for consciousness-raising, union membership and collective action, often increasing people’s confidence and developing their capacities.

The organisation’s casework illustrates the impact of an increasingly inhumane welfare regime, which is often hidden and needs bringing into public view. When these issues do surface, they tend to emerge through a hostile media atmosphere which makes people receiving benefits ‘fair game’. The fact that the overwhelming majority of benefit claimants are in work is a point rarely made.

Some claimants are extremely vulnerable. Indeed, it was reported recently by the Disability News Service that the DWP is conducting 60 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths, and the Unite Community are so concerned about the well-being of some who come to them for help that the organisation has held introductory courses on mental health for its volunteers.

Unite Community branches throughout the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside region – and I dare say elsewhere – provide individual and community support, resourced by Unite nationally and locally, while linking with a network of other trades unions, local trades councils, and sympathetic local campaigns and charities. It is progressive civil society in action.

What is less clear to me is where there is any link to the Labour Party. Such activities should be used to inform and mobilise the Labour Party, locally and nationally. In the run-up to the general election Labour needs to widen its scope, look beyond the narrow need to canvas for votes, and give clear support to people locally. If people at the grassroots are taking a stand then Labour should be following their lead.

In the meantime, Unite Community is growing and developing, providing many activists with a way of supporting people affected by austerity, of actively opposing cuts and of campaigning for alternatives. I urge you to get invovled; it is good for the soul. After all – to mangle a famous quote – we have nothing to lose but our chains of austerity.

—-

Gerry Lavery is a Unite Community member but writes in a personal capacity.

You can learn more about Unite Community and how to join by clicking here.

The author would like to thank Joe Rollin, Barry Winter and all who attended the Unite Community regional workshop in Leeds on 13 November 2014 for their help with this article.




8 Comments

  1. Ernest Jacques
    6 December 2014

    Uniting the Community

    How refreshing to learn that the Unite union is doing something positive to support the victims of austerity and is also campaigning locally and nationally against the trashing of the welfare state, social injustice and the neoliberal horror story.

    As a former member of the engineering union (predecessor of UNITE) it’s great to see money being used productively to help individuals, families and neighbourhoods and in campaigning for change in areas where Unite members live and work.

    What a contrast to the usual internal Labour Party democracy machinations often linked to parachuting leadership favourites (aka, the Blair, Prescott, Straw and Kinnock children) into winnable Parliamentary seats, funding useless photo shoots of flag waving look-a-like membership fodder, and supporting the office and career ambitions of compliant wannabe Westminster politicians.

    Sticking plaster stuff maybe, but if it means that UNITE (and hopefully others) is now going to cease shovelling money into the bank accounts of the great and the good, and the Westminster fixers, and use its political affiliation money in areas of need, and in campaigning for real change, then that has to be good. Good for UNITE members, good for communities and good for the Labour Party.

    Labour Party conundrum
    The author does touch on one unanswered (maybe an unanswerable) conundrum vis-à-vis links with the Labour Party. Labour in local government is, in effect, the handmaiden of the coalition government and as such is thought by many in deprived neighbourhood communities to be no different from the Tories and simply a conduit for cuts, outsourcing, austerity and social exclusion. And in many towns and cities across the UK, Labour local authorities seem to be doing nothing to stop social cleansing and housing evictions in the wake of the bedroom tax, ever increasing rents and financial hardship. Large areas of inner cities are now the preserve of the middle class and the rich and the Labour Party seems to have nothing to say about this – quite the reverse, they are often seen as part of the problem and not the answer. How then do you Unite with a problem like that?

    What then should be the limits of a Labour’s complicity with the austerity agenda and does it make a difference if you and your family are forced out of your community and/or evicted from your home by a Labour council rather than a Tory or Liberal council?

    But having raised that question, Uniting the Community is a brilliant title and a brilliant campaign. Full stop!

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  3. Harry Barnes
    8 December 2014

    The Unite Community initiative is more than welcome. As is the work in my area of the Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centres, which has been in operation since 1983. Their recent Annual Report gives important details about their work over the past year and can be found here.

    I am luckly enough to still be a member of Unite (travelling the route through amalgamations via ASTMS, MSF and AMICUS) and developed valuable links with the DUWC from the time I became an MP.

    But does Ernie feel that it is time for people such as myself and others with links to the ILP to give up on the Labour Party, rather than (say, at least for now) pushing the type of line I have argued on this website on the thread “Labour Needs To Push Its Progressive Electoral Programme”? If so, should we just give up party politics or find (or help build) a democratic socialist alternative? Should I become a distant English supporter of the SNP, a member of the Greens, turn to some smaller left alternative or try to build something new from stratch?

    It is, of course, possible just to pack up such activity and as an individual (or via some sort of collective) spell out a better path. At the age of 78 I would like to know the answer. I don’t really want to waste whatever remains – but I did start to get a bit hooked on the political game from 1945 when I found out that it was standard practice for the tribe I belonged to to criticize Winston Churchill and company. I could, of course, just turn my hand to the past and concentrate on Labour history or get more involved with say the efforts of DUWC. After all, I do bits of those things already.

  4. Ernest Jacques
    15 December 2014

    Harry,

    While I am highly critical of the Labour Party and of all those who would use it as a vehicle for their own career ambitions and vested interests (and the front and back benches are stuffed full of these notional socialists), I am with 100% with you (well, maybe 75%) and the ILP insofar as there are plenty of Labour members and supporters who do want social change and a more fair and inclusive social system. And of course we must seek support wherever we can and especially within deprived neighbourhood communities, trades unions, amongst single issues campaigners and all who want progressive social change (apart from the fruitcakes and racists), and who are prepared to challenge the neobliberal apologists within and without the Labour Party.

    I fully supported Scottish independents (still do) and think that the Labour Party’s support for the union and the status quo was shockingly reactionary and regressive. But that does not mean that I am a supporter of the SNP, even though I think the new leader (Nicola Ferguson Sturgeon) is head and shoulders better than the likes of Gordon Brown (Mr No More Boom or Bust and Quantitative Easing), Alistair Darling (recipient of hundreds of thousands from the very banks, JP Morgan et al, that caused the credit crash and gave the excuse for the austerity and the trashing of our welfare state), Anas Sarwar MP (who sends his kids to private school), and most of those who, like John Prescott, found the lure of becoming a Lord, of silly titles and establishment gongs and corporate money, irresistible. Not forgetting the new leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, Jim Murphy, who remains an unrepentant Blairite and supporter of Trident, NATO and weapons of mass destruction. So if Jim is the answer to Scotland’s problems then we live in a very strange and unpredictable world. But there again I have been on the losing side politically all my life so let’s hope that Jim Murphy and Scottish Labour have an epiphany and prove me wrong again.

    So what I am saying, Harry, is that we must, of course, make as many friends as we can inside and outside the Labour Party, but it is also our duty to try and expose those like Blair, Straw, Mandelson and Darling (the list is endless) whose sole purpose in politics seems to be to support the status quo, big money and the Westminster establishment, and to do so in a way that others might find convincing and attractive.

    Admittedly, this is not one of my strengths as I know I am much better at pointing the finger and at being angry than in trying to understand opposing political perspectives and those inside the Labour Party who support, warts and all, our current Westminster system, which seems designed to meet the vested interests of careerists politicians and those who really don’t want change.

  5. Harry Barnes
    16 December 2014

    Ernie. Amongst Labour’s politicians and its would-be politicians (from parish councils to prime ministers) there has always been elements of those who have been dominated by either (a) conviction politics, pressing for deeply held beliefs and values, or by (b) careerist concerns. Many have probably been an intricate mix of the two, being shaped and re-shaped by passing circumstances. Some have convictions and beliefs we don’t share. Or they may be on our side on only particular matters; often not because they share our beliefs but because they judge it to be the convenient thing to do at the time. When a politician propounds a position we agree with, we can never be sure that they are doing this as a matter of conviction or for purposes of career advancement – or just to get re-elected. Matters may have moved us more into the camp of careerist politics in recent years, but it is nothing new. Then matters are complicated by the fact even a person with values (whatever they are) may see the need to tack and manoevre to advance their beliefs.

    New Labour satisfied many of this wide range of politicians’ interests. It propounded basic ideas that some had shared for a long time, whilst offering clearer electoral victory prospects and career opportunities from the time Blair became leader. Even the bulk of MPs on the soft-left in the Tribune Group scuttled into this new approach. At first it seemed that this might only be for a short term move until electoral victory was firmly achieved. But things did not change for most of the former soft left after the 1997 electoral victory. New Labourism as a belief system and a career opening just shot through the Labour Party; even affecting attitudes amongst many of the rank and file of the Labour Party.

    There just might be a chance now that things can change direction. A careful read of ‘Changing Britain Together’ (which can be accessed elsewhere on this site), shows that we could be in for a sea change. I feel that this document has got more than just a polite endorsement from Ed Miliband; that, however imperfect it might be, it seeks to transcend the Blair/Brown era. It isn’t a democratic socialist approach, for it (at its best) only seeks to regulate and control the excesses of capitalism. But that is, at least, a move forward. It seems to me to re-build a stance that bumbled about (with bits of successes and failures) in the period from roughly Harold Wilson to John Smith. It is an approach which can start to re-open the door for democratic socialists, for them to push for further advances and, at least, to be listened to. It isn’t much use being a voice in the wilderness. Way back in 1992 I could at least get the newly appointed leadership team of John Smith and Margaret Beckett to answer a set of lefty questions and to get reasonably favourable responses, which I then got published in the ‘Morning Star’. It was at least a sign that the door was not then closed for people such as ourselves.

    Holding on to what Ed is currently associated with seems to me (in practical terms) to be the best that is on offer at the moment. And it is a position that needs protecting against key influences at the centre of the Labour Party who still share a New Labour ‘vision’. But if we can further ‘Changing Britain Together’ and win an election on it, then the careerist ambitions of the New Labour MPs bring them into what might be Ed’s own ideological camp. Not New Labour nor clear socialism, but a Labour tradition that gives scope for socialists to work within. That’s better than anything we have seen over the past two decades. Remember I had to work both within and against Labour Party Blairism in parliament for a decade, a significant section of the worst period for democratic socialists in the history of the Labour Party. I am entitled to feel that things can only get better. And I don’t any longer have the careerist interest of even needing to get re-elected.

  6. Ernie Jacques
    16 December 2014

    Harry

    You are right of course and the motivation and politics of MPs, ILPers and Labour voters change over time. And sometimes, like Jon Trickett MP on the picket line at NEXT last week, we can fully support his actions while on other issues we are poles apart. Most unusually for me (Mr grumps usually has something to moan about) I support your statement 100%.

  7. Harry Barnes
    16 December 2014

    Ernie,

    If you look at the authors of the articles on the current front page of this web-site, plus those who have put comments in their comment boxes; then the two of us have produced two-thirds of these. Now that we have a united stance, perhaps we can be seen to speak for 66.7% of the ILP. That is a majority in anyone’s language. Either that or we are wind-bags.

    Enjoy the festive season. The same to our readers. As long as there is not only thee and me!

  8. […] Gerry Lavery’s report for the ILP on the work of Unite Community here. Tags: Anti-Cuts, Campaigns, Con Dems, Employment, Trade unions, TUC, Unbalanced […]

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