Community Unions: A lifeline for broken Britain
THESE are times when unemployment is becoming a more grim,
widespread reality, when attacks on welfare threaten the lives of some of the
most vulnerable in society and when the futures of younger generations across
the country are hanging in the balance.
In Manchester, the unemployment rate is at its highest in 12 years, with 84,600 people now claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance in the city, almost 30% of whom have been unemployed for more than six months. For young people, the number of those without jobs has spiralled since 2000, with almost 900% more 18-24 year olds now jobless and not in education or training.
For increasing numbers of people in Manchester and across the UK, the ability to fight back and en mass against regressive attacks on their lives is complicated by the fact that they’re not in employment.
Whilst able to organise independently, bringing enough people together from communities for a substantial period of time without having the strength and secure organisational structure that workplace union membership offers, can make it hard to achieve real change.
Yet that could all be about to change due to the establishment of a local community union initiative, which is making headway in Greater Manchester.
The Greater Manchester Unite Community Union is part of a pioneering nationwide plan unveiled by Unite last year to bring together society’s most vulnerable sections. These groups have for a long time gone without the same opportunities to make their voices publically heard.
It is the first time that a part of the official labour movement has taken on the role of organising those beyond the workplace to give them the additional strength and support that community groups on their own cannot always attain.
Focusing on those not in employment, amongst the people the scheme is attracting are full-time carers, students and elderly, those who may be hardest hit by the current government’s welfare reforms. Branches are being set up throughout the UK, with the current largest situated in London and Liverpool.
The focus of the community unions rests on bringing together different campaigners and communities within local areas to fight together as one against social injustices that are currently being faced by millions of people in the UK.
For 50 pence per week the community unions aim to give a platform and a form of organisation to those pushed to the edges of society and offer them free support services such as legal advice. It is hoped that by bringing together groups that otherwise may have remained disparate, stronger, overarching communities will be created that have a louder national voice and more power to try and reverse regressive social measures and help push for a better and fairer situation for all.
Unite have in a way reignited interest in the idea of community unions that dates back on a major level in England at least to the 1930s. This was when the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement formed amidst mass unemployment and poverty to improve the conditions of the jobless, galvanising the support of hundreds of thousands at its marches.
The union recently hired six staff to act as national coordinators of the community membership initiative, who will act as facilitators and liaison officers for local branches across the country and encourage the formation of new groups in areas currently without community union representation.
Established in spring this year, the Greater Manchester branch is now one of the largest in the country. Despite not yet being formally constituted, unlike the London and Casa Liverpool divisions, it is beginning to draw notable interest and support from different groups of people within the area.
The branch has since created further sub-union groups which operate in areas such as Salford and Manchester South. They hope that the formation of more local groups will help encourage more members who may not be able to travel far to meetings due to issues such as to caring responsibilities or lack of money.
So far it has had four public meetings which have
attracted people such as carers, other long-term unemployed and disabled-issue
The union offers people the support to set up local area campaigns around issues that may be affecting themselves or others within the local community and a stable form of organisation that allows them to make strong links with other community union members. They also offer support services such as legal advice, C.V and letter application writing, interview tips, debt counselling, welfare benefits check up and hardship grants.
"People are being demonised"
Recently the group has been concentrating on campaigning
around ATOS, the healthcare company whose work assessment is threatening the
lives of those with disabilities and have been linked to a number of suicides.
However, the union acknowledges that this is only the beginning.
It has to decide how best to link together the many different local campaign ideas and personal battles that people are attending the meetings to address and make people see that their individual struggles are part of a bigger, united picture.
The latest public meeting brought together people from over the city and as far away as Wigan, who are trying to set up their own local group.
Pat, a carer from Levenshulme, was one of those who attended. Talking about why he thought that Unite’s Community Unions were an important step forward, he said: “I’m terrified about what the next wave of attacks by the government could do to people’s lives.
“I think that unfortunately at the moment unemployed people are being demonised. We need to start organising to answer the nonsense that is being put out there.
“The Greater Manchester Unite Community Union is only at the start of its life. We know we need a lot more bodies to turn these campaigning ideas into something real.
Adds Pat: “I think that there is a great amount of potential in the community union idea. Around Europe we’re starting to see lots of unemployed people begin to organise en mass. For example in Portugal people managed to stop the government cutting people’s living standards by 15% by increasing taxes and in Spain people have occupied houses and land and have marched into supermarkets on mass to feed the poor.
“Whilst we have a lot of campaign groups in the UK there has been less sustained unity between them but there’s nothing in the air that we breathe to mean that we can’t begin to do the same as other European countries with a little bit of help, organisation and skill.
“The unite community unions enable people to realise that although they may have their little fights to be won they are battling the same problem. The best way to think of community unions is this: if you hit someone with five fingers you don’t hurt them, but if you put the five fingers together you’ve got a fist.”
The Greater Manchester Unite Community Union holds public meetings on the last Tuesday of the month. You can find more details on how to join and for information on local group meetings, or visit the Facebook page.
By Chloe Glover
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