Introduction – Solidarity is the key.
The Barnsley area of South Yorkshire has a long tradition of a strong Labour and Trade Union movement working together in defence of jobs and conditions and supporting the communities that since the industrial revolution have produced coal, glass, steel and cotton in the mines and factories on behalf of the country. I came down to Barnsley during the Miners’ Strike of 1984 to work in the Barnsley Centre Against Unemployment, a TUC affiliated centre that was part of the South Yorkshire/North Derbyshire Forum of Unemployed Workers Centres and we organised along the same principles as the Labour and Trade Union Movement. The Barnsley Centre Against Unemployment, along with others, was a model TUC Centre and now 12 years after it closed some of the people involved were lucky enough to be still around and in a position to utilise many of the experiences of the centre and the TUC Forum into creating the Barnsley Unite Community Support Centre. Unite Community nationally have adopted the principles of education, agitation and organisation to face similar challenges to Thatcher’s era brought about by austerity measures and an even more hostile Tory government than Thatcher’s, if we ever thought that was possible!
Soon after our union’s bold declaration to start up a Community Union as part of Unite the Union, Joe Rollin, who had been appointed as a full time organiser for the North East approached me, Brian Clarke, Pete Smith and other well know Barnsley activists, all experienced and dedicated trade unionists to lend a hand in creating the very first Unite Community Support Centre in Barnsley. Joe had already approached the Yorkshire Area National Union of Mineworkers for permission to use spare office room at their headquarters in Barnsley which contains the famous miner’s hall and they agreed, much to our delight. It is worth noting that the agenda of today’s conference is very similar to one that we discussed at our early planning meetings held at the NUM nearly 3 years ago. This is a brief report of the main issues that we have faced and dealt with over the past 3 years, following our initial planning and strategy meeting.
The NUM granted us the use of two rooms and unlimited telephone use. The main office which also happens to be Arthur Scargill’s former office is used for administration, campaigning meetings, storing the campaign leaflets and advice work. It has four computers. The other office, The Women Against Pit Cosures, with who we have a strong coalition, doubles up as a computer training room with 6 computers. Our working relations with the NUM is excellent and our centre and South Yorkshire Unite Community branch was heavily involved in the 30th Miners anniversary events across the country, and of course the creation of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. It is very important to have a strong local branch in areas that we are growing our membership and South Yorkshire branch is just that.
Main Broad Based coalitions (or partnerships as we like to call them)
Note: In our experience the key to building broad based coalitions is a non-judgemental , non-partisan and friendly approach and stressing the point to other organisations that Unite can help ‘their own’ organisation and Unite’s contribution to the anti-poverty agenda can be in all our interests. Wherever possible it is preferable for the personal approach to be carried out by our members to potential partners, stressing also the benefits of joining Unite, if not already in a union. This approach has reaped rewards in membership for us and helped build up our capacity to achieve our objectives. Here are some of our main partners.
Barnsley Trades Union Council is an active and vibrant arm of the trade union movement in our area and we have 2 delegates to the BTUC. We have regular joint events and demos
Barnsley Council and local councillors and our MP’s It helps our cause that Barnsley is a Labour controlled local authority and that from the start we involved the council in our development, invited the relevant council functions to our planning meetings Unite are represented at their key anti-poverty joint meetings. For example, the partnership we have with Homelessness Team and the Barnsley Advice Network is invaluable as an exchange of ideas and resources. We have excellent relations with the Housing and Benefits section and this helps us smooth the benefit problems between our clients and the council whilst of course retaining our right to represent and support clients at reviews and appeals against decisions made by the council. We have a direct line to local councillors and MP’s and regularly call upon them if needed on behalf of our members.
PCS and the Job Centre: We have strong links with the local PCS branch through their representative on the trades’ council and who also happens to be a member of the CAB trustees in which I am also a member. The main contact in working situations to other PCS members is through the Job Centre Plus staff. We regularly leaflet outside the Job Centre in Barnsley but always contact the local PCS rep to inform him/her. We also make an effort not to blame or scapegoat Job Centre staff for the plight of claimants, especially on the sanctions issues. On behalf of Unite we wrote a letter to the PCS Barnsley branch to explain that, whilst we vigorously campaign against the Tory Welfare Reforms, we recognise that staff is given targets to fulfil on sanctions and Job Search. It is important that the two unions take each other along and talk to each other on the rocky path that the Tory Government has set for us when it comes to Welfare Reform and the problems it has caused.
Red Cross: The British Red Cross operates from Quaker House almost next door to ours. We have a partnership with the Red Cross to provide ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) to all asylum seekers and refugees that are referred to us by the Red Cross. At present this consists of around 60 all at different stages of entry into the UK. We also provide benefits, money and housing information and along with the Red Cross support and advise them on their applications and support for asylum. We have an Iranian volunteer member who speaks several languages and is vital to sound advice delivery. This is ground breaking work that we are very proud of.
South Yorkshire Credit Union: This is another vitally important partnership as many of our members and potential members cannot access a High street bank account. Also the membership of a credit union allows both borrowing and saving at the same time and benefit can be deposited in a credit union account. As a founder member of the SYCU I understand the importance of a credit union in alleviating poverty and debt and enabling people to budget their income and outgoings.
Food Bank and Churches: we have a close partnership with the local food bank and we have a volunteer member working in the church which provides daily hot meals
Others (not exhaustive) Pensioners groups (Freedom Riders!) Bedroom Tax Campaign, Northern College, Barnsley College, Unison and other unions, the CAB and Students Union.
Advice Work and Networking
Networking with other advice organisations is essential if you are giving welfare rights advice. Voluntary and statutory organisation, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, Council Welfare Rights teams ( now becoming rare) Shelter and Age Concern can be referred to and welcome Unites input and support in our experience. Our experience is that it desirable to get to know the key workers of our main partners and encourage them to join Unite. Also ask them to volunteer for us and even take training sessions. Since opening, Barnsley Unite have supported and advised over 300 people seeking our advice, conducted around 800 interviews with many joining Unite. We have taken 36 Tribunals with a 75% success rate – but win or lose, it’s our support to people who are at their wit’s end that is the main thing.
Changing the Narrative Equality, Lobbying, Campaigning and Recruiting
It follows that strong partnerships and networking can bring their own practices of delivering meaningful equality to the Unite table. Also the referrals and the cross-referrals from voluntary and charitable organisations mentioned above can instil a natural social approach to equalities in all our functions as a union. Equalities are complimentary to everything that we do. This approach is important within the Barnsley community and along with other likeminded partners we try to lead by example in treating everyone equally and with the same careful attention to detail that we would if we were in an industrial setting dealing with our workplace members. Unite Community can provide that bit extra with our campaigning role that gives us an edge over other voluntary and charitable organisations working in the community The ‘we really are in this together’ approach gains us credibility when we are lobbying, campaigning and recruiting especially when we conduct visible campaigns, demos or promotional activities on the street. Student work should now be a priority for Unite as these are our future members who will carry the banner forward, hopefully to a better world. Against a background of poverty and anger it can be difficult to achieve even small gains in a system that is loaded against us. In working together towards our aims it goes without saying that we must have total unity of purpose between ourselves.
The elements of all conference workshops should link into each other and the report backs from the workshops should combine to form a feasible strategy to take Unite Community and the PCS forward. We must keep in mind that we are now nearly 3 years old and many of our more active areas are beyond the basics and are setting their own priorities and strategies according to the needs of their communities. I hope this brief report of our experiences and those who are attending the conference help you to achieve the aims of the conference.
With the seeming success of Unite Community, the volunteers at Barnsley are of the opinion that the work of Unite Community nationally would be enhanced enormously with an increase in the number of full time Regional Organisers. The present limit of one organiser for every region seems wholly unreasonable and unrealistic.
Volunteer, on behalf of Barnsley Unite Community Centre