The weekend of 18 to 20 October 2013 saw the beginning of something truly special in Unite. A group of around 40 community activists and community organisers met at the Unite training centre in Esher. Now a small town in a comfortable middle class area of leafy Surrey may seem a strange venue to start a revolution but what happened could cause a huge change in the way in which Unite looks and works in the future.
The activists assisted by the team of Unite Community Organisers met for the first time as a group to share their experience of and their ideas for the future of Unite community. They came from every part of the UK, from Belfast to Portsmouth, from Glasgow to London, from Plymouth to Barnsley. I was honoured to be one of those who wants to be a part of the future.
We arrived on Friday afternoon and were welcomed by Steve Turner. Assistant General Secretary of Unite. Steve wanted everyone to understand the level of support Unite was giving to this community initiative and to build a level of enthusiasm and confidence that we could take back into our home areas. He was ably assisted in this by the Unite Education Officer, Barry Faulkner and an inspiring team of Community organisers. Our own organiser, Kelly Tomlinson was there, always leading from the front, urging us, enthusing us, guiding us but above all listening to us.
The community initiative in the South East region has started only recently and others in areas such as Belfast, in Glasgow, in East London and in the North of England have been going for a little longer. The activists from here were eager to share their experience of building a community organisation. Working with partners such as the local council and the trade unions, Unite Community Centres have been established in Tower Hamlets and in Barnsley, communities at the centre of government attacks going back to the days of Thatcherism and the 1980s. These centres provide a focus for Unite Community activity but they are not the activity itself. That takes place in the streets, the parks, the homes of ordinary people everywhere.
As well as our organiser, Kelly, there were four of us from the South East, myself from Surrey, Stuart from Brighton, Lisa from Portsmouth and Jack from Oxford. We are a mix of the semi-retired, the unemployed and a student. We have a long way to go to catch up with friends and fellow activists in other regions but we have a common aim, to build a community organisation in our own areas that will empower people in their own communities to fight back against government and private company actions and policies that harm them. We shared our ideas about how we can do this.
On the Saturday morning we learned about the origins of community organisations in the USA and about the personal experiences of those in the UK who only through their own determination had not become the victims of a government that does not care. In the USA much has been achieved through the efforts of the Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now (ACORN). The guiding principles of ACORN include simple ideas such as:
• Act collectively through locally developed democratically run and subscription funded community organisations.
• Communicate not just by talking to people but, very importantly, listening to people in the community.
• Analyse the issues in your community and the views of the people of the community; what are their concerns and what are their aspirations ?
• Working with the community set clear and achievable objectives – from a victory, even a small one, a bigger campaign can be built.
• Be adaptable at all times, allowing the local environment to inspire the tactics you use.
• Work with other community organisations where they exist but build your own identity for Unite Community.
• Help develop local leaders in the communities.
ACORN began as a working class organisation that helped the dispossessed communities in the USA to understand their legal rights and then to build community organisations that united those in work with those out of work, that could identify and resolve the problems within the community. The issues are reflected here in the UK today. Attacks on welfare benefits, the issues of debt and the increasing use by people of pay day loan companies charging extortionate interest rates, continuing unemployment, huge increases in energy prices by formerly publicly owned companies that are now making enormous profits; these are all blights on our communities – these are the sort of issues that led to the growth of ACORN and they are the issues that we need to campaign and act on today here in the UK, here in the South East.
As a South East group of four new community activists, guided by the ever enthusiastic Kelly we worked with more experienced activists in London. We learned about the need to work with other community organisations (eg Residents or Tenants Associations or the Citizens Advice Bureau) to build broad campaigns. We learned about how to use the strength and resources of Unite the union to help us build our campaigns, but not to become reliant on those resources and how to find our own. Let us be clear – campaigning is not something that can usually be done on the cheap. The work being done with the local council in Tower Hamlets was an example of how partnerships can be built with others. We learned about how to build local campaigns and how to use colour and humour as an important part of campaigning. We learned about the tools we need to communicate; collective meetings, advice centres or sessions, local media such as press and radio, social media such as twitter or facebook. We learnt about the impact of welfare cuts on local communities and how to obtain the information we need to expose the unfairness of those cuts.
For me a particularly interesting discussion looked at what added value can Unite Community bring to a community that already has several single issue organisations. The answer was provided by the weekend leader, Barry Faulkner who said that “Unite Community can provide a broad sense of vision and organisation that brings together a set of individual campaigns. Through our experience both within the community and in the workplaces we can bring solidarity between employed and unemployed, between those who are retired and those such as students who are at the beginning of their lives”.
As a South East group we came away on the Sunday afternoon having learned a lot from the excellent team of Unite Community Organisers and the more experienced activists in other regions. We are, here in the South East, at the start of what will be a long journey but the good news is we have started. There are some immediate things we can do.
• The four of us will keep in touch regularly, guided and enthused by Kelly.
• We will look to build local branches. This has already started in Portsmouth with Lisa having kick started local activity there. Stuart has started to build support in Brighton and Jack in Oxford. I am in the process of changing my mobile and e-mail address so that will follow shortly.
• We can start raising the profile of Unite Community locally by asking questions about the impact of government cuts in local services on local communities and then publicising the answers through local media.
• We can start organising street stalls in local communities so we can listen to the concerns of those communities.
• We can start to advertise our presence and our objectives to other local organisations and to the industrial branches of Unite, in fact anyone who wishes to help us.
As you can see this was a serious and important discussion but don’t think it was a boring weekend of political lectures or ranting. We were encouraged to think through our own issues, our own concerns and aspirations, and the solutions that would most likely meet the concerns of our local communities. The guidance was always enthusiastic but with a light touch. Unite is not telling us what to do. It is helping local people to find their own answers. Above all as a weekend it was great fun with lots of opportunity to relax and enjoy ourselves with new friends. I would recommend it to anyone and as we grow it would be good to hold our own South East Community Weekend to share own experiences, our victories, our own, hopefully small and infrequent failures. We all need to keep learning and this was a fun way of doing it.
This is not a journey that will always go smoothly but unless we take those first steps it is a journey that will fail. Over the weekend I was reminded that the most common way we fail is by never starting. Let us make sure that this is not our story. Let us begin now – Come and Join us.