Posts Tagged ‘unite community support centre’

This is the real Big Society!

Barnsley Unite CSC Staff

Volunteers Richard Vivian, Pete Smith, Muhammad Tariq, Coordinator Joe Rollin and Brian Clarke, outside the centre.

When the Unite Community Support Centre in Barnsley opened its doors on a blazing hot day in June 2013 to a fanfare from the Unite Brass Band, it was with a sense of much needed optimism.

The shadow of the Miners’ Strike has hung like a pall over Barnsley for thirty years. The coal mines that once defined the town are now gone and with little remaining industry, Barnsley has been particularly vulnerable to the storms that have swept the economy in recent decades.

Harry Leslie Smith, in his excellent book, ‘Harry’s Last Stand’ described the grinding poverty of his early life in Barnsley during the 1920s. Not much has changed and what did, such as the NHS and our Welfare State are now being severely eroded. Currently standing as the fourth most deprived local authority in Yorkshire and the Humber, low wages, benefit cuts, sanctions and the hated Bedroom Tax are taking their toll. It seems appropriate that the office is situated in the NUM Headquarters, once known as ‘Arthur’s Castle’.

The centre is open for two days a week and is run entirely by volunteers. It offers a range of advice on benefits issues, including support for appeals and representation at tribunals. It also runs courses on welfare advice training, helping people with computer skills and internet access with the ‘Learn My Way’ course.

Richard Vivian is a retired Welfare Benefits Advisor, who moved to Barnsley thirty years ago, “I came down from Scotland in the middle of the Miners’ Strike and established the Barnsley Centre Against Unemployment, which I managed for over twelve years. The idea of a community union for people not in work, students or retired, organised within one of the biggest unions in Europe not only caught my imagination, it also fulfilled a long time personal aim to unite those in work with those out of work. So when the opportunity arose to become involved in the development of a community support centre in Barnsley, I grabbed the chance. We continue to apply the original aims of the centre and will carry on as long as the problems of working class people remain and we can create and achieve a better and fairer society.

Unite launched its Community Membership Scheme in early 2012, with the aim of bringing the principles of trade unionism to the heart of our communities, such as the values of solidarity, dignity and respect.

During Cameron’s numerous launches and re-launches of his beleaguered ‘Big Society’ flagship policy (a thinly veiled attack on public sector services, under the guise of community involvement), he can’t have imagined Unite Community, even in his darkest nightmares.

Unite Regional Co-ordinator, Joe Rollin explains, “our initiative was a response to massive unemployment, especially amongst young people. Unite saw this as disastrous for the country as a whole and thought it had a moral duty to these people. The whole trade union movement I think, was shocked by the savage way in which the Tories implemented their austerity programme, dismantling our public services and unravelling our welfare state. The movement needed to engage with our communities to help organise a fight back.”

Joe was instrumental in setting up the centre, “the vision is to reach into our communities which once had thriving industries, where joining a union was as normal as having a cup of tea. Now with de-industrialisation, the toll of unemployment has meant that the reality for working class people is bleak. No work at all, minimum wage jobs or zero hours contracts. We want to instil a feeling of dignity and respect back into these communities and show through collective organisation we can stop some of the vicious Con-Dem cuts.”

Volunteers Muhammad (Mo) Tariq, Brian Clarke and Peter Smith play a huge role in helping to run the centre. Mo moved to Barnsley from London in 2011 and advises visitors on welfare rights, helps with admin work and keeps the centre’s social media channels and blog up to date. He says, “I wanted to help people in whatever capacity I could, as the current economic climate is very harsh and communities are suffering.”

Brian helps to facilitate the centre’s various computer courses, such as Learn My Way and Learn with Unite ICT. He is from Sheffield and is a retired engineering worker, first joining the AEU in 1955. He also served as Secretary and General Manager of the Wortley Hall collective until 2005 when he retired, remaining on the management board as Political Secretary until 2013. He says, “after reading an article in the Morning Star I contacted Joe and asked if I could help, as I wanted to keep in touch with our Union. I have been involved in the centre from the early organising meetings and really enjoy the work. We have a very good team in Barnsley with a good mixture of skills and abilities to help the local community.”

Pete has always been active in the trade union movement and was an officer in the Transport & General Union from 1983 until his retirement in 2007. He helps with benefits advice, industrial problems and tribunals. Pete says, “I see Unite Community as more of a movement than anything else. I’d like to see it grow and spread its influence throughout the community, creating links with industrial branches. The centre is the ideal opportunity for me to put something back by helping people.”

In its first year, the centre conducted 180 interviews, giving advice on a range of issues such as Employment Support Allowance, Job Seekers’ Allowance, Housing Benefit, Council Tax, Bedroom Tax and Discretionary Housing Payments. Advisors attended seventeen tribunals and closed 83 cases.

Richard expands on this, “We cannot win all the time but by taking a claimant through the process of claiming and appealing at tribunals, we are helping that person regain their dignity and showing that we do care.

“Mr R was one of our first cases, seeking help with his Working Tax Credit claim. We managed to recover a total of £4,795.68 from HMRC on his behalf.”

“Another successful case,” continued Richard, “was Ms C. “By successfully claiming the Personal Independence Payment and Carers Allowance, as well as winning two Bedroom Tax appeals we increased her benefits from £71.70 per week last year, to £190.80 per week this year.”

Alongside the advice service, another important aspect of the centre’s work is supporting local campaigns. Over the last year, the centre has supported campaigns as diverse as the local Anti-Bedroom Tax campaign, Orgreave Truth and Justice, the strike by Care UK workers, the celebrated South Yorkshire Freedom Riders and the NUM’s 30th anniversary commemorations of the Miners’ Strike.

Joe explains, “The NUM have been a symbol of resistance in the local community. People remember clearly the heroic struggle against the last Conservative government and what loosing that struggle has meant to the trade union movement as a whole. Unite wanted to educate people about our past struggles and learn lessons for the future.”

For this reason, the centre has also set up its own Community Library, with a focus on the history of the trade union movement and radicalism. The growing collection has received donations from Unite members, Red Pepper magazine and would welcome any further donations.

There is no formal lending system, “people just turn up and we record their name, phone number and the books that they have borrowed on our record sheet. There is no need to become a member or make any payments, we just trust people to be honest,” said Joe.

The Unite Community Support Centre in Barnsley has covered a lot of ground over the last year, offering support and advice to the local community. This is especially impressive when considered that the centre is only open for two days a week and stands as a testament to the passion and dedication of its volunteers.

“We have come a long way in a short period of time,” says Joe, “ we want to continue our unique blend of practical support, radical education and direct action against the cuts, so that we can continue to live up to our slogan, ‘educate, agitate, organise’!”

New union community centre for Doncaster

Unite, the UK’s largest union, is opening a community centre in Doncaster which will support the local community.

The new centre at 95 Netherhall Road, will have a grand opening on Monday 9 June from 3pm. There is an open invitation to the public and press to come and meet the organisers and volunteers and see what the centre has to offer.

The centre will be open Tuesdays and Wednesdays between 10am and 3pm offering help and support for individuals and the community as a whole. The centre will provide a place for people to learn new skills, provide support with welfare problems and support for people looking for work. The centre will also become a hub for the local community to campaign on local issues including welfare changes.

Many of the most vulnerable people are suffering as a result of devastating cuts, such as the Bedroom Tax, housing benefit cuts and ATOS. The community centre will be providing welfare rights training so that local people can get knowledge of the welfare system and support each other with some of the problems they are experiencing.

Unite regional secretary Karen Reay said: “This is an exciting development which brings Unite back into the heart of our local communities. Our members can be confident that we are aware of the local issues and that Unite is seeking to work with the people of Doncaster to address them.

“We will be working with local campaign groups so we can ensure that our members’ voices can be heard and that issues that matter to them are top of the local agenda.”

Unite regional community coordinator Joe Rollin said: “I am pleased that we are opening this centre in Doncaster where the local community is in great need of support and centre will go some way to providing that assistance.

“Our experience of working with local groups and individuals ensures that issues which matter to people are campaigned for. The centre will become a focal point for making those changes.”

Unite opened five such centres last year – in Barnsley, Belfast, Cinderford, Tower Hamlets in East London and Durham.

Yearly Centre Report 2013-14

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The economic squeeze that is being imposed on most working class people will ensure that any first anniversary celebrations for the Unite/National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) community centre in Barnsley will rightly be muted. Far too many people are struggling against a barrage of government attacks on welfare benefits, rights at work and public services for champagne corks to be popping in honour of the many successes achieved by the Unite Community members who have provided welfare advice services to local people on Wednesdays and Thursdays between 10am to 3pm since it opened in June last year.

By the end of April 2014, Unite Community members at the centre had dealt with 61 closed cases with 26 ongoing. Support for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants comprised almost half the cases. ESA, which is paid because of an illness or disability, has been heavily criticised by many organisations, including the Citizens Advice Bureau, due to the fact many claimants have been found fit for work after being selected for the Work Capability Assessment. (WCAs)  Following campaigning – in which Unite Community members have participated – by disabled organisations, the Department for Work and Pensions has recently stopped outsourcing company ATOS from carrying out repeat assessments until another company can be found to do WCAs.

The centre at Barnsley has helped 6 claimants appeal against an ESA decision to restrict their benefit. Four were won including Ms P whose successful tribunal hearing helped increase her benefits by £28.45 a week. By helping Mr R with his Working Tax Credit the centre helped him recover a total of £4,795.68. Five bedroom tax appeals helped ensure two people had more money in their pockets and with Ms C’s success also being combined with a successful claim for Personal Independence Payment and carers allowance then her benefit levels rose by £184,80 per week, She has joined Unite.

“We have helped many people raise their income, By doing so we have raised people’s hopes that there are people on their side,” said Richard Vivian, a life-long trade unionist and retired professional benefits advisor who volunteers at the centre.

Richard and Mohammad Tariq, who got involved in the centre in October 2013, designed the two-day welfare advice-training course, which was held for 16 Unite members from across Yorkshire earlier this year. All aspects of welfare rights and benefits were covered including protecting client’s rights and data protection. Unite Community members have also undertaken two days training on welfare rights provided by the Child Poverty Action Group. “People need representation but we can only provide it if we are properly trained and familiar with the complexities of the benefits system,” said Mohammad, who since joining Unite has become much more conscious of the widening gap between rich and poor. He now wants to particularly encourage young people and ethnic minorities to join the union.

In addition to providing welfare right advice the Barnsley centre, which is based in the NUM Headquarters that is the world’s first purpose built trade union headquarters, (see below) also runs computer classes. People have attended ‘Learn My Way’ computer basics classes and others have come in for assistance in setting up an e-mail address and help with writing a CV. “We are giving people opportunities to improve their skills. All benefit applications now have to be done online and the government wrongly assumes everyone has got a computer and internet connection,” said Brian Clarke, a former engineer who has been a trade union member since 1955 and whose last job before he retired was general manager at Wortley Hall. Brian became an active volunteer at the Barnsley centre after seeing an advert in the Morning Star and is enjoying helping people.

The professional advice provided by Unite Community members to the folk of Barnsley is becoming increasingly important in an era when many advice organisations are struggling to survive and cope with the increasing demands placed on them. Maximising people’s benefits is vital work but it cannot be a long-term solution, especially when benefit levels are so low and are not even being increased each year to keep pace with the rate of inflation.

Unite Community members thus try to help people understand what lies behind the government’s austerity drive that has driven down people’s living standards and raised inequality levels back to those seen in the 19th century. There has been a conscious effort to challenge media misrepresentation that the jobs crisis can be blamed on immigrants.

Rather than sitting at home worrying, people are encouraged to get involved in campaigns around the effects of government cuts to working people. Centre activists have supported the local campaign against the bedroom tax, joined protests against the workfare programme and supported workers taking industrial action.

“Working people have power if they are organised. Unite Community members can help raise awareness and help encourage a culture of resistance. I remain optimistic we can change society for the better,” said Richard, who as a young man was forced to retrain when he was blacklisted by engineering employers across Scotland.

NUM Headquarters, 2 Huddersfield Road, Barnsley S70 2LS

Opening times: 10am to 3pm, Wednesdays and Thursdays

  • The NUM Building in Barnsley was the world’s first purpose-built trade union headquarters when it opened in 1874. It was designed by Wade and Turner of Barnsley in a Scottish Baronial style and featured a tall, French-Gothic entrance. The moving force behind the centre was the secretary of the South Yorkshire Miners’ Association, John Normansell, who said at the time of the opening: “you are most welcome into a house that is built by your fellow miners at their own cost and expense in every way.” Normansell died soon afterwards and is commemorated by a monument outside the building. A meeting hall, the windows of which record major elements of miners’ working lives, supplemented Wade and Turner’s design in 1912. In more recent times a statue has been erected that commemorates those miners who lost their lives in supporting their unions in times of struggle. These include David Jones and Joe Green, who lost their lives during the year-long strike in 1984-85 and who every year in March are remembered in a special ceremony.

View report in PowerPoint: Annual Report1 Barnsley Center 

Information taken from Buildings of the labour movement by Nick Mansfield and published by English Heritage.

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South Yorkshire Unite Community AGM

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Last Wednesday night, February 12 2014, saw The South Yorkshire Unite Community Branch hold it’s first Annual General Meeting,

The Unite members battled through terrible weather conditions to hold a lively meeting with speakers from The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and the Bakers Union. Lots of fantastic contributions from the floor were made including from our volunteers in the Barnsley Community Centre, and from our members in Doncaster, who are helping people struggling with the Con-Dem’s cruel and unnecessary Welfare Reform.

Other Contributions were made on the Bedroom Tax Campaign and Workfare and plans put in place for the ATOS demonstration on the 19th of February. All the new Branch positions were filled with delegates elected to the Area Activist Committee and Trades Council’s, The Branch also voted on a Motion to allow greater participation within Unite’s structures, which it is hoped other Community Branch’s will follow.

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Barnsley Unite Community branch take campaign to the streets

On Monday and Tuesday (13/14 January 2014) Barnsley Unite Community branch will be taking the campaign to support people who have been victimised by Tory and Lib Dem welfare, benefits and job cuts into the communities.

From 11am on Monday (13 January) Unite Community will have a stall in Peel Square, Barnsley Town Centre, and will be touring local town centres and estates on Tuesday (14 January).

Unite Community will set up a stall in the town and will have campaign materials, and representatives from other organisations, including the Anti-Bedroom Tax Campaign, to help spread a positive New Year message.

Unite community coordinator for Yorkshire Joe Rollin said: “It is a disgrace that in one of the richest countries in the world increasing numbers of people are facing hardship brought about by tougher regimes in jobcentres, leading to benefit sanctions for vulnerable people, including people in work. Many are turning to food banks to feed their families.

“Cuts have also decimated support and advice organisations so Unite Community is attempting to get people working together and supporting the building of collective community based solutions to these bread and butter issues.

“Unite community has linked up with the Gateway food bank in Barnsley and we have donated food paid for by Unite’s industrial members. We also refer many completely destitute people to the food bank who regularly come into our community centre. We are focusing on debt issues too, which are particularly relevant after the expensive Christmas period.”

ENDS

For more information please contact Joe Rollin Unite Community coordinator on
07711 375 536 or joe.rollin@unitetheunion.org

Twitter: @unitetheunion Facebook: unitetheunion1

Notes to editors
The Unite Community Centre is open every Wednesday and Thursday from (time???). Unite Community Support Centre, NUM Headquarters, 2 Huddersfield Road, Barnsley, S70 2LS.

Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with 1.4 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.

Our Community Centre is Open every Wednesday and Thursday
Unite Community Support Centre,
NUM Headquarters,
2 Huddersfield Road,
Barnsley
S70 2LS
Tel: 01226 215557
http://barnsleycsc.wordpress.com/