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’!”