community unionism: from the workplace to the streets

by Brian Garvey

“We have been the victims of so many acts of corruption… But the workers have supported us in forming a new trade union, because they want change – a radical change – so that we are the new administration of the collective contract, because the union we have is useless” Luis Flugo, Aseven soft drinks company, Venezuela

“I looked at the Mater hospital – this new, ‘state of the art facility’, and there wasn’t even changing rooms for the domestics. Not even a changing room. And I wondered, how did the unions allow that?” Domestic health worker, Belfast

It is recognised that unions need to change. Union membership in the 26 counties has fallen by 14% (currently 32% of workforce) between 1994-2008. Writing on the situation in UK where membership levels have fallen continuously since 1979 (currently only 28% of workforce) and employers have been ‘emboldened by neoliberal policies’ Jane Willis of University of London writes that ‘trade unions cannot simply wait until economic and political conditions become more favourable’ for their recovery.

Facing a situation where the number of people employed in manufacturing has halved since the 70s, and the number of people employed as sub-contracted agency staff has increased by 346% in 10 years (accounting for almost two thirds of full time workforce) some unions have begin to think forward.

The Iron and Steel Trades Confederation merged with the Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades (KFAT) in 2005, to form Community, and recognised that a ‘culture change in unions is long overdue if we are to represent our modern members as they are and not as they were or as we would like them to be. … our structures, our decision-making and our very language sometimes cuts us off from the members we claim to represent whose working lives have changed beyond all recognition’. Indeed the fact that 16-19 year olds account for only 4% of union membership in both UK and in the 26 counties leaves unions open to charges of being ‘pale, male and stale’.

Hence they have set about helping ‘members, their families and their neighbours’ providing advice and support in social services, political support for residents tackling local authorities, guidance on neighbourhood disputes and equalities support for disabled people, pensioners, women, ethnic minorities and young people alike in the community.’

While alliances between community groups and unions are not new – such cooperation was hugely influential in mobilising against apartheid in the South Africa of the 80s – the language of community unionism and social movement unionism is again being used to describe a range of relationships between unions and other groups that have sprung up. Many of us at the anti-capitalist demonstrations against the G8 in Genoa were impressed by the Italian ‘autonomous social centres’ that arose from the 70s as struggles spread from factories into society and rank and file trade unionists connected with groups struggling for housing and began to ‘self reduce’ their utilities bills and transportation costs. Soon buildings were occupied and transformed into centres that could help serve community need, tackling among many social ills from heroin to sweatshop labour and providing support advice while engaging in direct action.

In the US, immigrant women from south America, long excluded from mainstream unions in many contexts have been forefront of new forms of community unionism. In the garment industry the instability of the employment, high turnover rates associated with poor conditions and poor rates of pay make longer term relations among workers more difficult and they have found it “easier to organise outside the factory than within it” (Jane Collins, 2006). Indeed the centres are the sole network of support for many migrant workers and trade unions are recognising that there are many ideas and a renewed energy from their existence. The relationship between the workers centres and unions not straight forward. Some centres work closely with unions, some reject the union movement as a ‘labour aristocracy’. One labour activist pointed out that the centres can and do support workers in bargaining struggles but can’t represent workers in collective bargaining and so in cases, for example, a memorandum of understanding has been signed between unions and the workers centres as part of a developing links based on shared interests.

The Living Wage campaign in London bought together unions with community and faith based groups, used demonstrations and coy use of the media to embarrass companies like HSBC into a redistribution of the profits. While the victories in terms of an improved wages for the lowest paid in the workplaces have been localised, they represent important strategies. The campaign took its lead from the Justice for Janitors victories in the USA, and the ILGWU feminist union leadership in Toronto employed similar creative tactics while uniting sweat shop factory workers from a community basis. Importantly, they recognised that building membership from several a small workplaces located in different places and in different communities took time and so they blitzed other workplaces in traditional ways – recruiting from photographic shops, bookmakers to help the union grow – while patiently continuing their work in the communities from which the garment makers were drawn from. Also in Canada the ‘Committee to Save the East End’ of the city of Montreal that was facing industrial decline brought unions together with Church groups, community organisations, local credit unions and small businesses to successfully defend jobs.

In Australia too a new source of organising has been found in workers rights centres, workers associations, inner city renewal groups, community organisations, and racial or ethnic organisations. And here it has been pointed out that while industrial trade unionism in its peak was often centred around the community where the workers lived, and the unions were part of the fabric of the locality, this became less important as work was decentralised, people became more mobile and manufacturing declined. This new wave, however, puts an emphasis back on the locality, or community as a basis for organising again.

As I write, a mix of socialists and environmentalists have formed a ‘red green’ alliance with 25 workers of the Vestas Wind Systems on Isle of Wight and helped inspire the current occupation of the wind energy plant. It is supported by the local community, 300 of whom who marched to the gates of the factory last week and fired tennis balls of tobacco to the occupiers and hope into the hearts of those who believe an alternative to closures and cuts is possible and necessary.

In Ireland there are many opportunities for practical, ethical and tactical relationships developing between union activists and communities across the 32 counties. Take health care as one example. The so called Celtic Tiger generated millions of euros in a wealth that the country had never experienced. The large unions entered into partnership with the government. And yet, we are left facing recession and incredibly, there is still not a public health service. What health system there is north and south, it is the target of further privatisation as is pointed out elsewhere in these pages.

Health sector cuts affect everyone: the community nurse who facing intensified workload, the domestic worker facing redundancy, the patient who can not get bed, the family who brings the patient for surgery to be sent home and told to phone later in the week, the family that can’t afford insurance, that are left trying to pick up the pieces when another care home closes, the communities that suffer rates of drug dependency, post traumatic stress, unemployment rates, teenage suicide and unmet need that are among the highest in Europe. On top of this you have under-resourced community organisations struggling to provide the support to those around them while public bodies plan to cut budgets further. It is up to us to find alternatives.

There are new and inspiring examples of how people have come together to find that they have common interests, common rights to defend, experiences to share, skills to use and courage to fight back.  The Independent Workers’ Union is dedicated to working with other individuals, organisations, rank and file trade unionists and community workers towards a fairer and more just society and welcome any opportunity to come forward and explore how this may be done with anyone reading these pages.

This article first appeared in Fourthwrite no. 36