Community organisations and trade unions

Posted: 21 March 2022, in News

This is part 2 of our series on the relationship between social enterprises and the third sector and trade unions by Doug Nicholls, General Secretary, General Federation of Trade Unions.

The words ‘community’ and ‘union’ must surely be two of the greatest in our language. They perfectly express the social and collective nature of human beings and what makes us successful. 

They go alongside that other vital word, co-operation and we clearly need more of that and more co- operative enterprises active in the economy. Our predecessors in the sixteen century spoke of the common wealth of the country being shared by all and from the nineteenth century onwards of socialism. While the devil may have all the good tunes, we certainly have the best words on our side. No person is an island, we are interdependent, we have to co-operate to survive and prosper, we are inherently socialist creatures.

In France they refer to ‘la vie associative,’ the life of association, also a great concept and involving unions and community organisations in various projects. Association, not separation should be a way of life and an outlook on life. The factories and mines once in many areas were once the base of sporting, social and community life. Libraries, community centres, youth centres, adult education institutes, village halls, even the good old pub have been closed down in their thousands across the country reducing space and place for people to gather with a common purpose. The public sphere of collective spaces has morphed into the isolated living room with its TV.

But the impulse to reconnect is strong. Trade unions in Britain are reaching out to community organisations and community organisations are reaching out to trade unions as never before. We have one union actually called ‘Community the union for life’ and two unions successfully organising workers in the community, youth work and not for profit sectors. We have unions sponsoring community organisations and projects and in one case at least a union organising community based Branches and in many cases unions involved in essential charity support. We have national collective bargaining for community workers too.

The General Federation of Trade Unions has opened its affiliation initially to umbrella and educational community organisations and has agreed that the Workers Education Association (WEA) should join it in a historic step to make permanent structural ties between the two sectors.

It followed up this initiative with an open conference for unions and community organisations on November 30th 2021 which proved to be highly successful and among other proposals agreed that this book, to share best practice and think through the importance of the issues involved, should be produced.

There is all too frequently talk of the way in which workers are divided, by race and gender, by geographic location, by political attitudes to big issues like Brexit, or by whether they are active in unions or not.

We contend that one of the most debilitating divides between workers is between the concerns and organisations of the workplace and those of the communities in which we live. Workplace and neighbourhood organisations have become unnaturally separated, inhabiting parallel universes which in fact have a lot in common and which if combined would have more clout.

Community organisations have become fragmented and forced often to compete for dwindling government funding in a market place of provision. Trade unions themselves have not found a way of setting aside some spheres of influence disputes and uniting to recruit the un-unionised who outnumber the unionised fivefold.

So there is, generally speaking, fragmentation and silo working within the two main expressions of civil society, the trade unions and voluntary community organisations. Poor old David Cameron introduced daft ideas at the time of austerity for the community sector. One was the Big Society when, with dwindling resources and proliferating food banks, we were all supposed to smile at each other and volunteer to help each other out on a shoestring as previously public services were pulled apart. Voluntarism would replace well-funded professionalism. His other one was the National Citizens Service, a kind of soft US style boot camp to entertain young people in the holidays which was introduced at a time when their 52 week a year Youth Service was being literally demolished. It also cost more than the whole Youth Service and reached far fewer young people in less meaningful ways.

This fragmentation creates structural division that dilutes the power and voice of workers and their range of concerns and indeed their effectiveness. To redress such division this book seeks to point to the tremendous advantages that follow from more collaboration between the sectors. 

By nature both trade unions and community organisations are rooted locally through the trade union workplace Branch and the neighbourhood community organisation.

Yet from these roots both create their wider networks. Individual unions have their regional and national structures and unions combine to form the all-important Trade Union Councils in main conurbations. Unions have created their two main national umbrella support bodies, the Trade Union Congress (TUC)  and the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) to provide support in different ways.

Individual community organisations have their impact in a defined neighbourhood or wider communities of interests, and combine in various support organisations such as Community Matters, the National Association of Voluntary Action, Action with Communities in Rural England, Scottish Communities Alliance, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations Wales… and others to develop cost effective mutual support and campaigning weight. These organisations are the equivalent of the TUC and GFTU but the number of them points to a greater level of diffusion and less coordination.

Various community organisations focus on campaigns, often on issues of central importance to us all such as health and housing. Many fill the increasingly large gaps in state provision and the supply of basic food and provisions by some charities would be a classic example. Others form to give voice to communities facing cuts and worsening neighbourhood conditions as a result of local authority or central government austerity.

Many unions like the GFTU Itself support their own charities to provide education for all or welfare for members in hardship.  Unions and churches, friendly societies and mutuals were the first sources of welfare for workers before state provision was won. Some as we shall see in later sections go much further than just the allocation of welfare. It is often interesting how names change reflecting underlying political directions. The Community Interest Company is a new legal entity aligning the word community to the commercial word ‘company.’

A campaign to save rural transport led by community groups is of interest to Unite the union and the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT), and ASLEF the train drivers’ union and the Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA). The National Pensioners Convention’s work to improve our pensions, is of central interest to all workers. The work of local groups to save post offices directly compliments that of the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU). When the union Community fights successfully against fire and rehire in Clarke’s shoe factory, the entire local population benefits. It was great that their victory was in fact announced at our community conference on November 30th. So too when any union stops job losses and attacks on pay or challenges the precarious position of zero hours contracts and the gig economy – everyone benefits.

The connections between community organisations and trade unions and the mutually beneficial impact of their work on each other and in improving life and society for us all, is so obvious, it is puzzling that there are not more permanent connections between the organisations involved. Surely some permanent connections must now be built?

Trade unions are membership organisations depending on voluntary engagement of their members. So are most community organisations. Both depend on activity and time freely given for the value of the cause and solidarity. Both therefore are at the centre of opportunities for people to feel their ability to achieve beneficial changes, the human agency opposed to the hidden hand of the market or the idea that some politician somewhere will do something for you.

It is from this voluntary engagement that similar commitments to egalitarian and democratic practice arise. Trade unions are based on the democratic practices of elections to office and accountability. So are many community organisations. We provide a democratic fabric of daily communications and decision making that subtly binds society together. By connecting and acting mutually we are more able to challenge injustice and dearth, and thereby change things for the better. 

Community organisations will often be charities and this prevents them from explicitly party political activities and support. Similarly unions have to ballot for a political fund in order to finance any political party and only 14 of the hundreds of unions there are choose to do so via Labour Party affiliation. Like community organisations, most unions are politically independent. Their primary concern is their members and the changes they can make. This is a source of great strength and embodies the reality and necessity that we all have to take responsibility and control our destiny.

The best unions combine a detailed understanding of the trade or occupation of their members with a lively interest in national and international affairs. They recognise the interrelationships of all political processes. Internationalism, the reaching out by trade unions to support causes and workers throughout the world, is not mirrored within the community movement and many of the excellent trade union based international campaigns could usefully share their work with wider constituencies in the community to raise awareness and gather support.

Trade unions have a long history of not just campaigning for lifelong learning and rights to education, but they have been providers of education, often establishing community education facilities for all in workplaces and outside. This distinctive passion for education for workers and their families, while diminished and underfunded in recent history, is a rising commitment again and would be of great benefit for community organisations, who will provide training in organisational and leadership management for their members, but not deeply embed education with knowledge of politics, history and economics in their routine work. The potential for the WEA and GFTU to make a contribution to this agenda is very exciting.

Trade unions campaign for rights at work and more general rights such as freedom of speech, the right to free health care and education and the protection from discrimination of certain human characteristics. These benefit everyone but do not necessarily engage community organisations in their attainment, nor indeed their recognition.

When campaigning and seeking support for their work, trade unions and community organisations tend to write to the press and Members of Parliament, they rarely write to each other to see if they can explore effective ways of supporting each other and making wider groups aware of their issues.

Historically the power and particular nature of trade union workplace organisation has rested on the ability to bargain collectively with employers. Rights of community engagement in local planning and service delivery and so on are less extensive.

Collective bargaining, that is a system whereby wages and conditions are agreed as a result of negotiations between employers and trade unions, has collapsed to around 20% coverage of workers. Union density is in real terms less than 20% of the workforce.  About 80% of workplaces were covered by collective bargaining in 1980. The under unionised areas are mainly in the private sector from which the trade union movement originally arose.

Most collective bargaining and high union density exist because of the work of specialist trade unions. Such unions tend to attract the greatest sense of loyalty, membership engagement and democratic practices. Similarly, highly identifiable occupational sections of larger unions attract a high level of loyalty and engagement.  Their work is rarely in the headlines, yet of the 5,400 or so trade unions that have existed over our whole history in Britain, most have been in this category. There has been a general tendency recently to gravitate to amalgamated and merged, large unions. Unfortunately this has led to competition and duplication of effort in certain sectors and disharmony in others.

There are 32 million workers in Britain and about 6.2 million are in trade unions. There is no real sense of how many of these members are consciously active. There are therefore 26 million non-unionised workers and an even higher number of workers not active in their unions. Improving pay and pensions of members has not always been the number one priority for union members; a range of services from insurance to mental health support, professional advice or legal and personal advice, has attracted members about their unions. Taken together, these factors represent a crisis for trade unionism which is not being effectively addressed, but the wider range of social concerns being taken up within unions also creates fertile ground for closer links with relevant community organisations. 

Trade Union education turned away from politics, philosophy, economics and history and became technical training. No sustained effort outside those of some individual unions was made to generate and methodically develop a new cadre of inspiring leaders for the whole movement. Fortunately this trend is being reversed and the publication Trade Union Education, Transforming the World plays a role in this still.

The purpose for which unions were set up, collective bargaining and improving wages and defending workers, has been difficult to execute in the hostile environment and anti-union legislative framework that has existed for forty years. The anti-union legislation sought to strike out the heart of solidarity action. The movement was built and grew by one group of workers taking action to support another. The acceptance of this legislation has eroded many other forms of softer solidarity and support between unions. There is a danger of individual unions working in splendid isolation with no sense that what each union is doing is important for all.

Young people generally look everywhere other than to trade unions for their political expression and support and form and lead many community organisations. If unions are to reach out to the young more effectively they need to be aware at least of how young people contribute to wider organisations. Some major national young people’s organisations like for example the Woodcraft Folk and the British Youth Council have political education and indeed the promotion of trade unionism up front in their missions.

Wage and workplace dignity benefit family and community life. Successful workplace struggle is therefore very political and has a wide impact. A new deal for workers is in reality arguing for a new deal for workers and their families.

Poverty blights workplace dignity and community solidarity. In the aftermath of the 1926 General Strike the income gap and inequality began to reduce. The return of gross inequality coincided with the anti-union legislation, mass redundancies and the decline of collective bargaining. Charities and community organisations with an interest in the relief of poverty have a natural interest therefore in linking up with unions and supporting struggles for pay.

In the struggle for survival, unions have become more parochial. If we were to end up with one brilliantly organised trade union with 100% membership and 100% collective bargaining in its sector, we would not have a trade union movement. The strength of the trade union movement depends on the extent of active membership across sectors all support each other when needed.

Previous solidarities between workplace organisation through unions and the wider worlds through community organisations have broken down. Both unions and community organisations are fragmented.

Britain has a unique history in forming non-sectarian trade unions in the workplace and community organisations in the neighbourhood, or around campaigning issues. The unions’ pressure to form the National Health Service and the welfare state, in which incidentally the GFTU had an unsung and important role, was of benefit to all, as were its earlier endeavours to win the universal franchise and votes for all at 18 years of age. 

However, these days, more workers volunteer time to be active in community organisations than in trade unions. There are at least thirty times more full time employees, around 835,000, employed by community organisations and charities than there are employed by unions.

Community organisations are concerned with what used to be referred to as ‘the social wage’, the quality of life outside work. So are trade unions, but their leverage is in the workplace and campaigning abilities and independence and, when utilised, of a more substantial nature than just political lobbying. They are the most powerful organisations in society still.

Some community organisations are highly localised to neighbourhoods or villages or towns, some to national campaigning issues to improve an area of life or a particular group. The national organisation of unions across England, Scotland and Wales, though splintering in the absence of truly national collective bargaining arrangements, is distinctive of the unions. 

Many community organisations have democratic structures similar to unions. Most share the progressive values of the trade unions – social justice, anti-discriminatory practice, empowerment of people, democratic and accountable organisational processes. Their interests cover the full range of human concerns from housing to child care, health to arts, local planning to community services, to transport and environmental concerns. 

Some arise as a result of pressing community needs such as the Grenfell residents’ campaign for example. Such a campaign exposes so much that is wrong in society and has natural and binding empathies with the unions, whether the firefighters or the local government workers.

Other community organisations have provided a permanent infrastructure of support for building groups that empower and enable local residents to campaign and win changes and engage influentially on planning matters and the allocation of essential services. Such organisations fell victim to the first 2010 austerity measures.

There is a long tradition of community development in Britain. This is the non-workplace based equivalent of the trade union organising agenda. Like union organising work, community development has a rich history of theory and practice. There has been no cross fertilisation between the sectors to learn from the best practice. There should be and the GFTU initiatives are determined to make this happen.

Voluntary action, like lay leadership and involvement in unions, is encouraged and widespread in a range of organisations. 38% of the population are involved in some form of civic participation, around 75% often give to charity with £22 a month being an average donation. The most commonly cited reasons for being involved in volunteering in the community are that people want to “improve things” or “help people.” These of course are the same motivations which underpin trade unionism. The commitments to social justice and collective action are shared by both spheres, one expresses it in the workplace, one outside of work, that is the only difference really.

Many community organisations refer to their work to empower people and collectivise campaigning as ‘social action.’ This is the equivalent of what trade unions refer to as campaigning, but it often has a more extensive and permanent presence, as opposed to one off campaigning. Social action is about being involved with issues affecting the local area by doing things like: setting up a new service/amenity; stopping the closure of a service/amenity; stopping something negative happening in the local area; running a local service on a voluntary basis; helping to organise a community event. According to the Department of Culture Media and Sport Community Life survey in 2017-18, 15% of people had been involved in social action in their local area at least once in the last year.

Most progressive, socialist minded community organisations, some of which were previously local government or national government funded, have also struggled after funding cuts. Many of the national support organisations for specialisms within the community sector have disappeared. A new wave of more independent organisations have emerged, yet ultimately many depend for their continuity on local government or government funding. Unlike the trade unions, community organisations do not rely almost exclusively on membership subscriptions. In order to free community organisations from some funding restrictions unions could usefully consider releasing some of their investments and putting them into community organisations.

Political independence has been as important to trade unions as it has been to the charitable and community sector, yet unions and employees generally face far more restrictive legislation than community organisations. The successful campaigning for rights and legislative changes and reformed institutions and practices undertaken by generations of trade unionists has arguably had a greater legislative impact than the community movement. Fundamental employment and democratic rights which affect everyone have been achieved by the unions.

Many trade unions fund charities, which can be closely or less closely associated with their core work. Some support associated charities in delivering huge education programmes, some manage retirement and rest homes for retired or sick members, some have welfare funds. 

Some unions have developed what they might refer to as ‘community memberships’ organised in ‘community branches.’ These give a democratic forum and voice within the unions for those not directly organised around the workplace. Some unions fund favoured community projects.

Some professionals, footballers for example, have ‘working in the community’, written into their contracts of employment and football clubs all run a community outreach arm.

Like trade unions, many community organisations manage properties and training or residential centres. This is common in the faith sector, but also in non-sectarian umbrella organisations, for example local village halls, community associations running community centres. There has been minimal sharing of physical and building resources between the unions and between them and the community sector. 

Community organising, and community development, are established techniques to organise and bring groups together to fight for social justice and campaign against problems, or fight for positive outcomes. These are well established areas of work which themselves generated a range of professional training courses and generated a specialist trade union, the Community and Youth Workers Union, now part of Unite.

Some trade unionists comment that community and voluntary sector organisations are bad employers and substitute real jobs with volunteers. There is truth in this which is why trade unions have had to organise workers in this sector. It is also true that trade unions themselves do not have unblemished records as employers. Community organisations and trade unions both depend on the voluntary activity of members. In France there is a great phrase for this which roughly translates as the ‘associative life’. It refers to the cultural reality that society is the voluntary, freely chosen support we give to family, friends, community and work colleagues. The idea of community or communal life is essential for progressive social change.

We create together ‘civil society,’ we commune collectively with each other. Community organisations, trade unions, elected institutions and professional bodies are the public sphere of our country and share different values from those of the dominant private and corporate spheres and unelected media and political institutions.  The trade union and community movements reinvest in people, they fund activity and social life. Combined they have huge capital investments also which could be put to greater use in ways that reflect the ethics and values of the sectors.

Because trade unions and community groups are about voluntary membership and collective mutually supporting engagement, face to face contact and communication between people are essential to their organisational success. The US dominated social media platforms assist the fragmentation, isolation and incoherence of human dialogue. Fortunately some 73% of the adult population still report that they meet friends and family face to face each week. The strength of our sectors is that they operate in the human relationships that strengthen deep level political solidarities. Funding pressures and competition for grants make some community organisations operate individualistically with purely commercial and transactional activities with others. The legacy of deindustrialisation, public sector cuts and criminalisation of some basic democratic union rights, has meant that unions can too easily become insular and beleaguered.

As there are in the trade union movement, so there are in the community movement different ideological traditions, most of which are socialist in inclination in the broadest sense and would be recognisable to trade unionists. Many of the techniques to develop and sustain groups and individuals in the community work sector are better than those deployed in trade unions. The trade union movement has not sought to reach out to these. They should do.

Community work is a recognised profession with its own skill sets and national collective bargaining, the Joint Negotiating Committee for Youth and Community Workers.

There are various initiatives taking place nationally to resurrect a radical model of community engagement. Currently these do not reach out to trade unionism. They should do.

A couple of unions are running interesting Friends of the Union, free or cheap membership systems for wider sympathetic constituencies.

The National Pensioners Convention would be an example of a national organisation of campaigners, often with trade union experience, running an organisation of universal benefit. Very many of the community associations and centres established in the 1970s were led by combinations of experienced trade unionists and local residents. Some of the more recent, more agile, powerfully organised and influential community organisations are less knowledgeable about the union movement. By and large there is minimal knowledge in the trade unions of the architecture of the community sector. The GFTU has designed some training courses to try and fill this knowledge gap.

At the other end of the age spectrum there are hundreds of very good youth organisations. These engage and inspire and organise young people in ways far more effective and sustained than the trade unions. 

Trade Unions have a strong identity with the skills of particular occupations, workers join unions because they identify with their trade and like to exercise control over it. This is both extremely positive, and the hallmark of good trade unionism, but negative if pursued in isolation.

Community organisations grow often out of a great love of locality, or of particular community of interests or identity such as for example the Indian Workers Association. Some of the strongest community organisations historically, were based on loyalty to place and controlled everything in neighbourhoods from keeping out criminals, refusing destructive business-led planning applications and forcing local councils to build good housing and community facilities.

The collapse of local authorities and many other factors have inhibited local engagement and control over planning and other developments of communal space. There is a quiet resurgence of such organisations and some have to consider momentous issues like the disposal of nuclear waste, the development of fracking, the development of new transport systems, the effects of intensive farming on their landscape and water supplies.

The globalisation agenda seeks to replace a strong sense of identity with place, culture and country with the market, and the free movement of labour and capital. Instead of an affinity with neighbours it encourages a superficial familiarity with strangers. People are returning to a need for grounded politics. The right to be able to work and live if you want to in the area where you were born with a stable, well rewarded job is an important one.

If you consider historic moments or generational campaigns of significance for the creation of a more democratic and equal society in Britain, all of them have been successful when trade unions and wider community organisations have been in close alignment or combination. 

Consider the origin of the universal franchise, eventually achieved in 1968 with its source in the 1792 manifesto of the London Corresponding Society, later the unions and Chartists, the suffragettes and so on. Consider the struggles first against slavery and then racism, unions and community organisations together. The long history of equal treatment and pay for women in work, impossible to think of without the simultaneous action of those in work, particularly at the TYCO factory in 1976, and those in the wider liberation movement.

Consider the removal of child labour and establishment of state education. Consider the development of health and safety at work. Consider the creation of the welfare state, trade unions and mutual societies and charities did not just campaign for its creation, originally provided all those services now provided by the state. Advances in educational methodology, to break the elitism and false hierarchies of University dominated systems, and create a genuine sense of lifelong learning, were pioneered in trade union and community work organisations. Successful peace campaigning, from 1916 till today has seen unions and campaigning and faith organisations at the forefront. Similarly with the genuine, deep rooted internationalism in our country; as far as extending the hand of friendship to those in need overseas, it has been the unions and some major charities that have done the work.

A particularly positive form of organisation within the trade union movement has been the Trade Union Councils. These are localised bodies under the aegis of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) which seek the affiliations of all TUC affiliated unions and create a local forum which often includes and reaches out to the wider community. Local TUCs tend to have more power and authority within the Wales and Scotland TUC structures than in the general TUC where they are still not fully appreciated. These should be radically reconstituted to become hubs of local collaboration and coordination. Their names might have to change to attract this development.

In the trade union movement there is one main ‘centre’, the TUC, established in 1864. Many other countries are plagued by having more than one trade union centre where these are created around political or religious ideologies. In Britain any union with any overall political inclination other than racist or fascist can join the TUC. This gives a potential for unity at the heart of the trade union movement. 120 years ago the TUC established the General Federation of Trade Unions as a complementary federation to provide education, research, international, practical and other forms of service support to affiliates which the TUC does not provide. The two are complementary and many unions join both.

In the community movement there is a parallel architecture with umbrella and infrastructure, membership based organisations, speaking on behalf of and supporting their affiliates. Like the trade union movement, these bodies have local and regional structures and work along similar democratic lines.

The trade union movement’s great commitment to education means that there are organisations and institutions which have provided trade union and community education. The Special Designated Institutions, that is adult residential colleges and providers like Northern and Ruskin College, or the Co op College or the Workers’ Education Association in particular seek to train new generations of leaders in youth and community and trade union organisations. It is in such organisations that the potential power of greater alliances between trade union and community organising can be felt. Their work should be developed and supported more by trade unions and community organisations.

Many of the services provided by umbrella bodies in both sectors are similar. Many of the practices of democratic accountability and collective responsibility are identical.

How people live, how our voice is heard and used to make improvements, how we are treated at work, how our children are treated and educated, how our health is enhanced and treated, how our environment is protected, how our ability to commute and communicate, benefit from value for money utilities and free public services  and care for our elderly with good pensions negotiations and good social care support, are all shared concerns within the community and trade union movements. There are more. A forum should be created to establish such a dialogue.

All services required within a community – hospital, school, community hall, library, fire service, utility service, police service, sports and leisure centre, post office, shops, justice system, housing department, government department, are staffed by trade unionists. When there is flood, fire, or accident in a community it will be trade unionists in the emergency services who will be giving assistance. Why is the interaction limited to purely the work functions? Why do the workers’ unions and community’s organisations not speak together?

In considering this requirement the highest values of co-operation, solidarity, commonality, mutuality, sharing, caring and supporting have developed and become enshrined in democratic organisational form. Trade unions at the workplace, community organisation outside are the main forms that have been developed. It is time for more discussion together to rebuild our country and create a deeper sense of agency and control by the people.

The trade unions refer to themselves as being part of a Movement, so do the best community organisations. What if through closer alignments and co-operation, creative partnerships and regular communications they became a new Movement? The Community and Labour Movement?

How could the new deal for workers campaign be used to re-engage with the organised community sector? How could the exemplary work of community and youth organisations and their techniques of engagement and their reach benefit the trade unions? This book seeks to encourage asking and answering these questions.

Doug Nicholls, General Secretary, General Federation of Trade Unions