The shared values of trade unions and community organisations

Posted: 21 February 2022, in News

Book your free places at our event Building bridges with trade unions, where we’ll discuss the shared values between trade unions and social enterprises and the wider third sector.

Doug Nicholl, General Secretary, General Federation of Trade Unions, shares experiences and views about the trade union movement today and building bridges between community organisations like social enterprises and charities.

Collective bargaining, 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, most have been in this category. There has been a general tendency 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.

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.

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. 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, why not say so?

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.

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.

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.

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. They are the most powerful organisations.

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. Some 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.

Others have provided a permanent infrastructure of support for building community organisations that empower and enable local residents to campaign and win changes in their local communities. 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.

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.

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 happening in the local area; running a local service on a voluntary basis; helping to organise a community event. According to the DCMS 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.

A predominant legal entity within the community Movement is the charity. This form of organisation prohibits explicit party political campaigning, but does not prevent campaigning to relieve poverty, provide welfare and education, arts and cultural activities.

Trade unions are registered by the Certification Officer and cannot explicitly support a political party without holding a successful vote to establish a political fund from which all such political work must be resourced.

The community sector sometimes sees the trade union movement as an appendage of the Labour Party. It is not. Out of 130 unions registered with the Certification Officer, only 13 are affiliated to the Labour Party.

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, 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 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. 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.

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. Some, like the Woodcraft Folk or the British Youth Council actively seek to promote awareness of trade unions and support young people becoming members of 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 campaign, 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 oversees it has been the unions and 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 which seek the affiliations of all TUC affiliated unions and create a local forum which often includes and reaches out to with 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.

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 been 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 requirements 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?

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? Is this worthwhile ground for future consideration? The GFTU has previously debated the idea of closer partnership or perhaps encouraging affiliation of non-trade union organisations. Is it time to consider this idea again?