Radical new step for trade unionism in Scotland – introducing the Community Membership

20 Sep

By Jack Ferguson

 

“Unite community membership could vital for many. I’m part of a generation that feels like it hasn’t got a future. Since I graduated uni I’ve been unable to even find minimum wage employment, let alone graduate work. I think the only way we’re ever going to change that is if we get organised.”

Those are the words of unemployed 22-year old Liam Turbett, one of the over 43,000 young Scots surviving on Jobseeker’s Allowance. He signed up to become a community member of Unite as soon as he heard about the scheme.

“Young people are also a lot less likely to have worked in a secure permanent job where they will have heard anything about trade unions, and may not know anything about them. I hope that community membership is going to help develop a whole new generation of activists who’ll stand up for their rights at work and in the community.”

 

Community membership is a radical new step for Unite, and for the trade union movement as a whole. It opens up the benefits of being a trade union member to all those who are out of work for whatever reason. They could be unemployed, a student, retired, or a person with disabilities on benefits. At a much reduced rate of 50p per week, they can now become members of Unite. It also takes the union beyond just organising in the workplace, and into supporting ordinary people and fighting for trade union values out in the community.

As members, unwaged people will get access to the full range of benefits that come with being a part of Unite, such as free legal advice and debt counselling, as well as specific support for members who are trying to get back to work with CV writing, interview skills and a Unite job board.

However, the most important aims of the community membership scheme can be summed up in the old trade union slogan, ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise!’ Unite is aiming to build up a network of local community branches that are actively discussing issues in their area, and campaigning to bring about positive change.

It could be something really simple and local, like traffic calming for a busy road. Or it could be saving a library or community centre threatened by government cutbacks. Or organising a consumers’ co-op to tackle fuel poverty. Where possible, Unite can help organise joint campaigns between workers and users of threatened services. And of course, perhaps the most major issue effecting people who are out of work: the attacks on the welfare state and benefit system.

In order to support these local groups, we’re developing an exciting range of training to allow local activists to be as effective as possible, in areas such as community organising, using the media and the internet, how to engage with councils and government, as well as specific information about rights and benefits to ensure members get everything they’re entitled to.

The union isn’t going into communities with its own agenda and priorities to impose on people. Community membership is completely new, and we want it to be bottom up, and led by its members from the outset. People who actually live in communities are the ones who know best what affects them. What the union can do is provide resources, training and backup to people who want to take the initiative.

Having said that, it’s already clear what one of the main tasks of the union is set to be: standing up for the rights of benefits claimants. We’ve seen scandal and protest when it emerged that the Paralympics were being sponsored by Atos, the private firm tasked by the government with creating humiliating tests to get disabled people off benefits. Disabled people and others that rely on the welfare state for survival are constantly vilified in the media, meaning that some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society are made to suffer as scapegoats for the greed and incompetence of the financial elite and government.

Attacks on people with disabilities or the unemployed come because those who victimise them believe they are weak and disorganised, and in no position to fight back. But with the whole of Unite the union as allies, that situation looks set to change. We aim to develop a network of members who have been trained in welfare rights and the procedures used by the likes of Atos, and are equipped to support each other through the bureaucratic hell of getting what they’re entitled to, buddy people to meetings and help prepare appeals.

Another group at the sharp end of government policy are those unemployed people effectively forced to become slave labour through workfare schemes. This issue is a key concern for the labour movement as a whole, as employers will delight in using workfare workers to undermine wages and conditions for all. Community membership offers a way to help organise people being forced to work for their benefit.

The trade union movement in Scotland has a proud history of improving the conditions that people work under. The key lesson of that history is that the only thing that makes the rich and powerful change their mind is when the people get organised about standing up for their rights, and force them to.

People throughout Scotland have had long experience of the consequences of decisions taken by people outside their communities, in which they have had no say, wreaking havoc with their lives. With the decline of traditional industries communities have become more atomised, with people living individual lives with little connection to their neighbours or others round about them. As Glen Hunter, a community member and community councillor in Glasgow’s Pollokshields, puts it:

“The first thing we need to do is rebuild and foster communities. Bringing people together through social and community events is so important if people aren’t going to be completely isolated from each other.”

Community membership offers a way for communities in Scotland to find their voice and rediscover the power of getting organised.  They might not have money, or political influence, but they have got people power – it’s just a matter of working out how to use it.

 

Jack Ferguson is the Unite Scotland Community Coordinator. You can reach him on 0845 604 4384 or via email at jack.ferguson@unitetheunion.org

 

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