Building reciprocal community unionism in the UK.

Author:Wills, Jane
 
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Since the late 1990s, the British trade union movement has sought to stem the tide of decline with two key initiatives; partnership and organising. The former is an attempt to find mutual ground with employers to meld business success with employee satisfaction. Through gaining legitimacy and support from the employer, it is argued the unions can better secure the needs of their members while also promoting a 'high road' to economic success (Ackers and Payne, 1998; Guest and Peccei, 2001). The latter, in contrast, is an attempt to reactivate existing workplace organisation and penetrate the greenfield economy of the UK. Trade union organisers are seeking to find and develop activists to engage in workplace recruitment and organisation. Using the trade union recognition procedures of the Employment Relations Act (ERA, 1999), unions can then approach employers for recognition on the strength of the members they have (see Gall and McKay, 2001; Gall, 2003; Heery et al., 2000; Wood et al, 2001).

In practice, unions have adopted both approaches at the same time, pursuing partnership where it is possible and employing organisers to tackle both old and new workplaces. Indeed, it can be argued that British trade unions have long practised these methods and are hardly breaking new ground. Unions have sought to develop good working relationships with employers in the private sector and many unions have tended to base their organisation on active shop stewards who recruit, retain and represent members in the workplace (see Heery and Kelly, 1994; Oxenbridge et al, 2001). In their contemporary manifestations, both have yielded results, but neither is likely to be sufficient to reverse the tide of decline. Very few employers are interested in developing partnerships with their trade unions and resource-intensive organising needs to take place on a much larger scale if it is to truly reverse trade union decline in the UK.

This paper argues that more needs to be done. In an era when globalisation, neo-liberal policy developments, new management techniques and workplace structure all make it harder for unions to organise, more dramatic action is needed. Drawing on experience in North America and fledgling developments in the UK, we suggest that reciprocal community unionism represents one such step forward. The paper starts by providing a brief history of the ways in which communities and trade unions have intersected in Britain in the past. Rather than being based in communities, or acting for communities, we make the argument that unions are well placed to develop reciprocal community unionism in which unions work with communities for social change. Following a brief review of the development of community unionism in North America, the paper then looks at recent experience in the UK, focusing on the work of the Battersea and Wandsworth Trade Union Council's Organising Centre in more detail. This example is used to raise some further questions about the future development of reciprocal community unionism in the UK.

Understanding the past and the possibilities of the present

Any discussion of the intersection between community and trade unionism over time is fraught with difficulty. Both are contested concepts and their meaning has changed over time. However, for the purposes of simplicity we use the term community to 'stand as a convenient shorthand term for the broad realm of local social arrangements beyond the private sphere of home and family but more familiar that the impersonal institutions of the wider society' (Crow and Allen, 1994, I). As such, these social relations might be 'structured around links between people with common residence, common interests, common attachments or some other shared experience generating a sense of belonging' (op cit., I). Community might be built around common geography, common interests and/or common feeling (Massey, 1994). Thus, even though community is fostered through geographical proximity, the complexion of that community will depend upon the ways in which interests and concerns are articulated and the appeals that are made to its people. Communities are socially constructed, and in any locality there will be a range of different communities that can be articulated and embraced in different ways (for further elaboration on the complexity of community, see Young, 1990). In what follows, we use the term community with this in mind and suggest that unions can play a role in making community as much as engaging with something that is fixed and already in place.

In seeking to make sense of the intersection of British trade unions and community over time we have crafted three distinct but overlapping eras of development, outlined briefly below. We suggest that the history of twentieth century community-union relations has evolved over time, moving from community-based trade unionism to representational community unionism. At the threshold of a new millennium, we suggest there is scope to develop reciprocal community unionism in a further development of historical trends.

(i) Community-based trade unionism

Sociologists of community have long focused on the occupationally homogeneous and strong geographical communities built in the wake of industrialisation. Archetypal working class communities in mining villages, ports, textile towns, engineering centres and urban neighbourhoods have been documented by a host of academics and commentators over the years (Beynon and Austrin, 1994; Dennis et al., 1956; Gilbert, 1992). Such communities were often places of severe hardship where people 'could walk to and from work.., places where home, work, leisure, industrial relations, local government and home-town consciousness were inextricably linked together' (Hobsbawm, 1987, 38).

In a Durkheimian sense, solidarity was mechanical as people had mutual interests through virtue of living and working together. As late as 1870 only l0% of the working class were unionised, but skilled workers had begun to establish mutual societies to provide information about job opportunities, health, welfare and funeral benefits, alongside vibrant dissident churches, the co-operative society, working men's clubs, educational groups, sporting societies and trade unions. In urban and industrial areas a distinct working class culture was clearly visible by the late nineteenth century and the trade unions and trades councils were a critical part of this social life (Hobsbawm, 1987; Savage and Miles 1994; Webb and Webb, 1920 [1894]). Indeed, it is significant that the unions saw the need to coalesce on the local level to make common cause with each other. Trades councils were formed in all the major towns and cities as local trade unionists were delegated to represent their colleagues in local affairs. It was trades council activists that established the TUC in Manchester in 1868 and they continue in very low-key form to this day.

In the early historical period trade unions were grounded in local communities. The Webbs (1920 [1894], 23) identified records of at least 100 such trade friendly societies in the Newcastle area between 1750 and 1820, and 56 similar groups in the Nottingham area by 1794. While the skilled workers involved (such as hatmakers, bookbinders, sailmakers, basketmakers, tailors and wool workers) were not the poorest in society, trade unionism gradually spread into factories and to the less-skilled. At a time when people lived and worked together, without intervention from the state to protect their welfare, collective organisation was an obvious means of self-defence and improvement. (1) Most clearly demonstrated by the Glasgow rent strike in 1915, organised tenants, women, socialists and trade unionists were able to organise across workplaces and the community for common cause. In this case, collective organisation to protest at rent increases brought trade unions into the struggle for improved community life (see Castells, 1983).

The solidarity born of living and working together in close proximity has often been most clearly demonstrated at times of political and industrial action (Calhoun, 1982, 1987; Evans and Boyte, 1986). As was illustrated by the British miners' strike, community needs to be added to more abstract notions of class in explaining the ways in which collective action is framed and sustained (Samuel et al., 1986). Yet in outlining the historical intersection between workplace and community, it is important not to glamorise such local working class organisation and culture. Women, people of colour and sexual dissidents have often been excluded from power in working class communities, reinforcing the conservative weight of the past (Alexander, 1984; Steedman, 1986; Rowbotham, 1999). Moreover, the collective traditions associated with such communities have varied over time, and at times, there has been little solidarity within communities or between those in one place with those in another (for examples from the mining industry see Rees, 1985, 1986; Sunley, 1986; Church et al., 1990; and for the steel industry, see Hudson and Sadler, 1986). Historically then, trade unions have been based in communities, and played a critical role in shaping those communities (with all the exclusions and tensions involved), but as outlined below, economic and societal change has eroded such strong place-based working class organisation.

(ii) Representational community unionism

During the twentieth century a new geography of working class politics came to overlay this pattern of community based organisation. In 1900 some trade unions and socialist parties formed the Labour Representation Committee (later to become the Labour Party) and began to play a role in the administration of local and national government. The new Labour Party endorsed the provision of public services (health, welfare, education, housing and transport) and quickly gained strength in urban local government as a result. During the 1920s...

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