Community unions could offer a lifeline in the real "broken Britain"

Manchester’s unemployment rate is at its highest in 12 years. 84,600 people are now claiming JSA in the city, almost 30% of whom have been unemployed for more than 6 months. For young people, those without jobs have spiralled in number since 2000, with almost 900% more 18-24 year olds now jobless and not in education or training.

Yet unemployment is only part of a bleak picture that has been etched onto our contemporary landscape. Talk of the all too real possibility of a privatised health service, the accelerated marketisation of education and the obliteration of welfare support is now so widespread that they have become national clichés.

It’s also an almost grotesque, parody-type situation where ATOS, the company driving life-changing cuts to disabled people’s benefits are seen, if only by a small yet powerful few, as a responsible sponsor of the Paralympics.

For increasing numbers of people in Manchester and across the UK, the ability to fight back en mass against regressive attacks on their lives is complicated by the fact that they exist outside secure employment. Employment brings with it the opportunity for union organisation and all the resulting benefits such as easy channels of communication and organisation, even if this sort of organisation is facing more difficulties of its own today.

At a time when more people are vulnerable due to existing outside the scope of this form of organisation, whether they are unemployed, students or retired, the emergence of another sort of union in Manchester is even more relevant than ever.

Unite’s community union scheme, launched earlier this year, brings people outside workplaces together and offers a concrete platform on which to organise and access support services. Encouraging groups to become established around the country , Unite have in a way reignited interest in the idea of community unions that dates back (on a major level) in England at least to the 1930s.  This was when the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement formed amidst mass unemployment and poverty to improve the conditions of the jobless galvanising the support of hundreds of thousands at its marches.

Although created by Unite, this sort of union is different in that it operates on a more grass roots level, allowing people who may feel pushed to the margins of society to come together and find a strong political voice of their own. For 50p per week the community unions give members the chance to come together to form strong communities which take a stand and push for co-ordinated, bottom-up action to create a better and fairer situation.

They also offer support services such as legal advice, cv and letter application writing, interview tips, debt counselling, welfare benefits check up and hardship grants.

Manchester is one of the cities with its own branches of the community unions, Since being created in June the Manchester and Salford branch now includes subgroups in Salford, North, South and East Manchester.

Tom Barlow, one of the organisers, thinks that Unite’s community unions are especially important in our current time of recession and reactionary political policies.

“community unions have always been a relevant idea but im glad that a major union is now fully behind them on such a large scale basis. These unions are comprised of some of the most vulnerable people in society who are without a stable workplace and thus the potential for organised representation that comes with that. With growing unemployment these people need this representation now more than ever.

“We’ve got a lot of people in our groups who were active in unions whilst in work but have lost their jobs. Lots of people who were formerly employed who just can’t get work at the moment. The response we’ve had so far is positive. The union isn’t allied to any specific political project which I think helps it to have a lot broader membership base that’s made up of a more diverse set of people who despite whatever differences they may have in some ways all believe that action needs to be taken to stop what is happening at the moment in Britain. 

“We know there is a lot to campaign about but  we also understand we need  to be focused so that we have a better chance of achieving change. At the moment we are concentrating on building around the ATOS campaign, the healthcare company whose work assessment is threatening the lives of those with disabilities. Recent national studies have claimed that numerous people have committed suicide as a result of ATOS’s decision made about their benefits and suitability for work. At the moment we are concentrating on ATOS’s attacks on those who receive disability allowance. The cuts are absolutely devastating people’s lives. We hope to start focusing on fuel poverty, council tax and housing benefit cuts as well as focusing on the TUC demo on the 20th October.

“Community unions allow the unemployed, elderly and students to focus on issues at a local level then build out and link with other branches and unions around the country so that we have and feed into a strong web of support that can’t easily be picked apart, for example, by governmental policies, like what happened in the 1980s.”

The Greater Manchester Unite Community Union will be holding a public meeting on 18th September at Friends Meeting House. More details can be found here and via Unite.

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