Unite Community Membership: new approach to fighting back
It hasn’t been long since Britain’s largest union, Unite, launched its community membership scheme, and local branches around the country are just starting to get off the ground with membership having reached around 1,500.
The new membership scheme allows ‘grey economy’ precarious workers, the unemployed, disabled and community based activists to join a union although they may be out of work. Anyone is able to join unless they are signing up as an alternative to a Unite industrial branch at their workplace.
For £2 per month, members are offered services and benefits that are extremely useful in Britain’s difficult economic environment. A phone number provides members with free legal advice, benefits advice, gas and electricity price comparisons, the Unite jobs board and even a benevolent fund for those that qualify.
Having played a role in starting up the Manchester branch it has been encouraging to see how seriously the initiative is being taken by the local trade union movement and by Unite nationally. We’ve been offered representation on the local trades council, Unite’s activist and policy bodies, and a Unite full-timer – Hillsborough Justice Campaigner Sheila Coleman, to help get us off the ground in the North West region. We’ve even received some funding to help publicise ourselves with the promise of more when representatives have been elected.
However, as it currently stands, we will not have a place on the regional or national Unite executive bodies, and it is unclear whether we will be allowed to submit motions to the Unite policy and rules national conferences. But members are keen to make sure that we fight within the union until we do.
The remit of the union is very broad, and in private and public meetings the branch has discussed campaigning on a number of issues from benefits cuts, to housing problems, to unemployment.
Enthusiasm for the new initiative has been high among those who’ve helped found it. Community membership has important advantages over campaigning in a local anti-cuts group: alongside the potential to be backed by the power of Unite’s industrial sectors, the community union can, to a degree, offer professional and practical help to the immediate issues being faced by individuals.
The varied mix of people involved adds to this dynamic – for instance Greater Manchester Branch includes unemployed workers, people with care responsibilities, disabled activists, university students, long-standing and experienced community campaigners, NGO workers and even a solicitor who specialises in helping benefits claimants. This mix of specialist skills and circumstances is essential to maximise the potential of any campaign.
Membership offers services that can provide new members with real tangible and instant benefits – a definite plus as the community union’s national profile and local recruitment abilities grow. This is something which could seriously contribute towards building the mass-based movement, desperately needed to effectively fight the cuts.
You can sign up for Unite Community membership at http://www.unitetheunion.org/community