Service users groups and disability activists are among groups which have linked with union campaigns against government austerity cuts

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Unite has launched a new community membership scheme which will be open to unemployed workers and students, with the intention of developing these members as community activists.

Subscriptions will be 50p per week, which Unite says will give community members access to financial and legal expertise, help in writing CVs and application forms and in applying for hardship grants. Unite also believes the scheme will help link union activists with groups involved in campaigning to save local public services.

Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey said: “This scheme could transform trade unionism in the UK.  It comes at a time when horrific cuts and ideological social changes are pushing more and more people to the margins.

“Last week we had the mass action by public servants fighting for pensions justice.  Only 24 hours before that, the Chancellor told the country that under his government the attacks on the incomes and services of the ordinary people of this country will continue until 2017.  This is a government of the few.”

Over the last decade, there have been several attempts at linking established unions with groups such as campaigners for a London Living Wage and low-paid migrant workers. However some analysts say such initiatives have either been short lived or have not developed beyond single issue, one-off campaigns.

A TUC survey conducted among union activists in 2009 found around 40% of lay union reps were also involved in some kind of community activity, from local school or sports organisations, to political activism. 72% believed unions should develop a more active role in local communities.

The TUC itself is due to appoint its first local community organising officials early next year; the TSSA has already done so, linking union campaigns with commuter and public transport lobby groups.

Carl Roper, TUC National Organiser told UnionNews: “Unions have made sporadic moves in this direction for some time, but it’s not been strategic so far.

“It’s an idea that’s been bouncing around since 2005 or longer – the idea of reaching out beyond unions’ traditional base in the workplace. But it’s also because unions realise that they can’t tackle this crisis, these government cuts, on their own.”

In the last year, several unions have developed closer links with student activists and have learned from the frequently confrontational campaigning methods of groups such as UKUncut.

Jane Holgate of Leeds University – who has studied and written extensively on community and trade union organising – told UnionNews: “There is much more commitment to this kind of work now than there was five years ago and the economic crisis may have made the task more urgent, to build more long-lasting coalitions in particular areas which are sustainable for the long haul.”

Says Unite’s Len McCluskey: “These are terrible times for ordinary people, but we want to send them a message of hope. So we say now to the millions unemployed, including the young people wasted on the dole and worried for their future, in Unite you have a home. Our mission is your mission – fairness, dignity, respect and strong communities.

“It is time now for those on the margins to organise, to come together to challenge the decisions made by the elite in the interests of the few.  This is the real Big Society – ordinary people organising for themselves – in action.”


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