A dominant political theme of this summer has been the perfect storm of wage suppression and price hikes, while corporate profits and executive pay continue to rocket.
From rail workers, bus drivers to barristers, postal workers and airline staff – workers have been responding with their most potent tool – industrial action – and there are signs that a richer, more connected ecosystem of organisation is in bloom.
In spite of the media’s best efforts to demonise, union messaging managed to cut through with polls showing that significant support in the recent rail workers’ action. This proportion increases with more knowledge of the issues causing the strike. As Janey Starling notes in her article Hot Strike Summer: You’re supposed to hate strikes – and that’s why you should support them – “the widespread recruitment crisis in the UK means there is a lot of power in the hands of working people to create a society where everybody’s labour is valued and last month, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) reported a 700% increase in people researching how to join a union.”
Another exciting dimension of union organising currently is the meaningful strengthening of relationships between community organisations and workplace unions. I became a workplace union rep in 2006, and throughout my 12 or so years of activism, I often saw these relationships as tokenistic at best.
At a time when it can be difficult to see positives, it is exciting and a source of hope to see real partnerships with teeth being forged.
What is a community union?
The distinction between a workplace union and a community union is more blurry than it might sound. Historically, workplace unions have at times chosen to campaign on wider issues such as housing or racial justice. While community unions have formed structures focused on workers’ issues like pay, or bringing together workers from a specific employer as a funnelling process leading to unionisation.
Community unionism has looked different at different times. It could be an alliance between worker unions and sports fan groups, or faith institutions. It could be a community campaign with minimal union support. It could be a worker advice centre run by a non-union organisation.
The community organisation ACORN – whose work I want to shine a spotlight on in this blog – operate on a model quite similar to that of a workplace union: branch structure (based on neighbourhood and town/city instead of workplace and employer), elected leaders, and high levels of membership activity and development, rather than a top down advocacy approach.
Once pigeonholed as a renters’ union focused on housing, ACORN UK remit has expanded to encompass diverse issues including:
- Free school meals in Norwich
- Public toilets in Bristol
- Leisure facilities in Haringey
- Limiting holiday lets in Cornwall
- DSS discrimination by landlords in Birmingham
- In the pandemic 600 people volunteered to do mutual aid in Brighton
Over the past couple of months you might have seen ACORN giving support on rail picket lines around the country or at the head of the Trade Union Congress’s Cost of Living march in London.
ACORN and the first UK Conference
The start of July saw the first UK conference for ACORN. I attended as one of the West Midlands reps on the ACORN Board, along with around 160 others. We gathered at St. Mary’s Church, Sheffield, a pivotal city in working class history, as vividly painted by Chair Rohan Kon.
In her galvanising opening and closing words, CWU activist Rohan referenced the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, the Hillsborough disaster, the Battle of Orgreave, and the legalisation of unions and removal of criminal liability from strikes in the 1870s following Sheffield workers’ rebellion.
Now 8 years old in the UK, ACORN has several 1000s of members across 26 branches and 9 regions, with at least 130 elected leaders. 7 new groups have launched so far this year, and Southend, Southwark, Bradford, Hackney, Tottenham & more are on the way.
Recent wins include:
- Public control of buses in Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool won by coalitions including ACORN
- Landlord licensing in Oxford, Bristol, Sheffield and Newcastle (with Manchester and Leeds campaigns ongoing)
- Banning second home ownership in Brighton
In his book ‘Nuts and Bolts’, ACORN founder Wade Rathke suggests that the structure of a mass organisation has to be organic, natural and flexible. The ACORN model is scalable, effective and replicable. The units of organisation are local groups and district branches. These elect a committee and vote for campaigns based on strategic criteria. Something that makes sense for the area, is cared about both widely and deeply, is winnable with a clear target, and will grow the organisation’s power and leadership capacity.
ACORN in every continent
ACORN now has an active presence in every continent. At the UK conference we heard about inspiring examples of mass organisation and wins from across the globe.
Dharmendra Kumar from ACORN India told us about the Hawkers Joint Action Committee for self-employed street vendors, selling without any permanent structure. They work on the ground, unregulated, subject to violence, harassment by mafia, and eviction by police.
Delhi has 73 market committees, with a total 11,000 membership in 2022. During lockdown ACORN carried out a survey of vendors – 67,000 in Delhi alone. Their demands for a secure, dignified livelihood include:
- Storage facilities
- Legal protections
- The creation of town vending committees including elected representatives of vendors, town planners, NGOs, unions, police, and council.
Other priorities for ACORN India are wages, permanent housing for migrant workers, and extending health benefits.
Alejandra Ruiz Vargas and Marva Burnett dialled in from ACORN Canada. Marva, also President of ACORN International, was upfront that she is having fun. ACORN Canada has 160,000+ members across 24 chapters and 6 provinces, with 10,000 members taking action.
We heard about inclusionary zoning demands, and wins on improved internet. Marva gave a deep dive on how ACORN Canada follows the money in tackling the financialisation of their housing sector. Financial landlords, Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), own 20-30% of apartments in Canada. They target the most affordable properties with the goal of increasing rents as much as possible, via fees for services like parking and laundry. ACORN targets pension funds for public workers that invest in financialised housing and predatory lending, and turn up face-to-face with 200 members. Once they closed down a road intersection where 5 implicated banks were based. They also go after governments who give tax breaks to REITs.
ACORN organising workers
ACORN has been supportive of, and at times taken a lead in organising workers. This summer marks a step forward in formal recognition by the UK labour movement for ACORN, built upon months and years of steady graft and patient relationship building.
One conference guest was the the hospitality organising initiative Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise (SNaPR). An exploited workforce, where 16-17 year olds work 12 hour shifts for under £5ph. Nick from SNaPR explained that they exist to increase union representation in the sector, and to ‘teach young people that change can be enacted rather than having to leave their jobs’. The United Voices of the World union’s epic strike victory at St Mary’s Hospital, resulting in the unprecedented in-sourcing of 1,200 workers, was also profiled.
The conference wrapped up with reflections on the post-pandemic challenges for community unions. A theme was the power of rebuilding offline relationships – trusting that other sections of the working class have each others’ backs, is what gives people the confidence to take the risks necessary to defend our communities and living standards. It’s relationships that carry us through the exhausting long-term commitment of struggling for our collective self-defence, and for gains we deserve.
ACORN founder Wade Rathke closed the conference with realistic optimism.
“This organisation is defined by how we deal with crisis. In the cataclysmic Storm Katrina everybody was evacuated. But, we rebuilt 6,000 houses in New Orleans, and we raised millions of dollars. You face nothing but crisis for the rest of your lives and we have to respond to crisis. This is a movement moment. Worker organisations are building. We have to be ready to respond.”
What could this mean for unions?
So what does it mean for all of us when connections between community unions and workplaces unions are stronger?
Workplace union bargaining coverage has fallen since concerted attacks on unions bv employers and government in the 70s and 80s. This means that less industries and workplaces have a union presence, and less workers (especially younger workers) even know what a union is.
Community unions like ACORN can take the message of collective struggle to workers from unorganised sectors in their neighbourhoods and homes. This raises awareness of the existence and function of workplace unions, and sows the seed of possibility that collective action gets the goods for issues outside work too.
There is no binary – workers are part of communities and community members have workplaces. Both workplace unions and community organisations stand to gain. This more joined-up approach simply means that more new people can be brought into our efforts, building all of our power in the process.
Becca Kirkpatrick is a Birmingham-based personal trainer with a background in union and community organising. Becca is also a co-founder of We Got To Move. You can check out her work here and @takethebigbag on social media.