From the new May-June 2013 issue of News & Letters:
Portsmouth, England–Owen Jones, independent columnist and author of Chavs, joined people from across Portsmouth on March 20 to launch a community group to fight against austerity. The new organization, Unite Community Portsmouth, is part of Unite’s organizing drive that seeks to re-establish links between the trade unions and local communities. Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union, with 1.5 million members working across all sectors of the economy.
“We are going through the biggest squeeze in living standards since my granddad was born in this city in the 1920s,” said Jones, who cites his grandfather’s conversion to trade unionism precisely through his experience working in Portsmouth. “So I’m really glad to be here because of this fantastic initiative that Unite has set up.”
The Unite Communities project has been instigated across the country as part of an attempt to tackle the loss of influence the trade union movement has over local areas. In the past, when workplaces were more centralized and tended to absorb much of the nearby labour force, it was easier for trade unions to play a direct role in community politics.
Changes in the industrial landscape, from outsourcing of manufacturing to the greater role played by smaller service-sector enterprises, have partially eroded contact between a community and the union movement. Unite initiated the community organizing drive to not only address such issues, but provide an additional platform for anti-austerity politics.
“It’s a really exciting time,” said Liane Groves, Unite Community National Organizer. “These groups are mushrooming. People are literally meeting in front rooms, local community centers and so on in order to fight these vicious (government) policies.”
Gorves stressed that Unite does not wish to simply “bolt on” community groups to the rest of the union. “People have to decide how to do things themselves. What’s important is that people stand together. The government is trying to divide us between ‘scroungers’ and ‘strivers.’ We need to fight against that.”
Portsmouth has historically suffered with the decline of national manufacturing, having once had a thriving dockyard. With the advent of austerity policies, Portsmouth will be affected by the “black April” reforms, such as the unpopular bedroom tax.
“When you have people working mainly in the hire and fire service sector, you need to organize right across the community,” said Jones, “That is the point we have always got to remember; our own power and our own strength. That when we can collectively organize, when we have confidence and courage in our own strength, then we can win. We can turn this around. We can stand together. We fight together and we can win this together.”
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