What is Community Unionism?

You may be a member of a union. But have you ever been approached by some other union – approached as a member of the community – and invited to join a campaign or activity broader than wages and conditions? For example, have you been encouraged to attend meetings about the closure of local services, protecting the environment, supporting peace efforts or advocating for human rights – with unions actively involved?

The idea of Community Unionism involves creative and effective links between active unionists, progressive activists and community members.

Community unionism could be in the form of collaborations based on links between unions and community organisations or with groups of people with shared interests, e.g. feminists or environmentalists, or in specific geographic areas or neighbourhoods.

The ‘Your Rights At Work’ campaign had many elements of community unionism even with its emphasis on the basic rights of workers to collectively bargain, have union representation, be protected from unfair dismissal and work in safe environments.

Exploitative work hours and reduced conditions were condemned by unionists and non-union community members seeking to protect family and community life. The concerts, rallies, badges, billboards and leaflets kept the community informed and connected to the issues. The campaign was at its strongest when it focused on how the proposed WorkChoices system would adversely affect workers and their community. When the campaign predominantly focused on the election of the Labor Government it lost momentum.

Building coalitions and maintaining community links was explored in the recent Politics in the Pub (Park, Café) gathering in Wollongong. Gary Kennedy, the Secretary of Newcastle Trades Hall Council, told the gathering:

We saw how the ‘Your Rights At Work’ campaign engaged with unionists and non-unionists alike. In the Hunter district we have just signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with key progressive groups in our area. We are establishing a new community forum where we discuss and agree on campaigns that best serve the political, social and community issues that we believe are important.

Gary enthusiastically outlined how we could work together to be agents of change, and the importance of identifying social concerns that touch everyone’s life.

This was reminiscent of the discussions held in the Illawarra in the early 1980s that were summed up well by the Redback Graphix poster titled: ‘When They Close a Pit They Kill a Community’.

The toll from each and every job lost reverberates throughout a community. Opportunities to participate in community life are diminished or lost. When Bob becomes unemployed, for instance, his loss of income slowly undermines the livelihood of others reliant on his wages when he no longer gets his car serviced and stops buying goods at the local shops.

Gary Kennedy shared his insights on how to build community unionism gleaned from his understanding of the pervasive politics of exclusion:

The union movement has no seat at the decision making table. We are not consulted and we are not part of the ongoing discussion about how to protect worker’s rights. We are closest to the grassroots issues yet we’re excluded.

This union leader looked at his union table where decisions are made and realised there were important voices missing and noted that the union movement needed to be more inclusive and collaborative:

We are a disparate group in our recently established community forum but we have to work together. There will be no banging on tables and telling people what to do. We have developed an agreement on how to work together and how we will achieve good things for our community.

So what is the recipe for effective community unionism? Inviting many different people in, searching for common ground and taking the time to find a shared language are essential ingredients. Staying local, being transparent and valuing the benefits that come with collaboration will always work well.

Sharon Callaghan

Sharon Callaghan writes pieces for the Illawarra Mercury that reflect social and political issues within the community. She has written in different publications on the rights of asylum seekers, democracy, nonviolence, racism, public space, community unionism, human rights and feminism.

More by Sharon Callaghan ›

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  1. Yes that’s true Rohan. What I like most is the idea of breaking down the artificial barriers between us to build a solidarity that protects our rights as workers as well as building and protecting the neighbourhoods and communities where paid and unpaid workers live. The local direct actions that bring a diverse range of community and union members together to stop, for example, a hospital closure, TAFE fees rising, kids being charged to swim in the local pool and park land being developed, creates long lasting mutually supportive relationships.

  2. I love that you use the quote from Gary Kennedy about “banging on tables and telling people what to do”. I think that, for many people in the community, unions are viewed as being quite masculine and, often, quite aggressive. Who hasn’t seen picket lines out the front of manufacturing plants, or footage from the waterfront dispute? Community unionism might just give people a ‘way in’ to talking about and getting involved in workplace rights, particularly those people not already involved in unionism, and who are neither masculine nor aggressive, who would otherwise be frightened off. And I think that those are the people who need the solidarity and the collective voice of unions the most.

    (As an aside, I also love that you talk about work in the community as being paid AND unpaid, and that community unionism values both of these kinds of work.)

  3. The acknowledgement that we have different styles of communicating and that many within the traditionally male unions could fail to hear important information or miss opportunities if their voices dominated the room was good to hear. Community unionism reminds me that the processes that shape the actions are as important as the end result. Unfortunately sections of the media focus on the aggressive or confrontational aspects of a union dispute even when there is ample evidence that it can be inclusive and friendly. We saw little in the media of the family picnics, badminton games, choirs and shared meals that were all daily activities during the waterfront dispute.

    I think you are right Louise that community unionism is a ‘way in’ for those who are possibly most at risk of being exploited at work. Community unionism can show that the picket line is only one arena for union activism. Deeper conversations with potential union members are more likely to take place in shared public spaces where workplace rights and community concerns are all part of the discussion.

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