MATTHEW BOLTON of the public sector union Unison last weekend addressed a rally of the London Citizens’ group – of which he is the lead organiser.
London Citizens is the community organising group which has successfully brought together faith groups, schools, community groups and unions to fight for a living wage for some of London’s lowest paid workers. It is part of Citizens UK, which aims to be the national home of community organising.
“We can and will build powerful alliances,” said Bolton. “Unions and communities can and will build powerful alliances that will not just defend ourselves but shape decision-making”, he told local government delegates.
“We face a difficult five years,” he said, “and it is in all of our interests to face it together.”
Bolton said that in five years of organising, the group has won some £40 million in increased pay and conditions for cleaners and catering staff in London.
“I don’t have to tell you about the cuts,” he said. “Up to 725,000 jobs could go in public services in the next five years and public service workers are facing at best a pay freeze at a time when real inflation is running at five per cent.
“And for my own work, my target is to persuade 15 local councils that the living wage rate should be standard in their procurement of contracts at a time when budgets are being slashed.
“How will we meet these challenges? Unison has a membership of 1.3 million. The problem is not the power of your organisation. We have 160 groups that are part of London Citizens. The problem is how we connect the unions with the communities your members serve.”
He encouraged union branches to look at the groups members are already part of and see each of them as “a little pocket of power that could join together to support your campaign”.
He reminded delegates that London Citizens and Unison had worked together in East London to win a living wage for staff in four hospitals and help to recruit and organise the local Unison branches.
But he warned that community alliances needed to be built on trust and common interests and needed to “bring in the moderates, not just round up the usual suspects”.
Unions needed to understand that while individual casework is important for members, “it is not a great tool to build power – to do that, you need to invest your time in building up alliances.
“We aim to spread across the UK. Could your branch be a founding member of a local alliance? Can you see yourselves not as spectators, but as leading the way?”