“Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union”
By Eve Fensome
“Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union” – goes the chorus of the song Union Maid written in 1940 by Woody Guthrie in the office of the Oklahoma City Communist Party. Though I’m not sure if I’d ever refer to myself as a ‘maid’, be it preceded by ‘union’ or otherwise, a ‘union maid’ is essentially what I have become. Or another, albeit less succinct way to say it is: ‘last week I joined Unite – the biggest union in Britain’.
A union is an organisation which uses collective bargaining to achieve common goals. As students we (all seven million of us in Britain that is) are represented by the National Union of Students (NUS). The NUS uses its power to further students’ interests in relation to matters such as tuition fees and recently to take legal action on behalf of the students at London Metropolitan University who were threatened with deportation.
However, it is not actually us students who are ‘members’ of the union, but in fact the 600 university students’ unions which are members, with ours being the University of Manchester Students’ Union.
So while most students are represented by a union, few are actually a member of a union. Now this is the bit where I get to talk all about my shiny new Unite Community Membership. Prepare yourself… Community Membership is a fairly new scheme, having been available for less than a year. It is a way for individuals to become a member of the Union without necessarily being in employment.
Unite’s website states: “Even now in the 21st century, too many people in our country are being pushed to the margins of society. They deserve to be heard; they too deserve the support to organise collectively. It is with this in mind that Unite has founded its community membership scheme.”
“Unite’s community membership scheme brings together people from across our society. Those not in employment are welcomed into the union family, adding another dimension to our strength in thousands of workplaces across the UK.”
The beauty of the Community Membership is that members of society not in paid employment, who also tend to be some of the most marginalized and deprived, are able to unite as one and create much needed support networks. Students, individuals prevented from working due to disability, the long-term unemployed, full-time carers and the retired can have their interests represented by Unite and forge links between employment unions and community unions to together organize and engage in grass roots activism.
Community Membership costs £26 annually which works out at 50 pence per week which is significantly cheaper than Unite full-time employed membership at around £144 per year. Members enjoy a number of significant benefits including access to Unite’s legal helpline with legal professionals available 24 hours a day to give advice as well as having available resources designed to help get a job including tools to create CVs and application letters plus guidance on job interviews.
This is in addition to debt advice (may come in handy to do with the old student loan), energy comparison services, benefits check-ups, tax refund advice, free accident cover (for all those treacherous nights out on the lash), discounts and access to “one-off hardship grants to members in need of assistance.” But, while all these services offer significant, tangible benefits to the individual member, I think students in particular may find becoming Community Members attractive for other reasons.
The Unite website says: “At Unite we have 1.5 million members – just imagine what you can achieve with them standing by your side?”
While approximately 50,000 students demonstrated in 2010 against a rise in tuition fees and numerous university societies opposing the rise have been formed, the action taken by student groups has been sporadic and resulted in no significant change. Just as the ladies in the Ford factory in Dagenham would not have achieved equal pay had they not received the support of fellow union members, students need to join forces with workers unions so industrial action and demonstrations can be coordinated and achieve shared aims.
The second reason students may find the idea of becoming Community Members attractive would be the greater integration and cohesion in the local community. As a student it is easy to become insular, only focusing on campus life, whereas to join a union is to make a conscious decision to not distance oneself from the wider society. In the current climate where many applicants chase few jobs, students need to find practical ways to make the leap from education to the world of work.
Joining a union means students become better acquainted with those in employment, opening doors for students into their first graduate job and creating opportunities for skills sharing. In addition, mixing with members of the community not in paid employment could benefit students by encouraging them to look beyond campus life to the city they inhabit and develop a more caring approach towards the people they share a city with. Students have the power to bring the community together and provide a platform for the disenfranchised and those unable to find their voice alone.
On our own we cannot achieve much, but together we are strong. This may not be the big society, but it could be the Great Society, so I suppose the question is: “Buddy can you spare a dime?” – Well I guess I can.