THE country’s largest trade union has announced it is renewing its purpose with a new push to combine workplace organising with community politics.

Unite, which boasted 1.4 million members in 2020, has launched the first part of its campaign to push for a “workers’ economy” through a radical rethink of the organisation’s priorities, saying it wants to “drive the political agenda as opposed to commenting on it”.

It comes as the country is gripped by a cost-of-living crisis, which has seen inflation reach 10% and climbing higher while 72% of Scottish households are predicted to experience fuel poverty by January.

Strikes are gripping the country with RMT workers walking out on Thursday and council workers are set to down tools later in the month.

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Labour-affiliated Unite has said it hopes to change the way politics is done in the UK because “no amount of lobbying at Westminster” will deliver.

The union kicked off the new push – which will also see the launch of a manifesto developed through mass surveys – with the launch of a billboard campaign across the country.

Back to the roots 

Speaking at the unveiling of two billboards beside an industrial estate in Springburn, Glasgow, Keith Stoddart, the chair of Unite's west of Scotland community branch, said: “What we’re trying to do is replicate the traditional, embedded nature of trade unions in communities.

“It’s going back to what we historically were, in places like mining communities.”

Unite has long allowed non-workers to be members under its “community” branch, to which Stoddart – a retired social worker – belongs.

The National: Billboards have been put up across Glasgow and other UK cities Unite is looking to target Billboards have been put up across Glasgow and other UK cities Unite is looking to target

The aim of the new strategy is to bring together community organisers closer to their colleagues in industrial relations and expand the membership of the whole organisation.

Joe Rollin, a union organiser, told The National politicians were “too timid or too slow” to take action on the crises facing the country so the union would take matters into its own hands.

He said the new campaign would see the union focus more on community issues – such as campaigning for better local public transport or demanding action to lower rents – than it would have done in recent years.

“One thing we’ve got wrong in trade union movements over the years is that we think of a worker as a worker and then if you’re not in work, then you’re not a worker anymore,” he added.

“But a worker goes home and has expensive rent and the expensive gas bills, the same as the people in the community would who are not in work.

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“It’s about breaking those barriers down and about bringing trade union values back into the community.”

Later phases of the campaign will see organisers sent into key communities in the UK - among them are Glasgow, Grimsby, Hull, Crawley and Morcambe - who will feed into policy discussions which will form a "workers' manifesto". 

'Our time has come' 

Stoddart said the union hoped to capitalise on a general mood of malaise in the country.

“Be it inadequate transport, be it the cost of utilities, the closure of public services, the absence of wage rises, there is no one on this island who is not going to be affected by this crisis,” he added.

“We’re 10 years old, Unite Communities, but I suppose our time has come, we’ve been prepared for this.”

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The campaign aims to broaden the working membership of the union while also boosting the numbers of those involved as “community members” – meaning people who are retired, unemployed, or in precarious gig-economy work.

Funding for the project comes from Unite’s political fund – some of which goes to the Labour Party as an affiliate union – but Stoddart said the party was not taking enough action to tackle the cost-of-living crisis.

He said: “We can’t wait for folk in Westminster or in Holyrood for that matter, because they’ve had a chance and they haven’t been delivering for working people.

“So what we’re doing is saying, if you’re not doing the job we’ll do it in other ways.”

Community organising has been achieved in some parts of Scotland already with the recent growth of the tenants’ union Living Rent and Unite hospitality chair Cat Lee, 26, told The National the renewed push hoped to "marry” community struggles with workplace organising.

It comes as part of what appears to be a growing wave of social efforts to force change, which are operating outside of the corridors of power, including Enough Is Enough, Don’t Pay and a revitalised Scottish independence movement.