Holding power to account

I don’t often post about things directly related to what I do in my day job as Regional Secertary for UNISON in the West Midlands, but after an event I was involved with this week I think a few words might be worthwhile.

Trade unionists want to see justice not only in the workplace, but also in wider society. A key part of trade unionism is that by coming together workers can build the power to get the workplace justice they deserve. The voice of many is far more powerful than a few.

Similarly, if trade unions want to see social justice across the wider community, if we work with other civil society institutions then our voice is louder.

My union is part of the Birmingham chapter of Citizens UK which is an alliance of civil society institutions who have come together on a joint social justice agenda. We have faith groups, schools, trade unions, universities, colleges and community groups in our alliance.

On  Thursday I had the privilege of co-chairing am assembly of over 400 people where we heard testimony from people with serious issues around asylum, the Living Wage and community safety. And we them made specific and public asks on these issues of politicians and political candidates, including the John Clancy leader of Birmingham City Council and David Jamieson the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner.

We heard very moving testimony from a Syrian refugee who had recently been resettled in Brum, a low-paid worker about what the Living Wage would mean to her, and a woman who told her story about the community safety issues she and her family face.

The testimony from the people affected by these issues was incredibly moving and we put the politicians on the spot and secured pledges on:

  • Agreement to resettle 500 more Syrians refugees in Birmingham.
  • Moving to ensuring the Living Wage is paid to care workers employed by private contractors used by Birmingham City Council.
  • West Midlands Police becoming a Living Wage employer and becoming accredited.
  • A commitment for Housing Officers and Police Officers to hold termly surgeries at the schools of who are part of Citizens UK so that families can get proper support and advice on housing and community safety matters.

Readers of this blog will know that numbers feature regularly – and this post is about numbers too. The power of civil society to secure these pledges was directly related to the number of people involved in the campaigns and attending the assembly.

As the US community organiser Saul Alinsky said “Power goes to one of two poles: those who’ve got the money, or those who’ve got the people.” We in civil society have relatively little money, but if we organise our people, we can build the power to change things.


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