“It’s class, you don’t have to talk about class but maybe talk about money and income. Documented or undocumented or black and brown communities and being immigrants, so there’s an intersection, so the issues are connected, but it’s also about, you know, the structure [of the union] is about…’we need to do meetings’. Not everyone wants to be in a meeting…what am I going to? Have another meeting and another meeting another meeting, and be on time, and, you know, all of those things, are like part of that machine of, be on time, now it’s time to do this and that, and then we do this and then we separate into small groups and tackle this, tackle that, keep the focus, all this machine, you know, and I don’t know, the structure…. I think I don’t have an answer to this. I just have been thinking…. How can we learn about, you know, other ways of doing it?”
[Member of LRU with a crossover class position talking about why it’s difficult to be part of LRU]
This post is a follow up to this post on building a union for less involved people. I mentioned there that there were two main ways I could think of to deal with the following question:
Rather than [slow branch growth] being about weak recruitment strategies, low resources or inadequate organising skills, could it simply be that the union is offering a life that people are too unfamiliar with and do not want, a life with little relaxation time, too intensely participatory, and too spatially challenging for leisure time activity?
In the first post I suggested that we could develop a union more hospitable to people who could only come along occasionally, and that there would be lots of benefits to doing this alongside community organising. In this post I want to suggest another way forward, not as an alternative approach so much as a complimentary approach.
My proposal is not so much a new idea as a stronger version of an idea that already exists in the union. What if we integrated union activity much more into people’s daily life? What if instead of inviting people to meetings we met them halfway where they already are? People aren’t just their housing problems, they live full lives which make sense to them. Those lives include common activities such as childcare, sports, family time, socialising, learning, spiritual practice, working, eating and so on. LRU has done an amazing job at incorporating some of these – childcare and eating and sometimes socialising – into meeting time. That has been an important part of how LRU has done as well as it has. But what about pushing it further? How about building our activities around things people do anyway, rather than just bringing them into meetings? Can we imagine a community of people doing the things they normally do, while also supporting each other with housing problems and gathering momentum for campaigns?
This would, ultimately, have to mean less formal meetings. You can’t do more of things without doing less of other things. Not in LRU anyway. But we do have meetings in LRU for a reason, including being democratic. Surely we want democracy? Absolutely, but I’m not sure the balance is right in the union at the moment. There are too many meetings. It is too exhausting, and that has a classed and racialised profile in the way it impacts people and their participation.
I’m not trying to point fingers here, or if I am, I’m pointing them at myself. I helped to write the constitution of LRU, and even at the time as we wrote it we admitted to ourselves that we didn’t know what we were doing. We had never done it before. Nor had anyone else we know. And so we did the best we could and we made mistakes. One mistake, I now think, was centring the machinery of the union over the life of the community. In some way the process of writing a constitution forces this on you, since a constitution is just about the formal bits of an organisation, not all the real relational stuff. But still, I look back now and think we should have taken all of that less seriously. We should have ticked the boxes for the regulator and then asked what we wanted out community to look like and centred that.
Clearly the machinery of an organisation is necessary to some degree. Certain things need to get done, and it made sense to mirror the machinery of a trade union, with its branches and member defence systems and annual conferences. What’s more, we knew we wanted to be largely locally based, not running the union through some big central London meeting, so trying to build around branches made sense from that point of view too. We also wanted to avoid the local branches just being run by a few typical (young white ‘middle class’) activists. So we laid out what it was a branch should be doing, which included running its own housing disputes and diverse recruitment and so on. Gradually various elected roles emerged, along with a second tier at branch level, the organising committee, to do the actual running of the branch, because it turned out that meeting and actions needed planning. The meetings piled up and piled up. LRU wants to be a community. But a lot of meetings does not a community make. The community is what appears in the gaps between meetings, in the moments outside of formal decision-making.
If you learn labour history it becomes clear that, while trade unions did create machineries for winning fights, they emerged from, and helped build, wider community. The machinery was not the point, the point was solidarity. But how to sideline the machinery and centre the community? The Irish tenants union CATU has tried to do it in some of its branches by having as few meetings as possible. Those who are present at an action have a quick discussion about what to do next, and then that happens, and so on. This is, on the face of it, less democratic than the way LRU runs. But before being sure of that, we need to be honest about how LRU runs: those who can go to most meetings get the most say. Even at branch level, if you aren’t on the organising committee for the branch, with all the extra meetings that entails, you’ll realistically have very little say over the running of the branch.
Most of LRU’s members say that they want us to be showing care for each other in the union, but even as we say this members keep burning out. I think cutting down on our meetings is a key way that we can care for each other. We have often talked about doing less meetings, but then each meeting seems ‘necessary’, for this or that reason. It feels to me that some drastic action needs to be taken, because the current machinery is not working for many people, and its not working in a way that is most difficult for more marginalised people. Can we really not downgrade the ‘machinery’ aspect of LRU in favour of community?
I don’t think we need to do things exactly like CATU. But I think we do need to unite as a community around the things that really matter to us and unite us as a community. While it might be nice to unite around barbecues or football, not everyone in the union likes those things. From the interviews I have conducted, the three main unifying loves of union members, cutting across class and race boundaries, are action on housing, sociability, and learning. But of these, one should be prioritised more than others. The problem with social space is that most people socialise in a very socio-economically stratified way. It’s really quite hard to find social things that everyone wants to do. The trouble with focusing too much on taking action is that it would quickly fall into typical activist ways of doing things. Learning, on the other hand is the big love of many members of LRU, cutting across class and race. People have different learning styles, so we need hands-on learning and discussion-based learning rather than just Powerpoint-based learning. We can also offer learning in a way that benefits more marginalised members, as I wrote about here. By focusing on learning we make sure that it is a community everyone can get something from as well as give something to.
So here’s the proposal: that LRU members don’t bother to meet unless they have housing problems/actions to support each other with, or they have learning that they want to do. If there must be a regular branch meeting, it should simply be described as the local peer support and learning space. The learning would be about things we train about already – renters rights, the housing system, how to support a member in a housing dispute – and things we don’t yet – how to organise a team of volunteers, how to manage conflicts, how to minimise document use in your organising, how to talk to a councillor so that they listen, how to design an action, and yes, learning from each other about each other, as I proposed in the previous post. But I want to emphasise the importance of renters’ rights training, including going out there to existing community groups to train them. That way LRU can have a presence in schools, sports clubs, religious institutions and so on. It’s something that many of our more marginalised members think we should do more of. I know that the Newham and Leytonstone branch have run trainings more regularly, including in schools, but it would be good to see more across the union.
The democratic decisions can be made in the gaps between those things. This means getting quicker at making decisions. As a union I think we have to get quicker at making decisions. An agenda should be put together in 10 minutes, not need a whole meeting to write it – and usually the agenda for next branch meeting should be done at the end of the current one. A proposal should be put together in 20 minutes, not need two hours to write it. A meeting shouldn’t try to make a decision without a proposal, to avoid talking around in circles. If this all sounds a bit hurried, don’t worry, people will still talk about the decisions plenty, just outside of formal meeting time. This also counts as democracy. It isn’t perfect, but nor is a system that depends on whoever in the room making decisions (‘Being-in-the-room privilege’ as Olufemi Taiwo calls it).
As for working groups, I think we should accelerate a tendency that I feel has been happening anyway – and in fact formalising it could once again increase democracy rather than reducing it. The current working groups could all be led by a particular staff member and the non-staff members in the working group should be more like an assisting and consultative team (with some veto powers). So a working group meeting (in fact lots of this could happen on whatsapp), would likely consist of a staff member putting some proposals to the consultative group, and modifying or binning them based on what the consultative group says. This would mean the meetings could be significantly more time-efficient. In order to stop a staff member going rogue, the consultative team of the working group should also be able to appeal to the Coordinating Group where they think their staff member has gone wrong. As for members putting forward ideas, they can always put them forward to the staff member, or indeed just carry them out themselves, reflecting the autonomy that exists in the union to just get on with doing things. If this all sounds like me turning against democracy, well, I think of it as swinging towards more balance between democracy and getting things done without loads of meetings, so that we can be more inclusive and more community-focused. There were always going to be compromises in trying to operate democratically at scale and I don’t think we’ve got the balance right yet.
Alongside all the learning with a bit of democracy thrown in, members will also want to socialise. That can hopefully happen in forms that are as inclusive as possible but, bearing in mind we can never come up with social events that suit everyone, we should do a variety of different social events. We should also turn up at social events organised by others and just be the people that people can talk to about housing. Some of our events at least, in line with the idea that we should be caring for each other, should provide some material support to people by providing food, perhaps including food to take away as well as food to eat there. As we socialise together, learn together and take action together, the machinery of LRU can hopefully fade into the background, and the community step into the foreground. This is a way of meeting people where they are at. Alongside the previous suggestion of making the union more of a home to those who can only come along from time to time, I think it could really help the union grow. It may not be the only way to make the union more of a community than a machinery, but it’s the one that makes sense to me from the conversations I have had in the union. I’d be more than happy to hear other ideas.