This article is from the blog Building a Revolutionary Movement.
I’m going to use Jane McAlevey’s definition for organising as described in a previous post: “organizing places the agency for success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved, who don’t consider themselves activists at all – that’s the point of organizing.”
In this post, I’ve included activism around ‘rights’ and ‘issues’, to make this list as comprehensive as possible. I’d also add that this is a rough sketch of what to organise (and mobilise) around and this list needs more research and probably reworking.
The first area to organise around, with a long history is the workplace and employment. This was an important area of struggle to change society in the twentieth century, but the nature of work has changed and the trade unions have been crushed in the last 40 years. There have been, and are, several union forms; those from the past will be looked at in future posts. Currently, there are large unions, known as ‘service unions’, and ‘base unions’.
The ‘service unions’ (also known as business unionism) do important work to defend workers’ rights but it is limited to that, and these unions do not attempt to change society, even if individual members do want that. They maintain capitalist social relations. The more radical unions include National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Fire Brigades Union (FBU), University and College Union (UCU), Communication Workers Union (CWU).
‘Base unions’, is a term that originated in Italy. These unions were formed in workplaces where workers had a material need, made up the union’s membership and were in control of how the union operated. This article gives a history. This is based on the anarchist form of radical unionism, anarcho-syndicalism. The radical ‘base unions’ in the UK are Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Independent Works Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW). See this article for more info. There is also the Work Force Movement.
The second area to organise around is the community, including: community organising, community unions, the community rights movement, and community social welfare programmes.
Community organising was developed in the mid-twentieth century in the US. It involves campaigns to change institutional policies and practices to improve the living conditions for community members. Hackney Unites has put together a good HU-community-organising. National reformist community organising organisations doing good work include Citizens UK and Community Organisers. There will be many local groups and organisations using community organising methods all over the UK.
Several community and tenant/renter unions have formed in the last decade. Three focus on supporting their members with housing and community issues using radical direct action tactics; they are ACORN, London Renters Union and Living Rent in Scotland. There is also Unite Community, which offers the ‘service union’ benefits to those not in full-time work, so part-time or unemployed and campaigns on workplace and community issues. There is also Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth and Sisters Uncut. See this article on critical support for renters unions.
The community rights movement originated in the US, primarily driven by the Community and Environmental Defence Fund. They describe community rights work as including environmental rights, workers’ rights, rights of nature and democratic rights. Read a history of the community rights movement here.
There has been a first step in the UK to set up a community rights movement in the formation of the Community Chartering Network. This comes from a successful community charter in Falkirk, Scotland, that resulted in the Scottish Government banning fracking in Scotland. Read the story here.
Community social welfare programs are generally run by local government or NGOs (Non-government organisations). A good example of this in the UK was the British Restaurants – communal kitchens set up in 1940 to provide cheap food so everyone could eat.
Communities have been under attack since the 1970s, with many basic services and social centers no longer in operation. Community social welfare organising now involves activists running basic services in their communities to fill the gaps where the state has been rolled back. The classic example would be the Black Panthers Free Breakfast for Children in the US in the 1960s/70s.
In 2014/2015 a pay as you feel cafe called Skipchen in Bristol served over 20,000 meals. Can Cook in Garston, Liverpool provides thousands of free hot lunches for children in poverty in the Merseyside area. Foodhall is a public dining room and kitchen in Sheffield that is managed by the community, for the community, tackling social isolation and encourage integration across a diverse range of groups. Foodhall are campaigning for a National Food Service, to develop public social eating spaces around the country. There is Cooperation Town movement based on Cooperation Kentish Town that provides a community space with healthy, cheap food, childcare and more.
Combining Workplace and Non-Workplace
The third area to organise is a combination of workplace/job and struggles outside the workplace, including: Jane McAlevey’s ‘whole worker organizing’, community unionism, and social movement unionism.
Whole worker organising merges workplace and non-workplace issues based on Jane McAlevey’s extensive experience of community and union organising. This article gives a good summary of McAlevey work in Connecticut that combined housing and workplace struggles.
Janice Fine is her 2005 article, “Community Unions and the Revival of the American Labor Movement” describes community unionism as community-based organisations of low-wage workers that focus on issues of work and wages in their communities. They are based on specific ethnic and geographic communities (as opposed to workplaces), especially immigrants and African Americans. Fine describes how they have appeared from several sources including: “community and faith-based organizing networks, Central America solidarity movements and other left-wing organizations, legal services as well as other social service agencies, immigrant nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), churches, and some labor unions.” These community unions are mainly focused on work-related issues but also include other aspects of life including housing, healthcare, and education.
Solidarity networks and base building combine workplace and community/social issues in a locality. Active groups and networks in Britain include Solidarity Federation, Angry Workers, Teesside Solidary Movement and Valleys Underground, Marxist Centre.
Social movement unionism is currently popular in the US, involving the combination of workplace unionists and social movements to tackle issues, civil and human rights and alter structures of law and political power. This article gives a history and critique of social movement unionism. This interview with a member of the UK National Union of Teachers (now the National Education Union) describes the three legs of a stool working together to make a strong union: bread and butter issues, professional issues, social justice and community campaigning.
Megan Behrent writes about a radical form of social movement unionism called ‘social justice unionism‘ here.
The ‘social strike’ is described by Antonio Negre and Michael Hardt in Assembly as the ‘weapon of social unionism’.  Keir Milburn states here that the social strike “brings out three functions that will be required from any set of practices able to play a role equivalent to the twentieth-century strike. These are making the new conditions visible, disrupting the circulation of capital and directly socialising, collectivising and communising our social relations, reproduction and struggles.” Negre and Hardt describe the social strike as “the labor movement’s interruption of industrial production and the social movements’ disruption of the social order.” 
Recent examples are the UK Youth Climate Strikes and the planned global Earth Strike on September 20th. Around social reproduction, there is the Women Strike Assembly, which organised strikes in 2018 and 2019 on International Women’s Day, March 8th.
Political organising takes place via a political party or independent citizens’ platforms. Political parties come in several forms: classical traditional political parties, social movement parties, single-issue parties, and digital/internet-based political parties. Some parties combine a few of these forms.
There have been recent innovations in classical traditional political parties such as Obama’s organising/movement presidential campaigns and Bernie Sanders 2016 US presidential campaign using ‘Big Organising’.
Social movement parties have different relationships between the movement and party: vanguard, electoral and organic and include Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and the Five Star Movement in Italy.
Single issue parties would be the green parties in different countries (although many have broadened their policies over time) and the Brexit Party in the UK.
Organising around politics can also be done outside political parties, as the municipalism movement (see below) is showing. For examples of independent politics at the local level in the UK, there is The Indie-town project and Take Back the City in London.
Municipalism is the process of self-government by cities, towns, or municipalities. There are three broad municipalism traditions: municipal socialism, libertarian municipalism, and the right to the city movement.
Municipal socialism describes the local government-led social reform. There have been several phases in the UK. The most recent is the Preston Model, where the local authority changed the procurement for the council and local large institutions (university and hospital) to buy from local businesses and cooperatives. This strengthens the local economy. It is based on the Cleveland model and is known as community wealth building.
Libertarian municipalism (also known as Communalism) is from the theorist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin proposed a twin strategy of popular or people’s assemblies to look at local issues and start to form an alternative government, combined with running municipal candidates chosen by the people’s assemblies to stand in local electoral politics. Bookchin wanted to build institutional capacity and repurpose state power to increase libertarian collective power. The societal, larger-scale vision of libertarian municipalism or Communalism is Confederalism – where self governed cities and localities are connected in a larger network. Ideas of confederalism have been put into practice in Rojava in northeast Syria/West Kurdistan and are known as Democratic Confederalism. They have also been taken up by the international Fearless Cities Movement and Cooperative Jackson in the US.
The right to the city movement started in the 1960s with geographers such as Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey analysing the city from a Marxist perspective. They argue that the transformation of the city depends upon the exercise of collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization to meet the people’s needs.
Poor people’s Movements and Solidarity
The history of poor people’s movements have been explored in detail in the book Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward. This article gives a good summary of the more spontaneous and disruptive nature of these movements. They are based on mobilising rather than organising, which links to momentum driven organising discussed in this previous post.
DP Hunter has written a book Chav Solidarity and in this article he describes chav solidarity: “if just the left-leaning working class were to collectivise our resources (wages, savings, inheritance, homes, and whatever else), or we were to transform our economy into a communal one, we would be able to provide for one another. Those economically marginalised and living in poverty, as I was not that long ago, would not be in positions of such deprivation and exclusion, their short term concerns of where their next meal was coming from, where they would be sleeping in a week’s time, would abate.”
Organising around institutions can take three forms: influencing institutions, reclaiming existing institutions for the left and supporting or creating alternative institutions.
Influencing institutions includes attempting to change state behaviour through laws in parliament or rulings in courts. It could also include influencing political parties, the media or corporations. A good resource on this is How Change Happens by Duncan Green.
Examples of reclaiming existing institutions for the left would be all three municipalism traditions described above. The Labour Party has recently been reclaimed for the left by Jeremy Corbyn. The UCU trade union membership recently elected a grassroots left candidate as General Secretary – Jo Grady. We Own It, campaign against privatisation and make the case for public ownership of public services.
For alternative institutions, the community social welfare programs described above in the community section is an example of this. Others are workers coops in the UK and Mondragon in Spain. Concerning alternative media, see here. Concerning credit unions, see here. Libertarian municipalist people’s assemblies (see above in municipalism section) are an example of an alternative government. There is the recent idea of public-commons partnerships where citizens become co-owners, co-earners and co-decision-makers of municipal cooperatives.
Rights and Issues
There is a lot of crossover between rights and issues, so for now I’ve combined them.
Rights include human rights, democratic and political rights (right to vote, citizenship, civil liberties), economic rights (right to a decent job and pay, and a social safety net such as benefits), rights to public goods/services (public healthcare, education, housing, media etc), community rights movement (see above), and rights of nature.
Issues include the rights of women, gay people, people of colour, disabled people, and others, anti-war and the peace movement, LGBTQ+ movement, inequality, environmental issues with climate change being the biggest concern, and the alter-globalisation or anti-globalisation movement.
1. Assembly, Antonio Negre and Michael Hardt, 2017, page 150