ACORN: taking the fight for change out of the workplace and into the community.
Unionism is changing in the 21st century. With the fall in industry has come the decline of traditional trade unions, which once existed as a crucial cog uniting workers and pushing for rights.
Trade unions have found it challenging to adapt to the increase in precarious work and harsher political climate. Some people are critical of bureaucratic, top-down approaches to organising which no longer manage to inspire. Many people no longer even know what a trade union is. This has resulted in union density dropping from nearly half of workers in the UK in the 1980s to around 15% today.
But in a world of walls and bans we need more than ever to have a clear access route to the frontline of the fight against an increasingly terrifying world. We need more than ever to come together and to feel excitement at the possibility of changing a system which is continually refusing us a fair deal.
While we see increasing hate and fear, we must also see that we are on the cusp of change. And we must also see, therefore, that justice is graspable.
New opportunities are springing up for unionism, based on a new kind of organising, which emphasises direct action and relationship-building around community issues.
ACORN is an organisation uniting communities for social change. In contrast to traditional trade unions which organise around workplace interests, ACORN unionises on social community issues.
In the UK, for example, ACORN runs #RentersRising, a movement to build a national tenants' union, fighting for renters' rights and against rogue landlords and letting agents.
ACORN recognises the necessity of direct action in creating change, not just in supporting a fairer society but fighting for it. Sheffield member Hugo, said: "I got involved with #RentersRising because it's a grassroots, horizontal movement that is focused on direct action and fighting on an issue which directly affects people's lives.
"Trying to get involved in activism, I found it is often too bureaucratic and top-down, or it's too academic, sitting around and talking about issues and not acting. "#RentersRising is the exact opposite of that. We take action rather than sitting around asking politicians very nicely for change."
#RentersRising recently celebrated a huge win for people power, beating international bank Santander. Buried deep in Santander's buy-to-let mortgage contracts was a hidden clause that forced landlords to raise rents to the maximum.
#RentersRising organised a national day of action against the bank, forcing it to concede and remove the harmful clause. Hugo said: "I feel great about the win against Santander. I think it's a brilliant way to get things started.
"It will help us get momentum and we need to just carry on, take it forward and use it as an example, saying, 'Look. This is what happens when we take action ourselves rather than waiting around for people to do it for us. When we take action, as a grassroots movement, we can scare powerful people. We can make them back down. We can change our lives. We can even change the world.'"
For Sheffield member, Cat, the Santander win was her first experience of being involved in a national campaign win. She said: "I was never really involved in activism before this. I wouldn't even describe myself as an activist - just a normal person who is annoyed at the vast inequality that currently exists in the UK and wants to do something about it instead of signing endless petitions.
"I think there is a stereotype of activists being shouty know-it-alls. At least, that's what I thought. I was completely wrong. I really like how ACORN is run. It's genuinely democratic and inclusive. ACORN runs with normal people for normal people.
"We tackle issues that affect people's lives every day - currently housing. Everyone has collective responsibility and can contribute to meetings without feeling overwhelmed or talking about the same things over and over again. Everyone has busy lives. We like to be succinct, make progress and WIN!"
In contrast, Wade Rathke has been involved in community organising for many years, founding ACORN in the US in 1970. He said: "One of the most exciting things right now, as depressing as the political situation is, is that the reaction of people is encouraging. Organisations like ACORN are able to achieve so much more in times of movement because people are receptive to change and people are willing to potentially resist.
"The question is whether or not this can go past resistance to actually moving towards demanding change and building power. Almost everybody that joins ACORN has never been involved in campaigning before. We are an organisation of low and moderate income families.
"The amazing thing about building with ACORN is that people surprise themselves. We believe in people. Whether they've never run a meeting or spoken to the press or never gone to a council meeting, people surprise themselves and that's a very powerful thing and it develops leadership.
"My best message to people who've never been involved before is, 'Welcome aboard'. None of us has ever been involved in this, but once you get involved you'll be back. And there's nothing like being a part of the fight and winning."
Hugo emphasised that one win isn't the end for #RentersRising. He said: "Taking action is absolutely vital to our most important task, which is building a national renters' union. The Santander win is a way of engaging people as well as making change. Victories will help us build the union that will really change things on a large scale.
"Having a national network of united groups helps us to put pressure on powerful campaign targets, because we can threaten action on a national basis. It's impressive to be able to say that we had action in eight different cities - England and Scotland, all over the place!
"The next step is to really focus on building the tenants' union to take this momentum forward. These kinds of campaigns are a means by which we will build our union, rather than an end in themselves."
#RentersRising currently organises in Sheffield, Newcastle, Bristol, Reading and Birmingham. Get involved with your local branch, or start up your own, by visiting the #RentersRising website now.Suggest a correction