Over six months has passed since a handful of people began discussing setting up a branch of Acorn, the national community union, in Oxford. Here is a summation of our aims, the progress we’ve made towards them, and some proposals for addressing the organisational and political problematics facing us. These reflections and proposals are not all my own, but include ideas from Safieh Kabir, Alice Dann, Luke Dukinfield and others.
We are attempting to address the question of the political organisation of the working-class, the central question facing those who wish to push society in a more just and equal direction. We are attempting to make a contribution, through the methods of community organising, to redressing the decades-long decline of working-class power in the UK.
Confronting this problem should centre on two key issues: agency and unity/solidarity.
Agency: Our organisation must be a method of building the collective agency of ordinary people in the city: of enhancing their class capacity to defend their interests against those (landlords, politicians, police officers) who dominate or take advantage of them. Crucially, this must take place through the principle of self-organisation. We shouldn’t do things ‘for’ people – we help people build the confidence, skills and collective backing they need to fight for their own interests, and the interests of the whole class.
Unity/solidarity: Our organisation must be a mechanism for bringing together the working-class in all its diversity – renters, precarious workers, students, migrants, poorly paid graduates, single parents, industrial workers. We can act as a forum for people of different backgrounds in the city to learn from, come to understand, and act in solidarity with each other; to see their common interests and common enemies. When different struggles and social sectors act in synergy, the power of all is multiplied. This solidarity is not conjured into existence through statements alone, but is painstakingly built through political consciousness-raising and working through the engrained intra-class divisions of race, gender and status. We have to find a way of confronting these issues politically.
These should be our two coordinates guiding our overarching work. There is always a risk they can be sidestepped in the pursuit of other, subsidiary goals – social media growth, membership numbers, quick wins.
In just over six months, we have grown a membership of nearly 60, set up an officer team and established our basic organisational infrastructure (communications platforms, sub-committees, social media profiles, databases, etc.). We are holding regular meetings, our communications and social media effort has been excellent for our size, and we have begun reaching out directly within Oxford’s communities. A Membership Sub-Committee has been established, and now has a process for welcoming new members into the union and its infrastructure through email and phone calls.
We have begun working on some members defence cases based in the private rental sector, and have organised or supported some public-facing actions to increase recognition of the union in Oxford. Acorn national have been providing training in the basic principles and activities of Acorn, and we have expanded the core organising group beyond the initial founders. The organisation’s maintenance is not dependent on any one or two people, and could now withstand the loss of several key organisers without going into crisis.
Our initial momentum faced a substantial set back thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, which threw into question Acorn’s face-to-face organising model. With the easing of lockdown, we are back on track to door knock, and possibly hold in-person meetings outside.
Our key problematics.
There are several areas requiring substantial organisational work.
Membership demographics: Our membership and core organising team remains largely young, white and graduate-based. We should be aiming to build a coalition between the more deprived working-class based in areas like Barton and Blackbird Lees and the precarious graduate renter base in Cowley and Iffley. We should also be aiming to develop a cross-racial membership and address issues that affect communities of colour and migrants.
However, we should not be overly concerned if we are initially reaching the student-graduate-young demographic more readily. This is not a problem particular to our branch, and reflects wider trends of polarisation and politicisation. This demographic faces major issues of low-paid gig work, high rent and an uncertain future, and there is no hard-and-fast distinction between them and the ‘old working-class’. If we build a strong base among the more precarious elements of this demographic, it will give us the labour and strength we need to grow more successfully among other sectors of the working-class. Once we reach 200 members, Acorn national will fund a paid organiser who will help in taking our outreach to a higher level.
We have the beginnings of the Migrants Solidarity Sub-Committee that has begun reaching out various local migrant organisations, including One Justice, Mothers 4 Justice, Syrian Sisters, the Kurdish Association and Asylum Welcome. All our contacts have stated that housing is an important anti-racist issue and there is an organising gap there in Oxford. Most have experience with potential members defence cases that could be passed to us. We require more follow up on this. We could also consider a specific campaign on something that affects the BAME community or to do door knocking in higher percentage BAME areas.
Community outreach: This is the bread-and-butter of what we do. There are, as union organiser Jane F. McAlevey puts it, no shortcuts. The process of reaching out and building the union, particularly before our name is well known or we have many victories to speak of, requires a lot of hard and largely thankless work. Door knocking is one key way of doing this. Another is to map out different community nodes (churches, social centres, workplaces, unions) where we have contacts and asking them to talk about Acorn or to invite us to address their members.
This work requires us as individuals and as a group to aim at imbuing the qualities of good community organisers: kindness, willingness to give time, refusal to be patronising or, conversely, to assume too much political or other knowledge, humility, the ability to listen. One can find these qualities in abundance among the community organisers of the urban poor, agrarian worker and fisher-folk organisations in the Philippines, for example. Achieving these qualities in a vicious neo-liberal society is no easy feat – I have no claim to having achieved any of them – and requires a constant process of self-reflection and openness to critique.
Turning members into active organisers: Once we reach people and successfully recruit them to the union, turning them into active members is the next key task. All core organisers within the union, especially the officer team, should be constantly looking for ways to pass areas of work or particular tasks on to newer or less active members, and making sure they feel supported and skilled-up to do so. Membership Sub-Committee might want to institute a ‘buddy’ system, teaming up new members with older ones who are required to show them the ropes of the union and encourage them to get involved.
Running a campaign: The Acorn model is based on the combination of building power household-by-household through members defence cases, and addressing the structural causes of the issues our members are facing through broad-based campaigning. This synergy between micro class power and macro reform should be a winning formula.
We have yet to decide on a campaign to run. Once we do, we will have a new area of work to offer to new members and a public-facing effort to increase knowledge of the union in Oxford. Discussions are ongoing regarding what campaign this could be. One idea that has been floated is a campaign to abolish letting agencies’ discriminatory policies against those on housing benefit, grounding us in the more deprived communities and confronting a clearly unjust policy of dubious legal basis. We should make sure that whatever campaign we run is developed with people who are directly affected by the issue and aims to build a further base among those people.
The following proposals are intended to address some of the questions raised above. They are all organisational proposals and do not deal with political content per se.
Reorganise the officer team: Two of our key officers are leaving in August, and this presents an opportunity to re-organise our officer team. I propose we introduce a dedicated Members’ Defence Officer to divide these considerable responsibilities from the Membership Sub-Committee.
Develop a sub-committee structure: It is useful to have individual officers in leadership roles who oversee particular areas of work. We do, however, want to devolve as much of that work downwards as possible. We must also have structures in place so that new members are given areas of work to get stuck into and are not left feeling unclear as to how to get involved.
I suggest developing a Comms Sub-Committee under the Comms Officer and a Campaign Sub-Committee that takes charge of coordinating the work of whatever major campaign we select.
Honing procedures: We still lack clear processes for how to convert potential members defence cases into a functioning case team, and for data input and follow-up after door knocking. Having clear and effective processes in place that everyone is aware of should be a priority.
Tweak process for introducing members: Membership Sub-Committee have a good process for introducing new members to the union. We encourage each new member to attend at least a ‘Members Defence 101’ training, where we read through four main documents that detail the principles and procedures of members defence work. We have held two of these trainings successfully so far. Once new members have been to one meeting or training, they should be encouraged to do one of the following: join a members defence sub-team, leaflet for the union, or attend a door-knocking session. They should be provided with all the training and support they need to be able to do this.
Develop political education: At some point, we should consider setting up a dedicated infrastructure for internal political education. This may mean introducing a Political Education Officer or sub-committee. The work should be geared towards generalising knowledge that exists within our membership, sharing the different challenges and struggles that different members face in their daily lives, and instituting a feminist and anti-racist culture within Acorn Oxford. This might include encouraging members to attend other education groups and sessions run by other organisations or collectives within Oxford.
Skills sharing: Related to the above, we should introduce an organisational section with responsibility for the sharing of skills and knowledge across the organisation. Skills sharing should be geared towards enabling new or less active members to join a sub-committee or to take responsibility for a particular area of work. Membership Sub-Committee should be gathering information on our members’ skills sets during initial inductions.
Regular organisational assessments: Every two to three months, it should be the responsibility of one person or team (possibly the Chair or Secretary) to consult with some key organisers and write an assessment of our progress, analyse any issues that are coming up, and propose key areas for organisational development.
Newsletter: We ought to begin sending a newsletter to our membership informing them of our growth, recent activities and future opportunities for getting involved. This could begin at a frequency of once per month, increasing to fortnightly as branch activity ramps up.
Reorganise meetings and synchronise reminders: As has been suggested, it may be better to have monthly all-member meetings that are on a set day and advertised to each individual member, with the officer team having their own separate meetings in between to ensure the weekly functioning of the union. The meetings should be on a set day/time every month to allow members to plan, be well advertised well in advance, begin by allowing new members to fully introduce themselves and why they joined Acorn, and be well planned in terms of facilitation and participation. The regular meetings, upcoming trainings and actions/door knocking sessions should be advertised consistently within the scripts for introducing members, newsletters, meetings etc. It should be the responsibility of one member of the officer team to ensure this is happening.
The progressive forces of the UK have, to a large extent, spent the 21st century in, first, small direct action groups with little potential for organisational growth, and second, in the internal battles of the Labour Party. We are groping our way towards rediscovering the basics of organising the class (community organising) and building effective, durable structures. We should be willing to experiment and to expect failures and mistakes. But the prospects so far are encouraging.