Saturday 3 December saw the opening of the first Trade Unions in Communities (TUIC) hub in Edinburgh.  rs21 members Willie Black and Graham Checkley describe how community activists and rank and file trade union expertise can work together.

Activists from the CWU, ECAP, EIS, ETUC, Living Rent, RMT, Unison and Unite at the TUIC launch, Edinburgh, December 2022. All photographs by Graham Checkley.

‘We want this to be a beacon for how change can happen, how trade unions can actually use their money, their expertise, their organising skills, to help and support the community.’  Willie Black.

TUIC was born from experience, trying to find funds and food for people during the early days of Covid. It started with a few folk, simply because we were the boots on the ground, meeting and forming an organisation called Trade Unions in Communities. But it’s now sponsored by eight trade union branches, the Edinburgh and Midlothian trades councils, and the Scottish TUC. The first hub has just opened in the Craigmillar district in the south of the city. 

TUIC is a voluntary organisation.  Funding for the building’s rent and running costs comes directly from local trade union branches, and it’s staffed by volunteers from those branches, as well as community activists.

Everyone has got their favourite story of inter trade union rivalry.  But we are going to each local union branch seeking a donation from their autonomous funds, on the basis that this is Trade Unions in Communities – people may move between unions, but the starting point must be to get them to join a trade union in the first place, to acknowledge the worker- boss relationship.

If someone comes in looking for advice about joining a trade union, they are recommended to join the trade union that will represent them best. The advice is impartial, so a volunteer from Unite might recommend someone joining Unison, or vice versa, if that is the best option.

Similarly, if folk come in asking for advice on benefits, energy bills, or high rents, then community groups like the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty (ECAP) or Living Rent will provide that.

But this can’t be a passive process, because our ultimate aim is to build a trade union and community base that will work together to oppose the attacks on our class.

RMT picket line, Edinburgh, June 2022.

‘What we are looking for is to stop running. Stop the defeats. What we need to do is to build on the confidence and the victories that we are achieving now.’  Willie Black

We’ve seen great community support for strikes in Edinburgh, particularly for the RMT during the summer, where we saw Edinburgh Anti-Raids, ECAP, Just Stop Oil, LGBT+ activists, Living Rent, and Youth in Resistance on the picket lines and at the rallies.

But we need the door to swing both ways, and we hope that as well as recruiting more people to trade unions we’ll also see more trade unionists getting involved with community campaigns. For best practice we just need to look at the CWU and Living Rent going door to door together, explaining the reasons behind the strikes, showing community solidarity and seeking new activists.

Climate Justice protest, Edinburgh, November 2022.

‘It’s not the slice of the cake. It’s whose hand is on the knife.’ Mick McGahey.

Campaigns in the 1980s, such as the unemployed workers movement or the citizens rights offices, all came about because there was a need, and there certainly is a need now. We want to fight to change things in the world, but we also want to support people who are suffering at the present moment from the cost of living crisis, inflation, fuel poverty and the rest.

Trade union membership was a lot higher back then, but we can be better in other ways now because we are learning lessons from other activists. Fridays for Future, Turn up for Trans Health and Youth in Resistance are teaching us how much stronger absolute inclusivity can be. Climate justice, trans rights, workers rights, for them is one struggle, one fight.

It needs to be the same for us, and we’re beginning to see that in our banners when TUIC march. The pride flags of Unison Lothian Health Branch and Unite are there, and closer to home you’ll see these same colours at our new hub.

Plans for expansion

It’s £12K a year for the Craigmillar hub, so there are two plans for expansion. One plan is to use a van donated by Unison, rebadged to TUIC, to go to shopping centres and industrial estates around Edinburgh. The other plan is to seek space in existing community centres around the city.

Beyond Edinburgh the plan is to reach out to other trade councils through personal contacts and through the Scottish TUC, proposing the TUIC model as a way of working.

Bear in mind it’s been 3 years from idea to opening, and we don’t have a detailed timeline describing how the project was built.  There’ll be more detail as TUIC develops advertising materials.  Here’s a link to find out more.

TUIC is not about re-inventing the wheel, but it is about rank and file activism.

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