Providing English language courses can be an effective means to organise immigrant workers, concludes Jason Heyes of Birmingham University on the basis of case studies on efforts of the British unions GMB and Community. While the government has made access to language courses more difficult, the two unions have seized the opportunity by offering free classes to immigrant workers. Even though they did not have to become union members in order to attend the classes, 26 out of 104 participants in the Community project and 500 out of 600-700 participants in the GMB project chose to do so anyway.
Both unions have implemented their projects in collaboration with immigrants’ organisations. For example, GMB became a sponsor of the Polish football team. It refused to work closely with the Catholic church, arguing that this is a conservative institution. Both have also set up specific immigrant workers’ branches.
In addition to the immigrants’ organisations, Community also works with an employment agency. The agency provided workers with information about Community, including application forms. Heyes notes that this collaboration developed at a time when Community, unlike GMB, had not linked its project with a strong focus on organising yet. “Should Community’s migrant worker members begin to develop and pursue their own bargaining objectives, it is questionable whether either party will wish, or be able, to maintain the relationship in the longer term.”
Heyes takes issue with John McIlroy, who has argued that the current emphasis on learning services is detracting British unions from organising. According to Heyes, McIlroy “appears to associate education and training with a servicing model of trade unionism in which members and potential members are conceived of as relatively passive, individual consumers of union services.” However, he argues that learning and education are different from other services in that they are consumed collectively and may lead to more active participation in the union. As an example, he quotes a GMB education officer: “when two people turn up from a workplace or have an issue or a problem, we have asked them whether there is an issue or a problem for the other workers in the workplace. And if there is, we ask them to go back and bring those workers to the centre.”
Jason Heyes (2009), Recruiting and Organising Migrant Workers Through Education and Training: A Comparison of Community and the GMB. Industrial Relations Journal 40(3): 182-97. Image: GMB