Case Study (1)

Relational Organising – Rebuilding Communities at Work

Between 2009 and 2011 a branch of the union UNISON, based in an NHS Trust in the North West of England, attempted to develop a new approach to extending and strengthening union organisation. Inspired by the example of the successful organising campaign mounted by clerical workers at Harvard University in the USA during the 1980s and 1990s, activists sought to develop social ties with individuals and groups of workers in order to: encourage members to be more pro-active in representing their interests, strengthen organisational structures and increase recruitment.

Traditional organising strategies tended to be either built around aggressive recruitment drives or recruiting new union activists and developing campaigns around specific workplace issues, highlighting specific grievances with the employer. In most cases these initiatives relied on specialist organisers often recruited and trained by the union but who didn’t necessarily have any links with the workplace or branch being organised.

In this case a different approach was developed, whereby existing union activists were trained to develop relationships with members and potential new members through conversations. The emphasis was on getting to know potential members ‘as people’ rather than initially trying to recruit them or discuss the workplace issues that concerned them. Only once these relationships were developed would activists turn conversations towards the union and encourage individuals to join and to become active. Furthermore, the focus was not on identifying differences with the employer but instead identifying mutual concerns and issues.

  1. How successful do you think this relational approach was?
  2. What are the advantages of this approach compared with more conventional organising strategies?
  3. What do you think were the main barriers and challenges facing the activists involved with this approach?


Hurd, R. W. (1993). Organizing and representing clerical workers: The Harvard model [Electronic version]. In D. S. Cobble (Ed.) Women and unions: Forging a partnership (pp.316-336). Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.

Leery, E. and Alonso, J. (1997), „The Women Who Organized Harvard – A feminist Model of Labor Organization?‟, Monthly Review, 49, 7.

Saundry, R. and McKeown, M. (2014) ‘Relational Organisaing in a Healthcare Setting: A Qualitative Study’, Industrial Relations Journal, Vol.44, No.5-6, 533-547.

Case Study (2)

London Citizens – The Campaign for a Living Wage

In 2001 a community organisation called TELCO (The East London Citizens Organisation, which later developed into London Citizens) launched a campaign to try and force employers to pay a ‘Living Wage’ (now renamed the ‘Foundation Living Wage’) to their employees. This was based on the idea that the National Minimum Wage (now the ‘National Living Wage’) was not sufficient, particularly in London where living costs were significantly higher than the rest of the country.

TELCO was an alliance of local community groups, faith organisations, schools and trade union branches. Their campaign involved a number of different elements including demonstrations, parliamentary lobbies, press and publicity to direct action including occupying a major branch of HSBC to highlight the poor pay and conditions of cleaners working in the bank’s Canary Wharf office. Campaigners also bought HSBC shares allowing them to raise the issue at the HSBC AGM.

Over time, the campaign developed forcing a wide range of major employers in London, and particularly financial institutions to pay the Living Wage. The campaign has also developed nationally under auspices of Citizens UK and there are over 2,000 accredited Living Wage Employers across the UK including KPMG, Nationwide, Burberry, National Grid, Oliver Bonas and both Houses of Parliament. The Foundation Living Wage is currently £9.30 per hour across the UK and £10.75 in London. This compares to a National Living Wage (statutory minimum) of £8.21.

  1. To what extent does the Living Wage campaign offer a model for union organising in the UK?
  2. What is the potential of community organising for increasing the influence of trade unions?
  3. What do you think the barriers might be to trade unions developing coalitions with community and other groups?


Holgate, J (2015a) An International Study of Trade Union Involvement in Community Organizing: Same Model, Different Outcomes, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 53(3), pp 460-483.

Holgate, J (2015b) Community organising in the UK: A ‘new’ approach for trade unions? Economic and Industrial Democracy, 36(3), pp 431–455.

Wills, J. and Simms, M. (2004) ‘Building Reciprocal Community Unionism in the UK’, Capital & Class, Vol.82: 59-84. – this website provides a host of resources relating to research into the Living Wage carried out at Queen Mary University by Professor Jane Wills and her colleagues.

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