Community work - what about the workers?

What community organisation is most likely to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune ? The one that is disciplined, self reliant, proud, confident, united, full of vision and passion, humour and camaraderie, or the one that is disorganised, factional, lacking procedures and loosely constituted? Most community workers would say the former. Why then is community work itself organised like the latter ? In this article Doug Nicholls, a former community worker and since 1987 General Secretary of the Community and Youth Workers Union, seeks an answer to this question and poses a new solution.

Community workers are good at empowering community groups, organising collective action and advocating ideas and campaigns geared towards democratic participation and progressive social change and justice. They have proved less good at applying these principles to their own organisation and identity. Even when they are in great demand as now in our growing renaissance of community work. When it comes to defending and advancing the resources and structures which nurture their own occupation and skills, community workers could do with community workers to motivate and organise them ! Better still a specialist trade union like the Community and Youth Workers’ Union (CYWU).

While it is possible to trace the lineage of different ideological approaches to community work, as Popple (Popple 1995) and Thomas (Thomas 1983) have done, it is also possible to identify similarities within all of the traditions so far. They have in common a consistent disregard for the problem of the organisation and reward of community workers and an unwillingness to engage with the trade union movement and its interests. The mantra of ‘social justice’ must be revered when it is uttered, but none must seek justice at work and for the profession. It is as if community work exists as a set of free floating values, or approaches, and community workers and a profession of community work do not exist. Community work has become a surrogate political organisation for many, a patronising religion aimed at helping the oppressed who must in turn remain oppressed rather than liberated in order to justify this vision of community work.

Various versions of vocationalism – Christian, social democratic and revolutionary have existed in the work, and, they all share an avoidance of the communal organisation of the community workers themselves. Hence community work is in danger of existing as a body of opinion or rootless competences listed by training organisations. Or it will exist as the general policy positions of various associations and umbrella bodies, which however excellent they are, and most of them are, cannot deal with the exploitation and oppression that hypocritically exists at the heart of community work practice as CYWU’s caseload painfully demonstrates. (CYWU Rapport Jan 2001)

This self-neglect leaves us vulnerable. Bodies of opinion and campaign groups are easier to dispose of than bodies of organised workers. Community work has come and gone with the various forms of central funding for various versions of neighbourhood renewal and social inclusion ever since the Community Development Projects of the seventies (CDP).

As a consequence of the general weakness of trade union organisation amongst community workers, the work runs the danger of becoming articulated simply as a ‘social force’, or a set of fragmented competences (Community Work standards 2000) or abstract descriptors removed from the flesh and blood of real workers in real communities doing real jobs. Community work is seen as a powerful philosophy of social inclusion, but not so much a job, least of all something requiring professional training. It is seen as a way of the state and its detractors working together, not a way of trained individuals working for a living (Henderson and Salmon 1999). The effect is to surrender the soul of community work to the uncertain grasp of the market place and to tear it from the infrastructure of publicly accountable service providers and democratic policy development.

Community work too often gets presented as an off the shelf set of ‘approaches’ ‘techniques’ ‘attitudes’ or ‘standards’ which can be developed, with no irony at all amongst some, within either a tenants association or a firm of estate agents. It develops as the prefix for a range of other specialisms ‘community architect’ ‘community regeneration officer’ ‘community policeman’. It becomes like an alternative political party, philosophy, or quasi sect. We bow before the omnipotent power of community work and development and accept any injustice to ourselves in its service.

In the absence of a critical mass of united workers the whole sector becomes a constellation of independent stars, dissipated, flying apart as the lack of central gravity cannot hold them together. There are three main groups in the chaos, community workers, hybrid community related posts and community activists. The boundaries between the three have become blurred and it is time to redraw them in terms of pay, qualifications and status. There will always be community activists. But if we are to achieve permanent social commitment to community development, active citizenship and extending the franchise, we in fact need a respected profession of community workers.

But what is the ideal mechanism for the development of this ’new, divided community work’ with its anarchic anti professional trend? The free lance consultant delivering expensive packages to unsuspecting ‘community activists’ of course. In order to sustain the market position of an increasing cohort of ‘freelancers’, the libertarian and anti academic streak that has always been present in community work thinking, must again come to the fore. But this time it can only exalt itself by assisting the state it once so despised (Cockburn 1977) and sought to undermine and overthrow in a new, fundamentally anti worker, anti professional stance. This masquerades often as a superficially moving concern for the underdog and a romantisation of the lowest common denominator. Weakness is strength for some.

Indeed, for key individuals in positions of power in the UK community work scene, associating the notion of community work with well paid workers occupying a proud profession, seems tantamount to heresy. After all, well paid workers would bankrupt so many voluntary sector projects and put various free lance consultancies out of work! University based community work training is, according to this radical orthodoxy, an elitist process that prepares workers to dumb down collective aspiration in the name of the status quo. The establishment is stereotyped as providing only apprenticeships for the establishment; that education over three years can develop lethal critical faculties and that knowledge is power seem to be forgotten. Strict quality control over qualifications is exclusive and excluding according to the quaintly anarchistic tradition. We should start asking where did the mandate for such views arise ? Certainly not from workers or the communities they serve.

The lack of stability and collective identity within the work makes it prone also to another market driven technique. The reasonable critical faculty of questioning is, in some community work discourse, taken to the ultimate post modernist degree and every nuance of method and style is problematised in such a way as to sap the strength of the work. Community workers are so few in number that this is bound to create a sense of fragile identity. But rather than rally round to strengthen the self perception, community work continually questions its vapoury identity and breaks it into competing parts: England, Wales, Scotland, voluntary sector, local authorities, social work, education, leisure, economic development, reformist, compliant, socialist, social democratic, JNC, non JNC, community development/action/education. As if insecurity wasn’t enough, we shatter the confused self-identity into a thousand organisational and ideological fragments. Methods get confused with target groups. The compromises and alliances we recognise in group development become institutional individualism within a divided occupation afraid of its own shadow and any collective professional incentive.

And saving ourselves from ourselves ? Enter PAULO. This new initiative to bring the related professions together across the UK is in sharp contradiction to the field led initiative taken some years ago. In the mid nineties there was a recognition that the lack of statutory funding and legal definition for play work, community work, adult education and youth work was the biggest external contributor to our collective vulnerability and perhaps the time was ripe to pool our sovereignties and create some unity in mutual defence.

A grouping of representative bodies was formed, memorably called by the play workers present the EIEIO group – the Endorsement of Informal Education Interim Officers Group. Power players now in PAULO, notably the National Youth Agency, allegedly argued behind the scenes with government to ensure that this bottom up initiative was not supported financially. Everyone then had to go their own ways. The NVQ developments and associated money bags encouraged this separate development. CYWU warned against the siren song of NVQs (Norton 1994) and no sooner had all of these occupation areas embarked on the NVQ journey (with community work fighting to keep social justice in a tick box) than they all realised the limitations of the system and started to establish more robust quality control mechanisms independent of it. We supported such alternatives and as a Union played our full part both on the Community Work Standards Board and in arguing successfully that the community work voice should again be present on the National Youth Agency’s Education and Training Standards Committee from which it had been previously unceremoniously excluded after a period of great contribution by the Federation of Community Work Training Groups to that body.

PAULO muddied the waters once more and created another potentially self serving bureaucracy, too under-resourced and distant from employers to have strategic influence. Freire after whom this body was named turned in his grave no doubt. Rather than root itself in a mission to liberate and envigorate in service training and continuous professional development for workers, PAULO’s first outing saw it designed to promote itself (PAULO, 2000 SCAN 2000). More positively at its second meeting (PAULO Minutes 2000) the organisation considered a paper by John Holmes (Holmes 2000) to again address the requirements of co operation and autonomy between the different but related sectors, split by NVQ money and reunited by PAULO money in a temporary alliance that was artificially created to distance decisions on strategic matters from practitioners and employers. Meanwhile, the government thought it should start to rationalise the number of National Training Organisations and PAULO rightly saw the need to capture the ground of personal advice work in England.

The community work agenda was again marginalized. PAULO has some potential to unite but as a confused rejection by default of Holmes’s astute paper (Holmes 2000) revealed, the positive motives of unity are not widely accepted by all, and PAULO could be an ideal cover, drawing down funds for free lance consultancy work, feigning togetherness while permitting division to fester and workers to go unaided and unsupported in their work.

I have sought elsewhere (Nicholls 1999) to reassert a progressive definition of professionalism relevant to community education workers. This seeks to be a definition grounded in socialist concepts of skill and collective organisation. It seeks to appreciate the link between methods of work, the value of labour and social power and influence. (Ainley 1993, Green 1999). In short, the higher the level of skill, the higher the social value placed on the work, and usually the greater the level of trade union organisation created to defend it. In our trade union, CYWU, we firmly believe that being proud of what we do and wanting to control its standards and being prepared to defend such things with a specialist trade union is one of the greatest contributions community workers could make to community work.

The recognition that collective organisation as workers through a trade union would be a powerful contribution to the re assertion of effective community work is, unsurprisingly, one that the union for which I work has campaigned consistently since its inception but especially in the last decades (Nicholls 1987, 1991, 1994, 1999). What stops us insisting that funding bodies only provide grants where the local employing organisation pays the rate for the job and has the capacity to manage a conducive employing environment (Nicholls 2001). Why do we find it so difficult to say like colleagues in health care,’ we need expert health care workers who will be organised to defend their conditions, qualifications and services with pride and thereby improve health care services’? We tend to deny the concept of expert instead. Curling up for warmth with our own inadequacy is sometimes more comfortable than asserting together our collective social importance. Why don’t we say like educationalists more generally in teaching and lecturing ‘there is no license to practice without our agreed national qualifications’? As community workers we do not take ourselves seriously enough.

The absence of effective workers’ organisation across the UK has also meant that community work policy throughout the country has been developed largely by the unelected and unaccountable, by civil servants, quango officials, free lancing individuals and the ever present invisible hand of the burgeoning ‘training’ and assessment markets. Rarely have practicing community workers made significant impact on policy formation. (PAULO 2000). Put another way the bottom up, grass roots commitment of community work practice has been transformed by a decidedly top down set of policy initiatives. This is to an extent also true of the new initiative to create another professional association for community educators in Scotland. Such initiatives, based on a refusal to trade unionise, have left community workers in low paid jobs on temporary contracts doing little more in many cases than perpetual fundraising – usually to get back some of the £8 billion net gift we give to the European Union each year (Nicholls 1998, 2000). Or they oil the wheels of the latest quick-fix regeneration scheme by corralling the community into pre set shapes caste by the latest governmental policy target.

Tragically, in the union’s experience, many of the funds that are put into the hands of the glorified community activists, are wasted by management committees which cannot cope and which treat staff appallingly. The actual real lack of support of community activists through the sustained intervention of community workers is the worst testament to the lack of control by community workers over their own ground.

Community workers have not regulated the labour market in which they sell their labour power and have consequently exerted insufficient vigilance over the nature of the new competence based qualifications system. In turn this has led to policy developments that influence the work being taken out of community work hands. Community work falls victim to the unregulated market economy which so corrodes the communities it attempts to benefit. It no longer exposes the gilding of the ghetto (Community Development Projects 1978), it helps lay on the gilt and the guilt.

Community work in recent years in Britain has made negligible impact in its war on poverty and inequality, other than in a sense adding to the poverty of community workers and the unequal way in which they are treated in comparison with other professions and at a time when absolute poverty and inequality is increasing (Joseph Rowntree Trust 1999). Nor can community work meaningfully claim to have played a role in challen ing the corporate takeover of Britain (Monbiot 2000). Big business is well and truly in charge here, now, and in a new way. This struggle has been left to some trade unions and to spontaneous organisation of isolated protest groups and networks of anti capitalist protesters. The engulfing centralisation of the European Superstate seems also to have passed community work by as its vision has become increasingly limited to the confines of the local estate. (Corporate Europe Observatory 2001, Statewatch 2001, Trade Unions Against the Single Currency 2001, Campaign Against Euro Federalism 2001, Atkinson 1996). The most powerful statements for democracy have not emerged from community work driven organisations, but from seemingly unlikely coalitions of cross party and union representatives deeply worried about the attacks on parliamentary and local government democracy in Britain (Congress for Democracy 2001). Even the useful concept of active citizenship has been hijacked by the agenda of the multinationals so cleverly clothed in lifelong learning policies (Monbiot 2000)

Put bluntly, community work has been kicked around and down in a way no community worker would tolerate if it happened to the community group they loved. This is because community workers have neglected themselves as workers. Community workers will do no favours to the communities they work with unless they can organise in a trade union to advocate more effectively for themselves. To deny our role and the infrastructure that goes with it is to leave the future of collective action to the deregulated market. Community workers could by their own inertia and lack of solidarity to their trade, implement the Tory dream to the detriment of those who most need our empowering profession to be organised (McConnell 1995, 2000).

CYWU has been the one small home for organised community workers since the union was partly formed by a merger with the Essex Wardens Association in the fifties. We are a training provider, a campaigner for services, a critic of poor qualifications and advocate of strong ones and more in service training. We bargain for the only specialist set of terms and conditions for community workers. We support voluntary sector projects in their employment of workers. We campaign with the community we pursue the central community work issues of equal opportunities and social justice. We enable specialist groups like community workers to have their own autonomy within the union and places on the National Executive Committee. We develop policies on the policy issues in community work. We recently became the first trade union to gain political support for community work at the Trades Union Congress, when the congress passed unanimously a motion from the CYWU (Trades Union Congress 1999).

We defend community workers when things hit the fan and have this year alone won over £100,000 in regradings and compensation for community workers. Community work’s more organised and valued future lies ahead. We hope we can help in this process by create a conscious, politically organised, professionally solid occupational identity. Contact us and see. Your voice is the only one that counts. The work of community regeneration and community development as now widely recognised, is not a matter for amateurs. Professionals need support, respect, recognition and their own powerful organisation. Let’s make these the hallmarks of community work in the first decade of this century in every part of Britain as prospects for collective engagement and mutuality re emerge from the shadows (West 2001).

Doug Nicholls, [email protected],

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