On March 30th, Feed the Weans, championed by Unite for a Workers’ Economy and Together Against Debt won its campaign demand for all £300,000 of school meal debt held by Glasgow City Council and individual schools across the city to be cancelled. Organiser Lucia Harrington explains the organising theory and practice they used to serve up success.
Together Against Debt (TAD) aids people who have experienced debt to organise campaigns to tackle the UK’s debt crisis. When I was employed as the organiser in the Glasgow local group, my first task was to organise its launch. Twenty-five people attended our first event, and discussed what our communities in debt were facing, and possible campaigns we should focus on. Dylan got involved in the campaign at the meeting. “When I spoke at the first TAD meeting about my experiences of debt,” he recalls, “I was very anxious, as talking about debt is a difficult thing; you assume that most people would consider you irresponsible and find it easy to blame any problems you experience as a result of your debt on you. Despite the anxiety, this made me want to speak, as I know how unjust that perspective is and how it is an aspect of the issue that causes people to remain silent through guilt and shame. Debt can ruin your life, and that’s why I got involved with Together Against Debt.”
Cutting the Issue
After the launch, we had to decide on a campaign collectively, based on the problems that were voted as of most concern to the people who came to our launch, including energy debt, rent issues, and food poverty. We needed to cut these big problems into issues we could tackle as a newly formed group. Using an organising strategy from the Midwest Academy, a school for organisers in Chicago, we cut these broader issues into a campaign we could win.
The theory encouraged us to choose an issue we could win within six months with a small group, so that afterwards our group would have recognition from other community members who might join and build power for bigger campaigns. It also meant we had to create a strategy around a specific target, and the campaign itself had to feel worthwhile for the people affected by the issue to invest in.
Groups like Living Rent were already addressing rent-based issues, so we discussed whether to focus on energy debt or food poverty. Alan McIntosh, an expert on debt and a keen activist in the poll tax movement, shared his insight into how difficult it would be to create a winnable campaign around energy debt in six months. Since many people facing energy debt also struggle with food poverty, we decided to focus on cancelling school meal debt. We knew this was winnable. Edinburgh council had already cancelled all school meal debt. Glasgow’s councillors wouldn’t want Edinburgh to seem better than Glasgow.
“The campaign’s success undoubtedly was down to solid organising and strategy”, said the secretary of TAD Glasgow, Jack Taylor. “By choosing a winnable campaign with a clear vision of how the campaign would develop, every meeting felt productive, and the campaign kept the momentum and morale high”. Following a model called the Midwest Strategy Chart, we identified Susan Aitken, SNP leader of the council, as our main target. She had the most power to get the council to cancel the debt. But first, we decided to get the Greens and Labour to support us to put pressure on the SNP.
We wanted this campaign to aid the empowerment of people in debt, and to get families in debt engaging with every step of the process. After we identified the communities and schools most affected by debt, we did outreach by flyering at school gates and shopping centres in Castlemilk and Govan, and by speaking at as many community events we could get to. At school gates, we heard many issues around food provision in schools that we fed back to our group meetings.
Eryn was completely new to activism but soon became our outreach coordinator. “I was very comfortable doing outreach”, she said. “I had experience in public speaking, which is a different skill but does cross over with organising. Having a strong team with me made outreach more effective, and was one of the reasons it was really quite fun. The other reason for that was my genuine interest in hearing what the people of these communities were going through. Quite frequently people we spoke to would be eager to share their experiences with means testing, or with the quality of the school meals being provided.
Some had incomes that fell just above qualifying for free school meals for their kids, but not so far above that they could actually afford to provide those meals themselves. Others said that when they could afford to pay for school meals their kids still came back hungry.”
It took a lot of work as a new group to get the councillors’ attention. Meanwhile, some of the people that we tried to bring on board the campaign did not feel like our cause was worthwhile to begin with, since they feared that even if the debt was cancelled, it would just rack up again the following year. I also felt this deeply. I decided that if we were going to bring more people on board, we needed to have a way for our current members to believe that by contributing to the campaign to cancel school meal debt, they would be on the path to also increasing access to free school meals in the long run. So I decided to look for allies who were campaigning for free school meals to see if we could possibly form a coalition for the future.
I contacted Frances Curran, who organises with Power to the People and had been campaigning for free school meals years before the existence of TAD Glasgow. Frances immediately invited me to a Unite Community meeting which discussed forming a campaign with Unite for a Workers Economy. Their members had already discussed how they wanted to take action around food poverty, and I was excited that two Unite organisers, Claire Peden and Scott Walker, were unionising the pantry I had previously volunteered at. I signed up to Unite and started inviting activists along to meetings after our outreach at schools. Unite for a Workers Economy decided to campaign to end the means testing of school meals, and I encouraged members who wanted to work on free school meals to work in solidarity with Unite. That was how TAD and Unite formed a partnership that developed the Feed the Weans campaign, to collaborate on cancelling school meal debt and ending means testing for school meals.
We mapped out communities and surgeries of the councillors, organised outreach at school gates, and flyered at schools. What was so brilliant about working with Claire and Scott is that they instantly showed their genuine care and knowledge for community issues every time they were out on the campaign ground. Rona was one of the Unite Community activists who got involved. She said: “After hearing reports of children having food actually taken away from them in the school canteen because there was an outstanding debt owed by their parent or guardian, it was an easy and quick decision for me to get as involved as possible in the Feed the Weans, campaign. Other than thinking about the acute shame a child would feel by having food taken away from them – in front of their peers at school – the simple fact remains that hungry children cannot learn”.
As soon as Unite was involved, councillors started listening to our demands. It was obvious that we could not have won without them. As one activist, Daisy, put it: ‘Having the union behind the campaign made us feel powerful’. On March 9th, we had our first demo together outside Glasgow City Council on an international day for school meals. We also realised that making ourselves known to councillors by attending their surgeries was another useful tactic.
On the day of the win, it was amazing to know that our efforts to get Labour and the Greens to support us had worked, and this pushed the SNP to support us as well. The SNP brought it as a motion to Glasgow City Council, and it was backed by members of the SNP, Labour, the Greens and even a couple of Conservatives.
“To say I was elated is an understatement”, Rona said. “I read the updates from the campaign leaders through tears and imagined how the parents who were being relentlessly chased for this outstanding debt must feel upon hearing this news. I expect a huge weight had been lifted from them”.
This win will help many families. It was a collective win using the dream combination of community organising and trade union power. It was achieved by the effort of every person who got involved at every step, even those who just turned up to a single meeting. I watched members of TAD like Alessia and Eryn develop from activist roles to taking on coordinating roles in the campaign, and become keen trade unionists too. “My experience with Together Against Debt has proven an illuminating one”, Alessia said. “It was my first experience dealing with activism work, and it showed me the work that such tasks require. I’ve done a lot of pamphleting and speaking with people about the issues that we were fighting for. I’ve met a lot of lovely people in my group, and with their help I’m starting to get my bearings and understand the steps required for taking local action.”
As Scott Walker put it, this was just the starter and now we are on to the main course. We are all still committed to ending means testing to school meals and we have just been successful in holding our new First Minister Humza Yousaf to his manifesto statement of prioritising free school meals and making sure no child in Scotland goes hungry. Keep an eye out for the campaign, as there is more justice to be served.
Lucia Harrington was the local community organiser for Together Against Debt Glasgow. She has now moved on to become the Head Organiser of Fuel Poverty Action.