Over recent years Community Union has forged a strong working partnership with Aspire, a London-based community enterprise providing estate and home management services that help to provide cleaner, greener homes and colourful, vibrant communities that generate a sense of pride and well being.
Dr Katharine Sutton, a Director at Aspire, tells us more about how the partnership is yielding success:
Aspire started off in 2004 as a charity reliant on government grants, providing training for people at risk of homelessness, the homeless and people who were unemployed. In 2010, it was informed that the central government’s funding would be phased out over two years. The Aspire Board had some difficult thinking to do. Could it achieve its objectives of tackling disadvantage in the labour market and tackling poverty and inequality in a different way or should it simply close down? It was do or die. It chose the former.
A community enterprise was set up to build a sustainable business, training local people to provide estate management and open spaces services through contracts in the open market. Aspire won its first contract in Tower Hamlets with a smaller housing association providing grounds maintenance, cleaning and bulk removal services in 2010.
The DNA of the business is to tackle discrimination and disadvantage within the labour market through providing high quality, Real Living Wage employment and decent working conditions while providing quality, environmentally friendly services which improve the fabric of local communities.
From the offset, providing employee voice was, and is, integral to building business success. In return for the Real Living Wage and quality working conditions, Aspire’s community business model needs its employees to do the best that they can to provide quality services.
Aspire’s employees are drawn from diverse walks of life with one thing in common. The labour market disadvantages them for diverse reasons: from inflexible working hours or institutional discrimination, to failing to cater for caring responsibilities, or for people with no previous experience in the labour market.
To build a sustainable business, Aspire needed to prove to its employees that jobs in the everyday economy are vitally important, worthy of respect and build their confidence to deliver frontline services through devolved management and working in one team. To do this, it had to build the skills, capabilities and capacities of its employees and enable them to have full voice independent of a seemingly well-meaning management.
That is why trade union membership was both vitally important for Aspire’s employees and for Aspire’s development as a sustainable community business. When the issue of trade union membership was raised by existing trade union members (none of whom were members of Community) there was a mixed response from; those who had no experience of trade unions in the workplace, those who considered them a waste of time from their previous experience in the workplace, and those who were interested and wanted to know more. It was agreed that one of the employees would research the relevant unions who would be invited to attend a meeting at Aspire to discuss the benefits of union membership. Three suggestions were made and from the information provided it was agreed that Community would be the first choice to attend a meeting.
A prompt response from Community led to a lively lunch at Aspire along with three representatives from Community, and a 100% agreement amongst the employees that Community was the right choice for Aspire. A recognition agreement was signed in 2016 which explicitly supported a partnership approach: “Partnership working will explore how the Union and Community Enterprise can work together to strengthen the capacities of local communities and to promote stronger communities and a sense of well-being.”
Nowadays, Aspire has worker representatives on its Board that help steer the business and connect it with the frontline. There is high employee morale and low staff turnover. As a Real Living Wage employer, Aspire faces intense competition from private sector competitors who aim to win contracts by squeezing wages and working conditions of their employees.
Employee voice prevents issues from escalating and allows for collaborative solutions during change or crisis. It contributes greatly to organisational resilience. Every employee knows that it has the back up and support of Community should it be needed. This has been particularly the case in time of change and crisis for the organisation. The Union has supported Aspire when it challenged a procurement in the High Court, a learning partnership is being developed and Community is an active partner in Aspire’s #BetterForUs campaign supported also by Trust for London.
Aspire’s #BetterForUs Campaign focuses on the world of work and how to create better work for frontline workers who are too often stuck in low paid, low -status jobs through the procurement or purchasing processes of organisations. It aims to put people at the heart of procurement. It incorporates employee voice as one of its five key principles along with payment of the Real Living Wage, Good Work Conditions, Respect at work, and sustainable procurement.
Adrian Axtell, Community Union’s National Officer responsible for the Third Sector, said:
“Community’s relationship with Aspire shows the extraordinary value of a partnership approach in tackling labour market disadvantage. It shows that good employers have nothing to fear from trade unions and everything to gain. We are proud to support the #BetterforUs campaign which aims to get both the private and public sector to use their purchasing power to support the public good. Working together we can help bring about change which creates a more inclusive and people-focused economy, for the benefits of us all.”
You can find more information on the #BetterForUs campaign at: www.betterforus.org.uk.