Monday, 1 August 2016

Trade union activist knowledge production in practice

Dear Colleagues,

I am very proud to re-produce below an article which has just been published by New International magazine.

This article has been written by Kath Holder, a current student of the MA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin. Kath is a UNISON shop steward at an academy school in outer London. The article draws on Kath's dissertation research findings which focuses on the health effects for the school workforce of neo-liberal education policy and practice in the UK.

Whilst I am very proud to re-produce the article, I am particularly pleased as it reflects a key theme of my doctoral thesis: that is of the ways in which trade union activists develop and produce knowledge as a result of their experience, and the way in which this helps generate theory to enable a response to the many challenges they face.

If you'd like to read the original article follow this link:

Take profit out of education – and put teaching back in

By Kath Holder

Across the globe, governments are privatizing education as part of their drive to force neoliberal agendas onto public services. In Britain, 27 per cent of the Conservative Party’s funding comes from financiers and equity firms – who are thus well positioned to ‘win’ contracts in education. As for-profit companies move into the education sector, we will see further reductions in the quality of tuition, attacks on staff pensions, pay and conditions, and pressure to realize higher revenue.
The semi-privatization of schools is a growing trend, with community assets being taken out of public control and turned into commodities. This ‘softening up’ of education has opened the door to further privatization, with educational establishments perceived as businesses. Many parents now see themselves as ‘consumers’, adding to the pressure on overworked staff.

‘Below Target’, my recent study of neoliberalism, education and occupational stress, found staff alarmed about the future of the education sector. Concerns included privatization; the creation of Super Heads; a ‘sausage-factory mentality’ (schools just being concerned about churning out results); the lack of focus on ‘soft skills’ such as team work and social skills; a belief that technology can fix all; and pupils suffering school-related stress at an ever younger age.

Cuts in funding were of concern to 83 per cent of respondents, followed by increased workload (80 per cent), reduced staffing (77 per cent) and government policies and reforms (76 per cent). One respondent bemoaned ‘the creation of a two-tier system of education’ and the ‘resultant lack of opportunity for social mobility’. Another said that the current model was a ‘huge step backwards in education’.

The UK’s Treasury is looking for an average 17-per-cent spending cut to government departments for 2015-2019, with no commitment to protect the education budget. Austerity measures, including the recent 24-per-cent cut in the Adult Skills Budget, severely impact on the quality and choice of education.

Psychologists Against Austerity connect the rise in stress-related illness to austerity measures. They have identified ‘Austerity Ailments’ – specific psychological links between austerity policies and increased mental illness (humiliation and shame, instability and insecurity, fear and mistrust, a feeling of being trapped and powerless, isolation and loneliness).

Education is now an under-resourced, under-staffed environment with high levels of daily stress. This has a damaging effect both on the health of employees and on the students – who are constantly judged on their success or failure in attaining certain grades. Students’ work is marked ‘on target’ or ‘below target’; similarly, this is increasingly how staff feel judged.

The report found that the main issues contributing to stress in the workplace were: pressure to work intensely/insufficient breaks (63 per cent), unachievable deadlines (61 per cent), lack of information/communication (59 per cent) and performance reviews/competency procedures/poor line management (54 per cent).

Human Resource Management and appraisals are now firmly integrated into schools, with far-reaching consequences for employees faced with the ‘top-down approach’: unachievable targets are used as a means of coercing more work and responsibilities for the same wages. One Child Development Officer said that ‘good people will have their abilities and confidence undermined by bullying management techniques’.

A Head of Department had very real concerns regarding her ability to teach until she was 67:
‘Teaching is a lot more stressful than I thought it would be and not a job for life. I always thought that I would be a teacher for ever, but I’m not really sure if physically and mentally I will be able to do this until my pension kicks in at 67. It is the most rewarding career I could ever think of being a part of; I just wish that teaching was the main priority rather than everything that has been bolted onto this position.’

Some methods to relieve occupational stress can be implemented. For example, Staff Consultative Committees can reduce some stressful working practices (such as bullying and friction between colleagues). Nevertheless, these measures are merely papering over the cracks.

Although teachers are generally in trade unions, lower-paid staff struggle with membership fees and support staff have consistently been a marginalized group. Though many are highly skilled, their roles are perceived by management as transferable: ‘anyone can do the job’. With the majority of support staff only employed for 39 weeks a year, increasingly on temporary contracts, the imbalance of influence creates a ‘them and us’ situation. Though many support staff are also union members, this imbalance means that collective union responses alongside teachers are likely to be difficult.

Contributors to the ‘Below Target’ report said they wanted greater trade union support. They feel that unions should be more visible and proactive (industrial action, lobbying government, training on employment rights), and develop coherent national policies and strategies to fight for education, working collectively to prevent unions being played off against each other in future.

Encouragingly, many believe that by campaigning and acting together, they can adopt strategies to help employees manage the rise of stress-related illness. Unions are perfectly placed to deliver training on coping mechanisms such as Wellness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and this would be an effective way to reach new members and ensure relevance – essential as public-sector cuts continue apace.

Trade unions must also work together to gain the support of parents. A commonly held perception is that teachers’ pay and conditions are more favourable than those of the majority of workers. This leaves many to question why they should support industrial action by teachers, ensuring a ‘race to the bottom’ rather than striving to improve conditions for all. Inspiration can be taken from the example of the Chicago Teachers’ Strike, however. It achieved success by working with community groups and other unions, making the campaign not just about themselves, but about the students as well.

Following a recent visit to Chicago to research this subject, Matt Hannam, who is Constituency Case Worker for Naz Shah MP, said:

‘We need to organize and resist in a much more ideologically nuanced way. Whilst we respond in an issue-by-issue way (over pay, or testing, or curriculum) we allow the bigger ideological assault to continue unabated. How we push back is hard to conceive of, but communities and unions in Chicago have suggested that there are possibilities if a more politicized counter-narrative is developed and a bigger audience, namely parents and pupils, are included in the process and development of an organized response.’

Kath Holder is a UNISON Trade Union activist and works in a UK school. She has recently completed an MA in International Labour and Trade Union Studies at Ruskin College. Findings from ‘Below Target’ were also presented at The British Universities Industrial Relations Association Conference 2016.

Friday, 29 July 2016

The legacy of Chris Wilkes (18/12/57-18/03/16)

Dear Colleagues,

Yesterday at Ruskin College we held a memorial event to celebrate the life of Chris Wilkes, the Principal of Ruskin College who died unexpectedly on 18th March.

The event drew many current staff members, and a diverse body of ex-Ruskin staff from the period of Chris's time at Ruskin, the bulk of which he spent in the role of General Secretary on appointment in 1991.

I left Ruskin College in 1991 and so missed meeting Chris, however, we did meet when I worked at the WEA and Northern College, and it was a great privilege to be under his leadership when I started to work at Ruskin College, first as a visiting tutor, from 2000.

Many people made a contribution yesterday, including Ruth Spelman, Chief Executive of the WEA, and Stephen Yeo, ex-Principal.

The overwhelming sentiment expressed was of a kind, caring, considerate man, with a profound commitment to the development and delivery of education which could transform the lives of working class women and men.

I spent many very happy hours with Chris on a variety of areas of work and always felt his genuine support and care for my role at Ruskin. Chris was also my main encouragement to start my doctorate research and I am aim to dedicate this to him.

I was privileged yesterday to host the memorial event, and this allowed me to introduce speakers, and I concluded by saying that the event marked not the end of the way that we remember Chris's legacy, but just the beginning.

In Solidarity


Friday, 15 July 2016

Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Social Movements

Dear Colleagues,

As you will know I am toiling away on my doctoral thesis which focuses on activist learning and the role that the MA programme that I run at Ruskin College plays in this.

There have been hundreds of sources of material that I have been drawing on to help frame my analysis. My starting point has that literature which maps out the development of workers' education in the UK, and I am indebted to people like Jonathan Rose for his book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class:

Naturally enough the role of Ruskin College here has been something that I have enjoyed having the time to focus on in detail. Teachers and Leaders by Richard Lewis, for example, is critically important in discussing the way in which education for trade union activists reflected deeply the tension in the labour movement about its place within capitalist economies:

There are limits however contemporarily around literature that relates to the knowledge production processes of trade union activists (which is good for me I suppose) which has meant that I have been drawing heavily on comparative material within social movements.

The work of colleagues like Laurence Cox and Mario Novelli have been instrumental here for example: and

It has been fascinating to uncover this (and similar) material that uncovers and explores the informal and formal processes by which activists generate knowledge as an aspect of their activism, and in turn how this informs their sense of agency and shapes the strategic orientation of movements.

I have written here several times of how influential the writing of Aziz Choudry has been (e.g: - quite possibly the definitive book on the subject) and I wanted to give a plug for his latest book, which is his most personal.

Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Social Movements is as the book's blurb states designed to encourage a deeper engagement with the intellectual life of activists who organise for social, political and ecological justice. Combining experiential knowledge from his own activism and a variety of social movements, Choudry suggests that such organisations are best understood if we engage with the learning, knowledge, debates and theorising that goes on with them.
It is from this perspective that I am aiming to shed light on the similar processes by which trade union activists generate knowledge and how this aids their development of theory for modes and processes of trade union renewal.

The process of examining how this works in allied social movements is essential, I argue, as much of the debate on trade union renewal pushes for greater proximity and collaboration between organised labour and social movements - the educational arena . The research output of my colleague Jane Holgate is critically important in building and sustaining this argument:

Please have a look at the contents/buy a copy here:

In Solidarity


Wednesday, 6 July 2016

GLI Summer School 2016: The Politics of the International Labour Movement

Dear Colleagues,

Just a brief post from the 2016 Summer School of the Global Labour Institute (GLI). Please follow the fascinating, thought-provoking programme via Twitter or Facebook or live streaming:

This year's group photo - somehow I ended up with the 'R' in solidarity.
The principal focus of the Summer School (this is the fifth) is an examination of what kind of political values are required by trade unions globally to respond to the vast range of social, economic and political challenges.

So invariably, we kicked off on Monday with Asbjorn Wahl (Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees) with a session on developments with the capitalist economy (particularly around financialisation) and the extent to which organised labour has a defined anti-capitalist strategy.

Of course it is true to say that most established 'traditional' unions have no anti-capitalist agenda. Instead, and certainly the case in industrialised economies, the focus is on gaining comparative advantage for organised workers. This was a fascinating session, with opportunity for discussion, and which fed into today's focus on the environment. Taken together the sessions revealed that the compromise and embededness of some labour movements with capitalist economies require some urgent thinking on the part of those movements on their future survival.

The uncompromising position of the FSIE Teachers' Union of Romania.
Thanks to Peter Damos of the union for proudly wearing showcasing this logo all week.
Yesterday kicked off with a comparative focus on the health of organised labour from a Nigerian, Latin American, Romanian and UK perspective. The day concluded with a fascinating presentation by Paula Hamilton of the ITF on the Industrial Hubs Programme:

One of the most impressive elements of the Hubs idea is that it has come from, and is built on, activist knowledge and experience of the differing employers/sectors allied to logistics hubs. Although the ITF should be congratulated for developing and piloting the programme, it is important to note that the core philosophy is the simple notion of trade union solidarity. How did it come to this that we need to think through and strategise upon how workers inter/intra the movement co-operate and support one another's struggles? This is not, of course, to criticise the ITF, but to support the GLI's insistence that labour movement activity rests on a clear platform of political goals and values.

Today's session continued the focus on labour movement responses to transnational capital with a presentation by Paula on the ITF's campaign focusing on DHL. John Storey of the GLI drew on his experience as a UNITE activist within UNILEVER to discuss the IUF's Casual-T campaign ( Angelo Gavrielatos of IE provided a sound analysis of the extent of the agenda of capital in the education sector, Finally, Mora Sar of the Food & Service Workers' Union of Cambodia provided insight on a campaign at a large Carlsberg plant.

With Baba Aye of the Medical & Health Workers' Union of Nigeria and Michael Ayuraboya of the National Association of Graduate Teachers of Ghana 
This afternoon we have the fantastic opportunity to hear from John Hilary of War on the latest positions re TTIP and TISA. Tonight we get to watch the film that accompanies Naomi Klein's book This Changes Everything.

Tomorrow's focus is explicit;y around the political state of organised labour and Friday is spent concluding the Manifesto of the Summer School.

The Manifesto (here is a link to last year's: provides a great insight both into the focus of the Summer School and also its outcomes - well worth reading, and please use the GLI link at the top of the page to read this years which will be published in a month or two.

Attending the Summer School has been particularly valuable as I continue with writing up my doctoral thesis. One of the key, re-occurring themes of the Summer School so far, and that my thesis discusses, is the political sustainability of traditional models of trade unionism in the face of rampant financialised capital.

In fine form (as ever) John Hilary of War on Want
Two quotes were used to underline this messages. One is from Warren Buffet, the US investment guru: There's class warfare alright, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making the war, and we're winning.

The quote from last year reflected his concerns around continuing deep-seated and rising economic inequality, particularly across the famed American middle-class, the bell weather socio-economic group in America.

The second quote is from the Gen Sec of the ITUC, Sharan Burrow: We are not only losing collecive bargaining rights, we are now effectively in a labour war across Europe, the US, emerging democracies. Why? Because the old stakeholders who drove the neo-liberal economic policies that would seem to be foul policies, the Washington consensus if you like, are back in control. We thought the global financial crisis showed them that this was a failed economic model. We were wrong.We now have a situation where we are largely engaged in what I can only describe as a labour war.

As Dave Spooner of the GLI has repeatedly asserted throughout the week thus far (and has maintained throughout his working life within organised labour) is that the movement has the capacity and ability to generate a response within the context of this war.

There has already been some really valuable insight on how workers have regained power and control in the workplace and in local communities in what appeared to be hopeless situations.

Dave kicked off the week reminding us of the valuable role of Paulo Freire in shaping the approach to workers'/adult education and it's helpful to finish this post with a quote from him in the context of the the new ideas that can come from the knowledge that workers create, even in what appears to be overwhelming situations:

Critical and liberating dialogue, which presupposes action, must be carried on with the oppressed at whatever the stage of their struggle for liberation. The content of that dialogue can and should vary in accordance with historical conditions and the level at which the oppressed perceive reality. 

In Solidarity


Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Socialist Case for Remain


A very brief piece in advance of tomorrow's historic vote. Although I am toiling on the thesis, and promised more 'stuff' related to it, I needed just to fling into a post two of the best pieces I have read recently which make the case for a left/socialist remain vote.

The first piece is by Paul Mason and was in The Guardian earlier in the week:

The second is by Dave Renton and appears in the latest edition of the Black Jacobin magazine:

I should also give a plug for an article by my Ruskin College colleague Ed Rooksby who writes from the same perspective and also features in the same edition as Renton:

I wanted to post briefly about this given the enormity of the EU referendum and as the tragic murder of Jo Cox illustrates, the referendum 'debate' has unleashed a set of reactionary forces that will be very difficult to curtail regardless of the referendum outcome.

It is these reactionary forces that illustrate the toxic case for Brexit and, as the articles make plain, will deliver very little, or nothing for workers, their families or communities, If any worker believes that their best interests are served/represented by Gove, Farage and Johnson then they need seriously to ask themselves whose interests these people serve.

Taking Gove, for example, who expounds on the pro-corporate nature of the EU, yet the self-same zealot has turned the UK education system, via academies and free-schools into a feeding frenzy for the private sector:

And now as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice he oversees a simultaneous expansion of the private sector's engagement in the criminal justice system matched only by the degree to which the private sector's practice has exposed systematic abuse, corruption etc. across the system:

Without doubt the EU is a pro-capitalist, anti-democratic, monolithic body. Tony Benn's original position on the formation of the EU is one I still cling as to my own set of beliefs on what is wrong with a free trade area that, for example, propels free movement of labour to serve capital's interests.

But, what is on offer tomorrow on the Brexit ticket will not respond to this deficit when we turn our gaze to the pro-capitalist, anti-democratic current state of the UK. Further, the Brexit case rests on hatred, racism, xenophobia etc.

Please take a minute to read the three linked articles and make sure you spare time to get to the polling stations tomorrow. And, let's see what Friday brings.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 5 June 2016

Making sense of trade union knowledge production: Embodied activism

Dear Colleagues,

I am at a stage where I can share a simple/basic description of how I am framing a key aspect of my thesis findings: the theory of embodied activism. I am going to distribute the link for this post to MA students and alumni (maintaining the spirit of co-production in my methodological approach) and ask them for feedback on how I explain their experience of the MA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin College, Oxford.

The idea for this approach popped into my head yesterday when I attended the first in a series of events, organised by my marvellous colleague Fenella Porter, which have been funded by the Lipman-Miliband Trust:

The Lipman-Miliband series of events at Ruskin fall under the broad theme of the future of organised labour around change
in the political economy of work. The first event kicked off the series in great style with a stellar line up of speakers and great attendance. The event was followed by a focus group discussion with representatives of alternative models of organised labour (mainly IWW comrades attended) as part of a project that Ruskin is a partner to which is examining the potential impact of the Trade Union Bill.

All in all, yesterday was one of those days that epitomised Ruskin at it's very best: at the forefront of discussion and analysis of the future of organised labour.

The flyer lists the speakers and you'll see that Holly Smith (who completed the MA in 2014) joined the panel to discuss her dissertation which compared the outcomes of industrial action at Brighton City council involving refuse workers and the pop-up union at Sussex University.

As can be expected, the discussion during the day concentrated on those issues that debilitate the representative nature of traditional trade union structure, alienating women employed in the informal economy for example. Ultimately though the focus remained positive not least when listening to the experience of IWW comrades who spoke of local mobilisations which resist employer strategies of workplace power and control.

Joining Holly were two MA alumni (pictured) Katia Widlak (of the strategy unit at UNISON) and Jon Bigger (currently completing his PhD (and teaching) at Loughborough Univ). I had a good discussion with Holly, Jon and Katia last night and really enjoyed listening to their response of my findings and the theory of embodied activism.

The Renewal Actor
So, in explaining the findings let me first say that what I uncovered was not what I expected. My thesis is an attempt to locate (a) the experience of the MA and it's impact on an international body of trade unionists who completed the MA between 2006 and 2016 and (b) it's relationship to strategies and practice of trade union renewal. The idea is to examine Mezirow's theory of transformative learning ( and Colin Hay's approach to structure and agency in examining the contribution of activists to movement practice and development ( to determine whether you can generalise on the MA experience and argue that alumni are renewal actors.

That is, the MA experience heightens the sense of agential potential to achieve renewal, and processes of critical reflective practice (bringing together Freire and Gramsci) combined with research opportunities realise praxis.

The findings do, in some way, reveal evidence of increased agency and a sense that praxis (turning theory into practice) is realisable. However, what MA alumni really wanted to talk about was the outcomes of the MA educational experience upon them as trade union activists.

In the spirit of Raymond Williams the key words that arose as themes from the process of coding the interview transcripts and online survey are: confidence, legitimacy, authority and validation.

Renewing Activist Identity
As I haven't yet fully worked through a my theoretical explanation of the findings, let me try and encapsulate my theory of what these key words/themes tell us in simple/clear language. And let me provide a basic argument for the emergent theoretical explanation that I am calling embodied activism.

First, the findings reflect and acknowledge theories of embodied and situated learning i.e. that we learn through physical experience as much as cognitive, and that learning often takes place in certain situations/settings. (read this for an introduction to the theory:

The MA as a community of practice: Current MA students listen
to IWW activist and full-time MA student Matt Hannam
discuss the findings from his dissertation
In this context, whilst trade unionists learn through processes of workplace-based conflict (and sometimes in more street/community-oriented settings) a crisis of confidence emerges in two ways. First, the exposure to intimidation and isolation e.g. caught between the hostility of the employer and on occasion trade union members. Second, a sense of dislocation from agency/power within trade union structures.

It is critically important here to focus specifically on trade union officials also who comprise approximately 50% of alumni. The variant to the explanation above is that the crisis of confidence arises also because of the way in which their own identity as a trade unionist is diminished (for overt or subtle cultural/political reasons) as a result of their employed role.

It is also important to argue that, when looking at the literature on employment relations/trade union renewal, rarely are full-time officers (FTOs) treated as trade unionists in their own right. Instead they are collapsed into a general set of assumptions around trade union bureaucracy.

Taking these findings together, the themes of legitimacy, authority and validation appear when students discuss what the processes of critical reflective practice and research/writing mean to them in renewing/solidifying their primary identity as trade unionists.

Thus the MA outcomes renew a sense of power and identity within organised labour. Additionally, it is important to say that alumni see the MA experience as a community of practice. They argue that the MA provides a space/site for critical analysis/interpretation of one another's experience of activism/employment within the labour movement and of the labour movement.

Embodied Activism
Inspired by the work of Tracey Ollis in particular (e.g. the theory of embodied activism how I am shaping the findings and arguing as an original contribution to knowledge in the field of activist education and knowledge production.

In a nutshell: The sense of activism is living and embodied, but diminished over time. The MA experience renews trade union identity and agential purpose.

In this context I am also framing this theory in the context of some long-standing concerns I have always had about the nature and practice of mainstream trade union education.

This concern is best expressed when comparing models and modes of trade union education with that for allied social movements (read this by my colleague Laurence Cox and Christina Flesher Fominaya for a sense of my argument here: Social movement (whether those directly allied to organised labour, ecological, feminist etc.) practice acknowledges and respects that activists generate and produce knowledge as a direct result of their activism.

This knowledge production process is seen as the most critical component of movement critique and development. It doesn't always work fluidly and smoothly, but my point is that those at the coalface of the movement are acknowledged for their insight and expertise. Communities of practice structure and relay that experience in organic ways to aid and foster movement growth and renewal.

This edited book by Aziz Choudry and Dip Kapoor illustrates this process working across a variety of movements internationally:

Trade Union Knowledge Production
A key concern of mine is that significant elements of mainstream trade union education either consciously or unwittingly loses the potential for insight gained from knowledge gained and produced by trade unionists on a daily basis. Additionally, the lack of a critique of political economy in trade union education can weaken the ways in which trade unionists make vertical links to the commonality of issues to workers and trade unionists globally, and horizontal links to other trade unions as well as other movements.

There is good practice that I come across both in the UK and internationally, but it is true to say that large segments of trade union education distil information which revolves around the role of the representative, rather than the activist. This, in my view, is where some of the dilemma starts.

We needn't be pessimistic however as there are those who seek to critically explore the political purpose and values of trade union education.

For example, on September 7 at the Marx Memorial Library (MML) there is an event titled Labour Movement Education Unshackled: Problems, Ideas and Opportunities. Speakers include those who I know from personal experience are committed to the work of the ILTUS team at Ruskin as well as an on-going analysis of the purpose of educational strategy in the context of trade union renewal particularly, Roger McKenzie (UNISON), Trish Lavelle, (CWU) and Wilf Sullivan (TUC).

The event is not yet advertised on the  MML website, but keep an eye on the events page:

I should also give a plug for the MML series of courses for trade unionists, themed Trade Unions and Power, which better reflect, I feel, the kind of political education needed to inspire trade unionists:

Ruskin College of course will continue, I hope, to play a considerable role here nationally and internationally, in working with trade unions to develop programmes of education that strengthen trade union organisation.

In that vein I must give a plug for the summer school organised by my colleague Colm Bryce, tutor at Ruskin and current student of the MA ILTUS, who like Fenella has brought together a wholly impressive roster of speakers for an event which reflects the radical education spirit of Ruskin - see flyer pictured.

Please come along - it will be worth it.

End Note
I am very much looking forward to writing up my thesis, not least to pay respect to the MA students, but also colleagues at Ruskin who encouraged and motivated me during the early stages of my doctorate and are now covering for me during my sabbatical period. But let me say a massive thanks now to Tracy Walsh, Fenella Porter, Caroline Holmes, Peter Dwyer and many others.

I also look forward (somehow, not worked through yet how to do it) to recognising my prime political and cultural influences and who have shaped my approach to teaching also, Primo Levi and Miles Davies. This may seem like an odd combination, but they aren't really when you examine what political and social forces each were responding to, and lessons we can draw from their music and writing when teaching trade unionists and other social justice activists.

I welcome also the opportunity to frame my positionality as wholly positive about the future of organised labour in the UK, and the role that trade union education can play, particularly in sharing experience and practice with other movements.

Please do comment/feedback on my findings from the thesis, and the theory of embodied activism.

I shall write more about the findings/outcomes and next steps as part of the process of writing up.

In Solidarity


Friday, 20 May 2016

Trade Union Learning: What I've Learnt


Just a brief(ish) post from Warwick University library as I work on my doctoral thesis. I thought I'd write up some personal notes/reflections on what I consider a trade union education pedagogy to look and feel like.

This is partly because I am wrestling with emerging findings from interviews with alumni and current students of the MA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS at Ruskin College. As a reminder of my thesis focus, a key goal is to explore personal impact, but also the contribution (if any) the MA makes to activity, strategy and policy of trade union renewal.

MA ILTUS Students at Ruskin College: Sharing learning and understanding -
a community of practice.

In thinking through my findings and discussing them with my supervisor (Cilla Ross: Vice-Principal, Co-operative College) she reminded of the way that what is emerging from my research with trade union learners, has some coherence with research that she (and others) completed for Unionlearn on the experience of members engaged in learning (formal and informal) initiated by their unions:

I'll write a further piece on the nature of my findings. What I felt it useful to do as an aspect of my reflections though was write something simpler on what I consider is my pedagogic approach to working with trade union learners (and add photos from my teaching) . I also wanted to draw no distinction here between my MA or BA ILTUS experience at Ruskin, and teaching with the many groups of trade union learners I encounter every year - the kind I write of regularly.

At this year's TUC Black Workers' Conference I ran the session on black workers
and precarious employment.
So, what am I trying to achieve with trade union leaners?

Primarily to build confidence in themselves and their capacity to engage with the myriad challenges they face in the workplace and wider society.

Confidence, I feel, comes through a combination of self-esteem and the idea that agency/action reflects the power/influence of the activist and members.

This means that I focus on validating the experience of activists. Stressing that their knowledge and experience has value to others.

I try and illustrate also that our learning - from one another - can generate understanding of (a) linkages vertically and horizontally with the political economy of work (e.g. why is this happening to us, and to others in the union?) and (b) how shared knowledge and understanding is possibly the most powerful tool we have. Too much trade union education focuses on legal remedy rather than workers' power.

So a focus on experience (even the worst kind) is critical, as the deconstruction of this allows us to identify commonalities (thus networks and movements are borne) and strategies.

CWU reps attend the BAME Leadership weekend in February this year.
In linking the issues above together, I try and do some simple things:

Remember names, workplaces, case studies of experience. Using colleague's names from the outset means that we create a dynamic, engaged learning environment: a community of practice. Remembering workplaces and experience not also evidences respect but allows us to build a sense of common experience and capacity to critique this and develop common solutions.

Underline that politics and history is everything and everywhere. Too few trade union learners (in my experience) feel confident in their political and historical knowledge. It is fundamentally important that their experience of the workplace can be seen to have vertical (national, European, international) links to that other workers also, and horizontal (other unionised and non-unionised workers in their sector/city) otherwise we cannot build consciousness.

Concentrate on the ways in which most employer strategy attempts to exert power and control in micro and macro ways. Much of what I see in the public sector represents a need, for example in local government, to maintain service delivery despite massive job losses. The resultant ill-health workers are exposed to is managed (in my experience) through arbitrary and punitive management of the disciplinary and capability procedures.

Recognise that some of the basic theories of accruing trade union/workers' power has not changed. In his seminal book, The Frontier of Control, Carter Goodrich focuses on those staples of disruption and solidarity. In his attempt to 'modernise' Goodrich, Gregor Gall draws on Eric Bastone to argue, correctly in my view, that an acknowledgement of the influences of market and society (what I've suggested are the vertical and horizontal linkages to the workplace) and the relationship between capital and labour is critical to understanding how to effect change at work, and in society more broadly.

Read Gall's article on sources of union power here:

MA ILTUS students attend Levellers' Day 2015
So much of trade union work feels isolated and disparate. Thus, I see the approach to pedagogy in trade union education as providing a means of (a) connecting the local to the global so that (b) the politics of globalisation and neo-liberalism can be made real and understood in order that (c) workers' experience (locally and globally) can be seen as part and parcel of developing strategy to challenge exploitation at work and in society more broadly.

This 'nutshell' perspective on my approach to teaching and learning with trade union learners is predicated also on the simple view that I am (always) a learner too.

As ever comments/thoughts are very welcome.

In Solidarity