Thursday, 22 September 2016

Critical and Liberating Dialogue: ISS 2016

Dear Colleagues,

In a post on 6th July I reported on the outcomes of a splendid few days spent with many fine trade unionists from around the world at the annual Global Labour Institute Summer School. As I mentioned in that article the summer school is pitched in an explicitly political context.

Full details of the content/outcomes of the summer school is here:

Participants at the GLI Summer School 2016
I wrote a short reflective article about the experience which has been published in the latest edition of the International Union Rights (IUR) journal which is published by the International Centre for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR). As you'll see the title of the article is 'Critical and Liberating Dialogue' and reflects a core theme of my on-going doctorate research which aims to generate a critical pedagogy of trade union education.

The accent on dialogue in the context of education which seeks to generate radical, social transformation is entirely appropriate for an event like the GLI summer school. For educationalists like Paulo Freire dialogue is not simply the mechanistic notion of conversation, but reflects a relationship of co-education between 'teachers' and 'students' who are jointly committed to political change. As Freire states in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

“[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.” 

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is Freire's classic statement on critical pedagogy for social transformation and change. You can read the book - and others like it here:

Below is a scan of the full article and my short, reflective piece.

In Solidarity

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Workers' Knowledge as Workers' Power

Dear Colleagues,

As you'll know I have been toiling on my doctoral thesis, the focus of which is the MA programme I run at Ruskin and its focus on the way in which trade unionists learn. Although I felt I had a handle on this, the research and reading process has been fascinating in extending my awareness and appreciation of this process.

As I have posted already, I was utterly unaware of the theory of embodied learning ( and its symbiotic relationship in imbibing and accruing knowledge through the physical and emotional processes of activism.

There is though much more on the different ways in which activists develop and produce knowledge, research and theory in social movements than there is in labour movements - see the earlier posts on the work of Aziz Choudry for example. So, I look forward to getting the thesis complete (all being well by the end of the year) and starting to use the findings to write/research further and disseminate/discuss.

Picketing for Worker's Rights at Zara in New York
Scanning the labour movement news on coming back from leave I was blown away by the fantastic organising result in the US of retail workers at the Spanish fashion retail outlet Zara:


What struck me as particularly interesting in this story - aside from the fact that unionisation and recognition has occurred in one of the most exploited employment sectors - is that workers' knowledge was central to the success of the story.

The creation of the new union (Retail Workers (RWDSU) Local 1102) arose in part through close collaboration with a number of community-based organisations, but also the New York City worker center, the Retail Action Project (RAP) ( Here, the RAP provides training on some of the core skills required for the job (and necessary for promotion, getting work etc.) that is often not supplied in the cut-throat retail sector.

Allied to this also is the education required to facilitate organising/mobilising. What I found particularly interesting is that the success of unionisation rested on a relationship between the skills/knowledge required for the job and that for building a union from the ground up.

The relationship between skill and unionisation is in fact the story of the emergence of organised labour historically, As the Zara story reveals though - particularly at a global level - is that the relentless drive towards de-skilling and precarity has been a successful means to undermine organised labour across a wide variety of sectors. Books like Ralph's Darlington's The Dynamics of Workplace Unionism are a great insight on how trade unions have attempted to resist this process through the concentration of workforce skill/knowledge:

I have spent some time in writing my thesis examining a similar experience in the UK around the learning/skills agenda precipitated by the lifelong learning agenda of the Blair/Brown governments. I have personally been involved in many projects funded with money from the Union Learning Fund (ULF) that have resulted in profound change in workers' lives and positively impacted on the strength of union organisation and ultimately benefitted the employer in a variety of ways.

My thesis supervisor, Cilla Ross, and other colleagues at the Working Lives Research Institute (WLRI) co-wrote a publication which provide a fascinating on outcomes from skills/learning activity:

Whilst I am questioning in my thesis the tangible impact on trade union renewal in the UK from trade union activity around the learning/skills agenda, it is clear that unions can make a difference to workers' lives when they concentrate on the skills/knowledge that workers need for the job.

Taking a quote from one of the article linked above:

Janna Pea, deputy communications director for the union, hopes competitors take note of the message Zara is sending: “There is a way that you can operate a company, remain profitable, and recognize workers' rights to respect on the job.”

Please read the two article and leave a comment here on your thoughts.

In Solidarity


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