Wednesday, 18 January 2017

What does a union for the 21st Century look like?

Dear Colleagues,

Next week my colleague Fenella Porter and I will be speaking at a collaborative event with researchers from the universities of Leeds and Bradford. We have come together around a project that has sought to explore the implications for organised labour of the Trade Union Act, and as an aspect of this, also examined how differing movement organisations have responsed.
 
The event (poster below) is in Bradford and anyone with an interest in the future of organised labour is welcome to attend. The official invite blurb reads:
 
As the Trade Union Act passed through parliament in 2016, a research team from Ruskin College, the University of Bradford and the University of Leeds asked union leaders, activists, officials and politicians for their thoughts on what the Act means for the union movement.
 
There is no doubt the Trade Union Act is an attack on the labour movement – but how should we respond?
What kind of movement do we need to be in a changing world?
 We invite you to a free talk and discussion on this important issue. We will share some of our findings from the research, and then open up for some discussion.
 WEDNESDAY 25TH JANUARY, 6-8pm, DELIUS CENTRE FOR THE ARTS, BRADFORD
 
All welcome – refreshments included.
Please email h.blakey@leeds.ac.uk for more information.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Right to Diconnect

Dear Colleagues,

There has been so much to write/post about over the period leading up to the end of 2016, and as we head into the new year.

On the domestic front the good news is around trade union growth, both in the form of density, but also (as my last post revealed) in small unions. Gloom remains however, (in the UK and nationally) around the structural permanence of low/poor pay and precarious work (http://tinyurl.com/gtlsd8k).

From a personal perspective a concern has remained around those social and occupational factors precipitating mental health illness. At Ruskin College this week the College counsellor, Wendy Robertson, delivered a thoughtful session on mental health illness amongst students, and also how teaching staff may also protect their own well-being. It is not alarmist to say that on the domestic front, and globally, mental health illness is of epidemic proportions (http://tinyurl.com/h3w8l6w).

Even Teresa May has been moved to underline this week the government's commitment to improving mental health service (http://tinyurl.com/zmn63fw). What I have witnessed in a teaching career principally working with and for public sector trade unions, and in particular since 2010 and the aggressive attack on public sector services under the guise of 'austerity. is the steady rise of mental health illness, that catalyses ill health and thus generates arguable capability/competency questions.

Many public sector workers now find themselves exposed to significant harm as a result of 'workplace restructuring', redundancy, privatisation, out sourcing. The resources developed by unions like UNISON (http://tinyurl.com/zua8q7k) and the TUC (http://tinyurl.com/ho28nhs) are valuable, but in reality are largely remedial in tackling effect, but not cause. As the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD - the professional body for HR staff) reports, work-related sickness absence remains stubbornly high, as does the issue of 'presenteeism', that is workers who are ill being at work (http://tinyurl.com/hpdwnnz). I would contend that the growth of presenteeism is a perverse representation of the pressure that unwell workers face.

And so we come to the topic of the post. This is the decision by the French government to allow employees of enterprises with 50+ workers to have the right to 'disconnect' from the workplace once they are outside of working hours. Specifically, this means the right not to be forced to read email, respond to 'phone call, texts etc., when you are not being paid to. (http://tinyurl.com/hybh8uj).

Invariably the right-wing press has attacked this legislative development, suggesting that it is a mixture of zealous red-tape and a Luddite attempt to hold back the tide of technological change. In defending this development both government, and many employers, have welcomed an attempt to maintain a cultural hold on the quality of family life, as well maintain employee well-being.

It is early days for this new right, and no penalties have been included within the statute for firms that ignore to tackle those workers who continue to email, Skype etc. once they have left work. It represents however, a major development in the responding to the global epidemic of work-related sickness, and in particular mental health illness, and I am sure will be followed closely for its effect and impact over the next 12-24 months.

As we remain unlikely to see such a development from the UK government, regardless of the suggestion by May that the government is reviewing mental health services, we can at least maintain a focus on how tackle this issue. Please follow the link to the TU resources on tackling mental health illness in the workplace, and respond to this post with thoughts/comments on how to keep challenging employers (and other organisations) on this.

In Solidarity

Ian

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Forming New Unions (Tuesday 17 January 2017)

Colleagues,

Just a brief post to start the new year (another to follow asap) and which follows nicely on the heels of my last post for 2016 - which announced an increase in TU membership - with a plug for the History Acts series of workshops, and the focus on the formation of new trade unions.

All the details you need are contained in the flyer below, and there is no need to book. Please get along if you can as the discussion/debate following the sessions will. no doubt, be fascinating.


In Solidarity

Ian

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Union Membership Increases: A Great Start for 2017!

Dear Colleagues,

My last post of the year comes on the back of an increase in trade union membership which, although identified formally earlier in the year, has been spurred on by the waves of industrial action across rail, post and air travel.

As Paul Mason reports in today's Guardian, the wave of strike action reflects core concerns of workers including the rise of insecure work, stagnant wages, and the increasing impacts of automation. Whilst strike action is only one remedy in the repertoire of union activity, we know from historical analysis (including Richard Hyman's Strikes) that industrial action can and does have a consciousness raising effect on those involved, and those non-unionised workers observing.

Thus, as Mason suggests, whilst some are criticising striking workers, others are taking a leaf from their book, and deciding that now is the time to collectivise.


As the pace and scale of precarious forms of work increases across the UK, and workers see their wages plunge further in real terms value, it is not surprising that they add 2 and 2, and see trade union membership as part of the answer.

It is not just the broad political and social context of work that is problematic, it is the very nature of work itself. Whether the increased pace of work, or the brutalising effects of poor managerial practices. As Mason states:

We have near full employment yet near wage stagnation. The strikes taking place over Christmas are happening among workers who have not seen a pay rise for years. BA’s onboard customer service managers, for example, have been stripped of their union negotiation rights and had their pay frozen for six years.

One of the most pitiful things about the political class, and the economists who whisper certainties in their ear, is their distance from the actual experience of work. As trade union rights have become eroded throughout the private sector, and large chunks of the public sector become privatised, a culture of coercion has taken root at work.

The full article can be read here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/19/dont-complain-about-the-strikers-theyre-only-doing-what-we-all-should-in-2017

Formal confirmation of the initial increase in mid-2016 is here: https://www.tuc.org.uk/union-issues/leadership-unions/stronger-unions-blog/tuc-welcomes-increase-trade-union-membership

So, although just a brief post, one at least to end 2016, and introduce 2017, on a highly positive note.

I wish you all the very best for the Christmas period, and look forward to writing my first post of the new year.

In Solidarity

Ian

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Maddest Christmas I Ever Saw (The Leveller Revolution)

Dear Colleagues,

A strange title indeed for one of my last posts of 2017, but this is the title of the first chapter of The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England 1640-1650 by John Rees. Recently published by Verso this is one of the few books, as the title suggests, which argues that the political organisation of the Leveller movement was a central feature of the civil war.

This new, authoritative account of the Levellers explores also an important dimension of modern political/social movement analysis, which is that it is the actions of people, not just new/different ideas, which is central to driving change. As Rees charts particular ideas, like popular sovereignty and republicanism did indeed gain popularity during the 17th century, but this was largely a reflection of the active organisation of popular power in the Leveller’s own structures, and those of the rank and file of the army. Without all that, the ideas would have remained vanishingly marginal.

There is a sound, critical review of the new book in web version of Counterfire by Dominic Alexander. Hopefully I won't get into trouble by copying an extract from this below. The entire review is at:

http://www.counterfire.org/articles/book-reviews/18631-the-leveller-revolution-radical-political-organisation-in-england-1640-1650



There is an ideological preference among mainstream historians to prefer to see ideas as leading the way towards actions, but one of the lessons of this account of the revolution is that it was events and activity which paved the way for new ideas to emerge and become popular. Hence, while conventional historiography tends to present the secular radicalism of the Levellers as emerging almost out of nowhere, it makes much more historical sense to root the development of their ideas in the background of longstanding radical activity.

The Levellers were pioneers of revolutionary mass organisation, and if their movement was not a political party in a modern sense, they did at their height have party-like features, such as appointed treasurers and dues-paying members (pp.339-49). It was precisely through such organisation that ideas such as republicanism, which had been a vanishingly fringe notion before the civil war, became popularised and powerful. Many historical accounts over the years have attempted to dismiss the Levellers and their role, and even to claim that they were simply an amorphous collection of differing individuals within a wider, loose radicalism of the late 1640s. John Rees’ highly readable account thoroughly debunks such dismissive conceptions, and puts the Levellers at the centre of the revolution, where they deserve to be.

Please read the full review of the book, and consider it also a well-deserved Christmas present for yourself. My personal recommendation is that, those interested in the analysis of radical political organisation in modern movement practice, have much to learn (as ever) from historical analysis. Rees has helped support that process.

In Solidarity

Ian

Monday, 5 December 2016

Fighting the Bosses: 40 Years of In These Times

Dear Colleagues,


I am writing to say Happy Birthday to one of the best sources of insight and journalism on the state of organised labour (and politics more broadly) in the US. In These Times has reached the grand old age of 40, and is already proving to be a key source of information and analysis on the implications of Trump for unions and the working class:


http://inthesetimes.com/


There are a number of articles in its latest print magazine which bring together some analysis of the past 40 years' of analysis. I thought I'd provide the opening paragraph of my favourite article, Fighting the Bosses: 40 Years of In These Times, to help encourage you to read further articles and to read ITT on a regular basis if you don't already.


Fighting the Bosses: 40 Years of In These Times


Without a strong labor movement, there is little hope for socialism—let alone a more humane capitalism. By


Neither a “red diaper” nor a “blue-collar” baby, I came circuitously to be one of In These Times’ original staff writers, covering labor. I grew up on a farm in western Illinois, where my youthful models of alternatives to capitalism owed less to Marx—whom I didn’t seriously study until graduate school—and more to the collective work of putting up hay with neighboring farmers and the cooperative traditions of the farm supply company my father managed.


My first, minor experience of working-class struggle came in high school, on the grueling job of pulling tassels off seed corn. I led a walkout of fellow workers who shared my resistance to slogging through a muddy field rather than waiting for the ground to dry. We won nothing, but we felt good.
As an early ’60s student “radical” I did win some victories in the modest realm of campus politics—and also a week-long expulsion for publishing an “alternative” newspaper. That led to my first full-time job after college, working for Newsweek in Los Angeles. I had the good fortune to cover the beginnings of the United Farm Workers’ organizing drive under Cesar Chavez, and learned important lessons about solidarity, persistence and the flaws of even labor movement saints.


A few years later, I entered graduate school in anthropology at the University of Chicago. Inspired by Marx to see work as central to the creation of human culture, I did fieldwork for my dissertation not in the usual exotic locales but in eastern Ohio, among the young workers engaged in high-profile conflicts with General Motors at a new factory in Lordstown. Contrary to popular belief, workers there were even more interested in control over their work than in increasing their pay.


Please make ITT a favourite of yours and please consider a financial donation to keep their vital, independent journalism alive. Please also consider a subscription to the print magazine.


In Solidarity


Ian

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Beautiful Trouble

Dear Colleagues,

As life has been particularly frantic over the past few weeks I've had no chance to write a blog post - despite there being much to write about.

So, just a quick post to give a plug for a new activist resource (including a fantastic new book - available as an e-book for just $1) rolled out under the wonderful name of Beautiful Trouble: http://beautifultrouble.org/

Go to Or books to get a e-copy for $1 or a print version for a 20% reduction: http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/beautiful-trouble-pocket-edition/




There are so many resources out there for activists, and also for activist learning/teaching. For example, I am a big fan of the Barefoot series that I have blogged about previously: http://www.barefootguide.org/download-the-guides.html

The great thing about Beautiful Trouble is that it provides, as the web site blurb reads, "Beautiful Trouble is a book, web toolbox and international network of artist-activist trainers whose mission is to make grassroots movements more creative and more effective."

It can be a fairly daunting business to make social, political and economic change happen, and although anyone can do it, it's nice to see time and energy put into resources being made available.

Although there is a lot of detail in the website about the resources and how to use them, have a quick look at this background video on what the BT collective are setting out to do.


If you buy the book and/or use the resources in some way, please let me know your thoughts.

In Solidarity

Ian