Thursday, 20 November 2014

Lighting the Spark: The Battle for Free Education


I am in Belfast representing Ruskin at the invitation of Trish Lavelle (Head of Education) at the annual Communication Workers' Union (CWU) Union Learning Rep (ULR) networking event in Belfast.

Although I am here under the umbrella of Ruskin's partnership agreement with the CWU, and to promote Ruskin's BA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS), I am really proud to have been asked to work alongside several CWU activists in running the workshop title Lighting the Spark, which focuses on the development of workplace strategy to encourage members into activism through educational activity.

It struck me yesterday that, as students took over central London in the fight for free education, how important is the parallel work of unions like the CWU in advocating that position in the workplace. The CWU's ULRs have pioneered some of the most innovative approaches to engaging their members in educational activity, and they can proudly claim the credit for working solidly to have ensured that 60,000 working class adults have engaged in some form of educational activity as a result.

Trish Lavelle: Leading the fight for free adult education yesterday in Belfast.
Same day, same fight: Students in central London yesterday.
As the countdown begins for the general election next year there couldn't be a more important time to remind politicians of the central role of free education in ensuring that adults engage in political activity and vote. Of course, there are those on the right who also understand that an educated working class is not in their interests: Thatcher and Gove knew this and pursued education policy form this ideological basis.

Even if free education is fought from that perspective, at least the right should acknowledge that it is in everyone's interests to understand the link between poor educational status and ill health, criminal activity, recidivism etc., and that it is ultimately in this country's long-term political, social and economic interests to ensure that education is not just free, but that it forms the central plank in social policy that generates the kind of living standards common across most northern European countries.

As Trish commened yesterday when kicking off the ULR event, Germany has taken the principled position of ending tuition fees in higher education, and done so in basic economic grounds, which found that the fees were disrupting not just educational engagement and attainment, but that ultimately the Germany economy, was suffering too.

Whilst I am not an advocate of the kind of supercharged capitalist economies like Germany, I am not so stupid as to not clap when even the arch conservatives like Angela Merkel realise that free education makes sound business sense. If only the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour Party could come to the same conclusion

In Solidarity


Saturday, 8 November 2014

Transparency & The Establishment


Just a brief post as I am teaching at Ruskin this weekend as we have three cohorts of the BA international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) in. What a fine bunch of trade unionists! Even though I am not feeling great, it is reviving to be here and to hear of their natural, comradely support for the on-going UCU boycott of marking/assessment. It is great to also of how their research/study is having such a significant impact on their activism/campaigning.

Very proud of our Ruskin BA students: Dermot Finn graduates
on 25th Oct from the BA ILTUS 2008 cohort
I have been minded to pen a short item as this week the Coalition launched its 'transparency code' for local government. Whilst this is ostensibly a new process for weeding out local government corruption, it is in truth a ruse to attack municipal trade unionism. Read the detail of the new code here:

As you can see the new code requires that local authorities now publish data on the volume of trade union facility time taken by trade union representatives:

Trade union facility time
35. Local authorities must publish the following information on trade union facility time:

total number (absolute number and full time equivalent) of staff who are union representatives (including general, learning and health and safety representatives)

total number (absolute number and full time equivalent) of union representatives who devote at least 50 per cent of their time to union duties

names of all trade unions represented in the local authority

a basic estimate of spending on unions (calculated as the number of full time equivalent days spent on union duties multiplied by the average salary), and

a basic estimate of spending on unions as a percentage of the total pay bill (calculated as the number of full time equivalent days spent on union duties multiplied by the average salary divided by the total pay bill).

Of course none of this serves, as the new code suggests, "to place more power into the citizen's hands to increase democratic accountability" (by the way, we are not citizens of a republic, we are subjects of the Queen) and is instead a crude attempt to attack the role of democratically elected and accountable trade union representatives who act in pursuit of their statutory rights to safeguard the interests of their members, and indeed the wider public.

Of course because this measure is ideologically driven the code seeks not to capture any of the following:

(1) The extent to which trade union activity seeks to minimise the exposure to liability employers' actions e.g. reducing the likelihood of accidents, resolving grievances/disputes.

(2) In quantitative/monetary terms the money saved by such action.

(3) Trade union facilitation of whistleblowing activity which might reveal, for example, where an authority is not meeting a statutory duty.

Britain at its best (and saving employer's time and money)
I could go on, and on, but I am limited for time, and in any case, the TUC (working with NatCen) has calculated that trade union representatives saves employers on average £700m per year:

And,of course, none of the reality - of the actual impact of day-to-day-trade unionism - is acknowledged here, as this is an ideological assault.

The key thought that struck me on listening to Eric Pickles launch the new code on Thursday was how the UK desperately needs a transparency code for the UK's establishment - and by this I mean a toxic mixture of that which composes the state plus the media, sections of the upper class, and sections of the financial services.

Owen Jones visited Ruskin last month to launch his new book, The establishment, and how they get away with it. Although Owen focused largely on the finance sector-Parliamentary nexus, his overall thrust is of how a dense, opaque, pre-historic network predicated on class, power, the media and corruption has disempowered Parliament for centuries and routinely reimagines itself through, for example, the movement away from the selling of Parliamentary seats to the easing of corporation tax bills.

Although Owen's book is new, it was published too late for what I see as a profound insight on the way in which the British establishment has had, and continues to have, a corrosive effect on British public life, in the form of the disastrous attempts to find a chair for the Panel of Inquiry into Historical Child Abuse.

Both appointed chairs to-date, Butler-Sloss and Fiona Woolf, have had to stand down in disgrace when it transpired that their establishment links, either by relation or friendship, had revealed profound conflicts of interest.

The reason why a transparency code is needed for the affairs of the establishment, as exemplified by the scandal of Butler-Sloss and Woolf is that:

(1) In appointing these characters the civil service (a deeply embedded aspect of the establishment themselves) could not of themselves see past the obvious linkages between the appointees and prior government ministers. So entrenched are their lives in this netherworld that simply to belong to it places one beyond reproach.

(2) Woolf claimed not to be able to remember relationships with fellow members of the establishment (the Brittan family) to such an extent that she had to be reminded that she dined at their house and was often seen out with them. Similar to the above point, but when challenged on her links, the hapless Woolf commented that you would have to be a hermit not to have links to prior Home Secretaries, and know their wife, and dine in their home. No, you need only be normal.

(3) On revealing that mistakes had been made in making the appointments the Home Office, rather than holding its hands up, tried to re-write history.

Uh oh, its the establishment! Keep an eye on 'em.
The list is endless, and I must say I enjoyed greatly the squirming of Theresa May when she had to apologise this week for the debacle over which she had presided:

Of course, the whole debate about the role of the establishment in British society has been discussed for decades. I remember. for example, reading as a student at Ruskin John Scott's 1991 classic Who Rules Britain? on this very issue.

Here is a more recent article of his, but where he explores the same theme of power, domination and the state:

It is, sadly, unlikely that the British people will ever a version of an establishment transparency code. No doubt MPs and the like would say that Parliament, standards bodies (OFCOM etc.), the media etc., are the transparency code, but the Levenson Inquiry alone proved conclusively, that
no such code exists.

Even today there is further evidence of the need for the establishment code, with the Observers' article evidencing further what we knew already of the deep, sustained collusion between the police and those bodies (Consulting Association etc.) who compiled information (much of it wholly incorrect) which was used for trade union blacklisting:

So, for now, even though we are under even greater scrutiny than ever, the power of trade unionism is the surest way in which transparency will be demanded and realised in the UK and internationally.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 2 November 2014

Challenges & Opportunities for Organised Labour in the USA


I spent last week in the US as part of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Empire State College (ESC) New York and Ruskin College. 

The labour studies department of ESC is housed in the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Centre and is one of the oldest and largest providers of labour studies and trade union education in the US. Follow this link for more info:

The MoU will allow Ruskin to learn from ESC's considerable experience of developing and delivering modes of blended and online learning both across the US and internationally. As this work progresses I shall post further items on how blended and online learning is impacting on the ILTUS programme at Ruskin.

In the meantime, I took the opportunity before I left the US to interview my main contact at ESC, Jason Russell (Assistant Professor of Labor Studies and Co-ordinator of the MA in Labor & Labor Policy) in order to gain his expert perspective on the key challenges and opportunities facing organised labour in the US.

The video is below and I hope that you find it a valuable insight on the critical influences on organised labour and where some of the most promising developments are taking place.

In Solidarity


Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Best of Humanity: Ruskin College Graduates


Today, poet, author and scriptwriter AL Kennedy graced Ruskin with her wonderful literary presence and spoke with passion and beauty of how Ruskin students/graduates are, in her opinion, "the best of humanity".

Kennedy was not being misty-eyed, but actually quite matter-of-fact in recognising that Ruskin's women and men are people of conscience who come to Ruskin with a distinct social purpose and go on to make a profound change in their personal lives, that of their families, their communities and those who they go on to work amongst.

And, even though John Ruskin himself was on record as being against the establishment of Ruskin, I was transfixed when Kennedy relayed her perspective that Ruskin's students could bathe in John Ruskin's dictum of a correlation between truth and beauty. It reminded me of William Morris's similar notion that social progression was for all, and that culture excelled when practiced and engaged with by all classes.

Today was Ruskin's annual graduation event and I was so proud to see students of the BA and MA in international labour and trade union studies graduating today.

The pics below are:

Piotr Plonka (graduating today before the scheduled MA ILTUS graduation next year as he has plans which means he needs his certificate) with my dear colleague Fenella, without whom the ILTUS MA couldn't run.

BA ILTUS  '08 cohort graduate Dermott Finn with Peter Dwyer. Dermott wrote an outstanding dissertation on the impact on family's lives of trade union blacklisting
Dermott, Sue Orwin and Carol Kinell of the BA ILTUS '08 cohort. These students have worked SO hard to get to where they are.
Lisa Birch (left) graduates with her close SPE friend Maureen. Lisa has started in Oct as an MA ILTUS student - she is already a great student!
For more pictures please see my Facebook page.
In Solidarity

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Negotiating Improvements for Working Carers of Adults (NICA)


Just a brief post to thank my previous employer, the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) for asking me to consult on (and then write) the teaching materials aimed at trade union reps to provide them with the skills, knowledge and confidence to conduct collective bargaining in order to improve workplace policy and practice to support the needs of working carers.

I was pleased to be able to work alongside Katherine Wilson of CarersUK and Sheila Barratt of Greenwich University (who wrote a supplementary literature review) in devising and writing the teaching materials. The teaching materials and literature review were launched at an event in Brussels 22-23 October.

The project (negotiating improvements for the working carers of adults - NICA) which facilitated the creation of the teaching resources was a European trade union project with partners from Malta, Poland and Bulgaria.

L-R: Charlotte, Katherine and Sheila
We were joined at the Brussels event by Dr. Charlotte O'Brien of the law school at York University to present her research on the care penalty. This is a highly thoughtful analysis of the particularly vulnerable position of working carers to suffer a variety of penalties given their typical social, political and economic position within economies.

The proposal to afford a positive right to reasonable adjustments (alongside other elements) akin to disabled workers is arguably justifiable given the 'crisis of care' that Europe (and other parts of the world face) as people live longer and care provision shrinks.

Here's a link to an article Charlotte has written on the care penalty:

This is a particularly valuable initiative and I hope that GFTU affiliates, and the NICA project partners succeed in adapting the training resources and realising positive change in the working and personal lives of working carers.

Here is a link from one of the partners of the project, SOLIDAR, to a write-up of the Brussels event:,1597.html

In Solidarity


Friday, 17 October 2014

Culture & Organised Labour


This is just a short post, based on a brief discussion I had today with two colleagues at Ruskin, John Retallack and Helen Mosby, of the Foundation Degree in Writing for Performance ( on the way in which I use social media (including this blog) to promote our politically valuable work at the College and the MA ILTUS.

The discussion with John and Helen reminded me that for some time I have wanted want to explore in much greater detail my understanding of the nature and notion of culture (not sure of my definition even - will need to speak to Helen and John) and its implications for both intellectual development across the working class, and for the realisation and interpretation of experience within organised labour.

Thus, the work of Raymond Williams (e.g The Long Revolution), Jonathan Rose (The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes) and in particular my history tutor at Ruskin, Raphael Samuel (e.g. Theatres of Memory Vols 1+2) have profoundly informed my opinion - and that's before we engage with the mass of literature  that we ought to e.g. Richard Hoggart (e.g. The The Uses of Literacy). Here is Stuart Hall's fantastic critique of the book and of Hoggart's wider influence on cultural study and analysis:

As I need to be brief (because I am teaching this weekend, and wanted to type up basic thoughts), but want to make a point that there is an epistemology of cultural tradition within organised labour, I must use the book Hard Lessons: The Mine Mill Union in the Canadian Labour Movement as a case study analysis of how culture (writing, performance, song, spoken word etc.) enabled organise labour to realise an expression of experience - if you can get the book, read chapter seven: creative response in organisation and culture.

There is a rich tradition of literature (often sociological in orientation) that we can also draw on here, and none better, I would contend, than Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The pitiless experience of the migrant labourer, and the brutalisation of organised labour are themes meticulously executed, and which allow us to gain a perspective on this experience from a fictionalised perspective.  I would also add Orwell's Down & Out in Paris and London as both sociological interpretation and cultural expression worthy of reading and analysis. Zola's Germinal is perhaps the major work of fiction which has the most significant, personal impacton me - one of the few books I re-read to grasp an understand of how and why I teach trade unionists.

In terms of film, Salt of the Earth (which I have written of here before) was a major leap of the way in which the experience of workers/organised labour was interpreted and thus simultaneously attacked under McCarthyism such was the fear that workers/labour had realised a medium through which to express itself:

There is masses I could say here (e.g. Sillitoe's Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, the Ashington Group: et al) but I won't, other than to say, I welcome on-going discussions with colleagues at Ruskin (and elsewhere) which enable me to better understand and appreciate how to inform my appreciation of the relationship between culture and organised labour as part of my approach to teaching and learning.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Solidarity with Striking NHS Workers on 13th October 2014

If you want the full story behind the significant shopfloor backing for the industrial action on 13th Oct, read this:

In Solidarity with NHS workers on 13th!