Sunday, 5 July 2015

Race Equality & Organised Labour


Many thanks to Trish Lavelle (CWU Head of Education) and CWU colleagues at the union's magnificent education facility Alvescot Lodge in Oxforshire, for organising and hosting another fantastic BME Leadership Weekend.

Yet again we have been able to work with an inspiring group of BME activists from across the union who are committed to achieving race equality within their workplaces and throughout union structures.

Wilf Sullivan, TUC Race Equality Officer
As you can imagine the discussion was wide-ranging and was kicked off in fine fashion by Wilf Sullivan (TUC Race Equality Officer) on Saturday where he gave an overview of the politics of race within the UK economy and labour movement, reminding students that at times the movement has been as hostile to migrant workers as have other segments of British society. This historical positioning of organised labour in the context of race and BME workers is essential in understanding the contemporary fight for racial equality, in essence, what do we learn from the past in order to frame the contemporary strategy?


AJ Singh, Chair CWU Race Advisory
I need to thank those colleagues who attended the course to supplement the teaching and help give students a detailed insight on their role as newly appointed black and minority ethnic (BAME) branch officers. AJ Singh and Winston Richards are the Chair and Vice-Chair respectively of the CWU's Race Advisory Committee (RAC) and were able to give students a particularly detailed sense of the work undertaken to-date within the union to reform structures to enable a more sustained voice for BME members - the creation of the BAME officer post being a case in point - and the contours and context of the remaining challenges within the union and the sectors that it is represented and organises in.


Winston Richards, Vice-Chair
Both AJ and Winston also gave an insight on their own, personal routes in trade union activism, and on what sustained them in their activism. This helped structure a particularly valuable activity and discussion on how to generate greater degrees of engagement and activism amongst BME CWU members. It was particularly interesting to witness the organic development of the discussion to recognise the relevance of wider. social mobilisation of BME communities as a way of both promoting trade unionism and also tackling wider issues of societal racism.

It has been a particularly valuable personal opportunity to work with Trish on the original development of the programme for the course, and as I look back this weekend I can see how much has been achieved by those who have attended the course, which has complemented the work of the CWU's RAC, and also what remains to be tackled and overcome.
I wish the union all of the very best in this work, and look forward to teaching and working with future students who attend the CWU's BME Leadership weekend school.

Students of the 2013 BME Leadership Weekend School

Students of the 2014 BME Leadership Weekend School
In Solidarity


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Founding Ideals Undiminished


In what will be the first of at least a couple of posts I feel the need to re-but the entirely inaccurate, biased and poorly researched attempts by the BBC recently to allege that Ruskin College is diminishing its founding principles through recent decisions to withdraw a number of courses:

The harsh reality is that the College, as a provider of both further and higher education, has been caught in a pincer movement of changes to government funding, which has precipitated decisions affecting courses which either recruit low student numbers and/or struggle to retain students.

From this understandable anger and frustration has come the perverse allegation that Ruskin is somehow moving away from the founding principle of the provision of education to working class women and men who seek to return to learning.

Sadly for the BBC the facts have not got in the way of a good story.

What the BBC should have done is sought to balance their journalism by talking to a cross-section of students at Ruskin, and perhaps alumni, to get a sense of why they picked the College and their experience as a student.

For now then, let me provide some images of students of Ruskin to start to provide some balance and perspective to the BBC's reporting, but also some realistic perspective of the ideals of working class education which remain firmly in place at the College.

I shall return to this theme with a longer, more thoughtful response, but for now I'll let the images convey my position.

In Solidarity


Monday, 18 May 2015

The Spirit of the Levellers': The Antidote to Austerity


Just a short piece to report on a truly amazing day on Saturday accompanying the students of the MA ILTUS at Ruskin who have worked tremendously hard to gain a day off to attend the annual Levellers' Day event in nearby Burford.

I had come to know of the Leveller's through the writing of Fenner Brockway (particularly through his Britain's First Socialists), Tony Benn (where they appear in both Arguments For Socialism and Arguments For Democracy) and Christopher Hill in books like The Century of Revolution.

If you need some introduction background to The Levellers' try these: (website for the annual event) (a good introduction/overview) (a definitive insight)

As stated by the speakers at Saturday's event what is needed in the UK's post-election period is a constant, high-profile series of debates/events/marches articulating an alternative to austerity.

Prominent amongst the Leveller ideal was the notion of 'the commons'; of land purposed for the common good. As house prices and rents soar following the election result, basic Leveller tenets take on a new purpose and appeal.

Sadly, I haven't time for a lengthier piece about The Levellers' and austerity, but I did want to post some of the images from Saturday.

They reveal a solid sense of the good times had by the hard working activist-scholars of Ruskin College; women and men who will play a leading part in re-imagining the Leveller tradition in the days and years to come.

Colm proudly sings The Internationale

Comrades together! Amina, Chilayi, myself and Kalvinder

Very proud of Byron (and Bryan) for agreeing to be dressed as Levellers
Thanks to Simon for acting as custodian of the Ruskin banner during
the Levellers' day events at Burford church.

Well done to Neil for bringing his PCS branch banner!

The plaque commemorating the three Levellers murdered in Burford churchyard

In Solidarity


Saturday, 9 May 2015

What next for organised labour?


Without doubt the 2015 general election outcomes present organised labour with considerable short and long-term challenges.

Len McCluskey's statement represents, I feel, an important state of preparedness in what will clearly be  a difficult five years' ahead.

What we have been promised by the Tories is an economic and political landscape which can only accelerate the range and degree of economic inequality in the UK, not least in the manifesto commitment to cut deeper into the welfare budget.

We know also that the Tories plan to render industrial action as beyond the means and scope of trade union members in seeking redress for legitimate grievances.

The press release issued by the TUC yesterday of Frances O'Grady's statement on the election outcomes represents the concerns of us all.

This was not a one nation campaign

“We have to hope that David Cameron’s pledge to govern as a one nation Prime Minister will be his first major U-turn - for his campaign and manifesto was anything but.

“His main political tactic was to talk up nationalism and deny the legitimacy of Scottish voters. And his programme for government is as divisive as they come.

“The welfare cuts that he has refused to outline only add up if taken from those in low paid work and the vulnerable, and will be used to fund tax cuts for the better off.

“His proposals on trade union law are so draconian that they would make legal strikes close to impossible. This puts him far to the right of almost every mainstream party in advanced democracies, and is likely to leave many of his more thoughtful backbenchers uneasy at a time when living standards are still running well below pre-crash levels.

He will face an unprecedented campaign from Britain’s unions against this attack on the basic rights of people at work.

“The prospect of a referendum on Europe will be destabilising for business and the economy. Many of our best jobs and workplace rights depend on EU membership. I say to business leaders today that if you press for stripping away worker rights, environmental protection and consumer safeguards as part of a renegotiation then it will be harder to win the yes vote we need for a prosperous Britain.
“Other parties have had a disappointing night with talented and serious figures from both Labour and Liberal Democrats losing their seats. Opposition parties should not rush to glib explanations for what looks like a complex result with very different trends in different parts of the country.

“But while they will need time and energy to rebuild they should not go quiet and allow the new government to win arguments uncontested - especially as we still only see a slow and patchy recovery that could be easily derailed by deep rushed spending cuts. “

In Solidarity


Thursday, 7 May 2015

UK General Election 2015: A Union’s Job is to Fight for Working People’s Rights


Just a quick post as I am tied up preparing for teaching this weekend, and I want to follow the news of the early outcomes of today's general election in the UK.

So much hangs in the balance for the British labour movement of the election outcomes, and similarly for organisations like Ruskin College.

In the worse case scenario of a government comprising the Conservative Party then the major challenge for the British labour movement is not just how it responds, but how quickly, and with what force and precision.

In this context I have been buoyed by an article written by Len McCluskey, General Secretary of UNITE, and first published in The Guardian in March 2015. This argues cogently that it is incumbent on organised labour, the largest civil society actor in the UK, to consider breaching and breaking law which seeks to erode workers' human rights, and deny organised labour those civil liberties which are a precondition of a functioning democracy.

Whilst we wait for the outcome of the election to be confirmed please read the article. Of course, the outcome of the election will be the next item I post here.

Unite’s rule book sounds just the sort of dusty tome to give employment lawyers headaches. Last week our governing body, Unite’s executive, unanimously agreed to make it shorter. It recommended the deletion from our rules of six little words that have governed our union’s actions: “so far as may be lawful”. So far, so mundane, you would be forgiven for thinking.

But that would be the wrong conclusion: the proposed change in the constitution of the biggest union on these isles marks the sorry place we have reached in our national democracy.

Our executive wants these words gone not because we are anarchists, not because we are suddenly planning a bank robbery, but because we have to ask ourselves the question: can we any longer make that commitment to stick, under any and all circumstances, within the law as it stands? I am aware that this is a dramatic question to raise anywhere, let alone in a room full of lawyers, as I did last night when I addressed the Law Society.

Let me emphasise Unite’s continuing determination to operate ever more effectively within the law, even when that law is an ass and ill-serves our people. Legislation restricting the right to strike, attacking the capacity for trade unions to organise and conduct their own business in line with their own rules, became some warped national consensus last century. Other aspects of that “consensus” – a deregulated financial sector, a flexible labour market, being intensely relaxed about the filthy rich – have been discredited since the global crash. Re-regulation, not deregulation, is the order of the day.

Yet trade union law remains untouched and politically untouchable, the great unmentionable of British politics. It is time it was subjected to the same scrutiny as all the other nostrums and dogmas of the 1980s. Trade unions do not need a change in the law; society as a whole needs a change in trade union law, or little else can change for the better.

The financial crash pulled back the screen on the ugly reality: widening inequality, wealth concentrated at the top, a shrinking percentage of GDP going into the pockets of workers, and governments unable or unwilling to confront vested interests. This is the world in which trade unions now operate. It is not by chance that these trends have accelerated at the same time the role and function of trade unions have been restricted and diminished. As long as companies can make more money by paying their employees less, or by sacking easily and then hiring cheaply, or by cutting corners on safety, then trade unions will need to exist. This was the case at the onset of industrialisation and it remains the case today.

Labour’s victory in 1997 was one of the happiest days of my life, and it brought many achievements to be proud of, not least extending civil rights for minority groups, the minimum wage, the family friendly policies that saw vast improvements for women and children, and significant investment in our public infrastructure and the NHS. But that first Labour government, with its huge parliamentary majority, did nothing to alter the legal superstructure that allows for the skewed accrual of wealth and power in our society. Tony Blair even boasted that Britain’s labour laws were the most restrictive in Europe.

Today, thanks to those laws, it is hard for any employer to fail to get an injunction against a contemplated strike – even a fully balloted and mandated strike. It is no exaggeration to say that the right to strike in this, the first country of free trade unionism, was and is hanging by a thread. Should there be a Conservative majority in May, there will be a new attack on trade union rights and democracy. The bar for a strike ballot will be raised to a level that hardly any MPs would reach in their own constituencies, by a government that has refused our requests to use modern, more effective balloting methods.

Agency labour scabs will be licensed to break strikes. Restrictions imposed on our campaigning role in the Lobbying Act will be followed by laws to make picketing nigh on impossible, too, attacking our ability to put pressure on an abusive employer in defence of our members.
It’s tempting to see this as simply a reversion to type by the Tories but that’s only half the story. The attack on trade unions is Tory core practice because they are well aware that they can get away with their desired assault on our national fabric only if they neuter any potential opposition, and the trade unions above all. They want to reduce us to the role of concerned spectators while they tear to bits every advance that working people have secured, every protection we have built up. Against that background, should the law, when made by an elected parliament rather than a despot or a dictatorship, be respected under all circumstances?

To take a stark example, before 1967 any man who slept with another man was breaking the law, as made by an elected parliament. Who, today, would dare to say that they were criminals, or that they should have been obliged to obey a law that, however democratically sanctioned, represented no more than the prejudice of ages? A more recent example: when Margaret Thatcher criminalised trade unionism at GCHQ, would any employee there who, in secret, maintained his or her trade union membership, be a criminal? Were they not right to break that law while it was in force?
It was, of course, a Tory, and eminent lawyer, Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) who first warned of “elective dictatorship”, of a majority imposing its views – ignorant ones in the case of both gay rights and trade unionists as a security risk – on a vulnerable minority. People have intrinsic rights that can sometimes be violated, even by democratically elected legislatures. The right of working people to combine, to organise, is one of them.

If partisan legislation designed to push the legitimate democratic work of trade unions outside of the law is driven through parliament then we, in Unite, will not go gently into the night. We will rage against the dying of the light. We will drive forward with modern technology and use it to increase turnouts in our ballots without being shackled by prescriptions – such as postal ballots – imposed in another age. We are not going to let the Tories destroy our democracy by shackling us to archaic procedures.

A union’s job is to fight for working people’s rights. If, in the year in which we mark the anniversary of Magna Carta, the government wants to challenge fundamental rights of the citizen, then I believe they will be facing not just the trade union movement, but a huge section of our civil society. When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it? I am not really posing the question. I’m giving you the answer. It ain’t going to happen.

By Len McCluskey

In Solidarity