Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Embodied Activism

Dear Colleagues,

Just wanted to write-up a note around findings in a space separate from my doctoral thesis, and share this via the blog.

An argument/finding/theory arising from my thesis is embodied activism (EA). The phrase can be found in several contexts, but when applied to trade unionism, and in the context of learning and knowledge production, I am saying this:

A grounded theory of EA is, I argue, an attention to the ways in which the knowledge and capacity of trade unionists are hollowed-out through their experiences under and within organised labour, and of the power of a critical pedagogy to renew embodied identity, consciousness and knowledge. My reasoning here rests in part on a notion of the hidden injuries of trade union renewal, but primarily in the way that narrative underscores the liberatory means of realising embodied identity, consciousness and knowledge though radical pedagogy.  

At its simplest - and is revealed in the last post in this blog - I am drawing heavily on established knowledge within activist educational realms to argue that, initially, trade union activists accrue their identity and consciousness through embodied processes of learning and knowledge production e.g. learning how best to represent members through casework. Their is cognitive learning here for sure for example of workplace policy and relevant statute. But the workplace steward embodies the union and comes to represent workers' interests physically. Like activists in other movements, the trade unionist learns through doing, and their physical self also suffers the detriment of activism in the form of state surveillance and/or blacklisting. Union work itself though is, I argue, harmful and injurious, and not just as a result of conflict with employer, but also through the conflict innate within movements. This, I argue, has the power to override initial comprehension of trade union identity, and corrode confidence also.

A critical pedagogy - like that of the MA ILTUS at Ruskin College - holds a potential to realise sedimented, embodied identity, consciousness and knowledge - and provide a pathway to sustain this through the maintenance of praxis via in/non/formal learning and knowledge production processes subsequently.

This is pretty powerful stuff, I think, and I look forward to writing more about findings as I complete the last stage of the thesis.

I've written in this blog previously about EA, but the thesis findings are much clearer/established now.

In Solidarity


Saturday, 14 July 2018

The multiple ways of learning and knowing through activism

Dear Colleagues,

Just a brief post whilst racing ahead in writing doctoral thesis findings. I wanted to give a plug for Griff Foley's book, Learning in Social Action, for having set an international benchmark for understanding the learning that takes places through activism.

As I am sure with other theses, there is a lot written that rests on early theory/evidence and I have to acknowledge the impact that his book (and others allied to it) have had on my reflections of teaching activists for 25 (approx.) years, but also how it's helped me understand the importance of embedding an appreciation of informal and non-formal learning into trade union education.

It's clear that UK trade unionism has benefitted in some ways from state funding of education. It is clear also however, that a focus on formal education and the 'skills' of trade unionism has not aided the process of trade union renewal, not least in identifying and generating new sources of trade union power.

Similarly, and as revealed by the excellent book  Union Voices, by Jane Holgate, Mel Simms and Ed Heery, the organising agenda of the UK labour movement, and the millions lavished upon this through state aid, and a similar formal/skills-oriented approach, has not been able to stabilise trade union density let alone increase it:

Foley's book helps provide a pathway to 'unlearning' from the formal education of trade unionism, and thinking instead of how we educate ourselves, not least by acknowledging the multiple ways in which learning takes places through day-to-activism and working for trade unions, and sharing the knowledge that's gained as a result.

A link to the book:

Naturally, there will still be a need for the formal/skills-oriented approach but at the moment, there is a profound and fundamental imbalance and this, I argue in my thesis, is worth exploring as part of the search for renewal.

In Solidarity


Thursday, 28 June 2018

Political Education, Gramsci and the War of Position

Dear Colleagues,

Just a brief note that captures a thought in between working and writing thesis findings.

I had the pleasure yesterday and taking to delegates attend the AGM of the Standing Conference of University Drama Departments - SCUDD:

The broad topic yesterday was around the political state of the entertainment/drama sector, with a focus on inequalities of class, gender, race etc.

I was pleased to listen to Deidre O'Neill and Mike Wayne of InsideFilm and producers of the critically important documentary of class and the sector, The Acting Class:

The trailer is below.

Mike took the time to chronicle the extent to which acting as a profession has been captured by a privileged group comprised of those who have attended the same schools/universities etc., and as a result aid the structure of the sector as one difficult to access for aspirant working class women and men.

I was reminded as Mike spoke of the shoddy commitment given by the BBC last week to improve the representation of black people amongst its senior management team by 2 by 2020: Just 1 a year over the next two years! But, if the BBC maintains its position of privileging Oxbridge graduates these two new members of staff may reflect 'diversity' but not equality of opportunity in getting such work.

Writing-up the thesis today following these events made me re-think the importance of Gramsci's concept of a war of position in challenging hegemony in politics and society:

The broad link to my thesis is that (a) dominant positions/organisations in society remain captured by narrow, elite groups and that (b) current educational systems appear incapable of resisting this.

The more specific link to my research is articulated well by Richard Croucher in his article which locates the current TU renewal dilemma in the 1930's renewal challenge to organised labour following the depression era:

In particular I assert the loss of an independent network of pro-labour/worker educational bodies (and sadly including Ruskin College in this context) places the project of contemporary renewal in significant danger. Such bodies have historically generated the ideas/minds required to populate civil society institutions (within and outwith organised labour) and assert progressive political ideas.

The loss of the network of radical, independent educational bodies to generate and sustain alternative political ideas should be of concern to us. It features as the focus of this year's Critical Labour Studies Conference 7-8 July. Register here:
Please read the Croucher article and post feedback - and get to CLS 2018 if you can.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 10 June 2018

ITUC Global Rights Index 2018: Democratic space shrinks and unchecked corporate greed on the rise

Dear Colleagues,

The yearly index chronicling the health of the global labour movement from the ITUC is just out:

The index is a rich source of data depicting a range of rogue states (including both the UK, US etc) and the many ways in which workers' basic rights are denied. A particularly worrying aspect of the latest index is the correlation between deteriorating civil space to challenge infringements (Turkey being a critical example) allied to the worsening of civil, political and human rights.

The index carries stories of hope also, for example, from countries across Latin America. These are important, as they provide hope in a difficult global context.

Take the time to read the latest index, and discuss the headline details with sister/fellow activists.

In Solidarity


Saturday, 26 May 2018

Border Pedagogy as Postmodern Resistance

Dear Colleagues,

I've been reading material from Henry Giroux for many years as my experience and knowledge of being an adult educator matured. A great place for those unfamiliar with his writing:

As I work to draft my thesis findings I have been encouraged to re-read Border Crossings: Cultural workers and the politics of education. For Giroux borders are not just physical, but political, philosophical and ideological, for example in the construction of the neo-liberal university and the commodification of learning and knowledge. Border crossing is about the role of educators shaping the capacity of others to know of the restraints placed upon them through for example, racist ideology. Thus we must cross the border between those restraints to understand, for example, the way in which the poor portrayal of black people across the media perpetuates racist assumptions and stereotypes.

Ultimately, the pedagogical approach here is the formation of a postmodern resistance. It's relevance to my research findings is the encouragement by Giroux of educators to work collaboratively. Thus, one of my over-arching arguments is a greater degree of inter-play between educators in the trade union and allied social movements around knowledge production and education.

This interplay should involved a dialogue which as Giroux states in the book:

Such a discourse must be informed by a postmodern concern with establishing the material and ideological conditions that allow multiple, specific, and heterogeneous ways of life to come into play as part of a border pedagogy of postmodern resistance. This points to the need for educators to prepare students for a type of citizenship that does not separate abstract rights from the realm of the everyday, and does not define community as the legitimate and unifying practice of a one-dimensional historical and cultural narrative. Postmodernism radicalizes the emancipator possibilities of teaching and learning as a part of a wider struggle for democratic public life and critical citizenship. It does this by refusing forms of knowledge and pedagogy wrapped in the legitimizing discourse of the sacred and the priestly; its rejecting universal reason as a foundation for human affairs; claiming that all narratives are partial; and performing a critical reading on all scientific, cultural, and social texts as historical and political constructions.

In Solidarity


Saturday, 19 May 2018

Choke Points: Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain

Dear Colleagues,

Manny Ness has, yet again, produced a book (co-edited with Jake Alimoahed-Wilson) which reveals the startling, unyielding capacity of workers' agency in the context of global capitalism. Very much like my particular favourite, New Forms of Workers' Organisation, this book provides space for insights and argument directly from those groups of workers at key nodes, or choke points, in global supply chains.

Further details (and access to sample pages) is available here:

I was fortunate to get the chance to interview Manny when he was in the UK in 2014 to promote New Forms of Workers' Organisation. This was a particularly valuable opportunity for students of the MA ILTUS to spend time with him, and as the MA explored the future of trade unionism globally to gain his insight and perspective.

My interview with Manny is here:

In Solidarity


Sunday, 6 May 2018

Crossing the divide: Precarious work and the future of labour (Book review)

Dear Colleagues,

The review below has been submitted to the journal Work, Employment and Society. It was a real pleasure to read Crossing the Divide, and , as I've said in the review, paid more attention to it given the activist credentials of the authors. Despite the book's focus on precarious work in the informal economy of the Global South, it carries considerable lessons for those engaged in similar work in the Global North.

Crossing the Divide: Precarious Work and the Future of Labour

Edward Webster,‎ Akua O. Britwum,‎ Sharit Bhowmik (Eds)

Durban: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2017, R. 315, pbk, (ISBN: 9781869143534) pp.280

A key strength of this edited book, is its reflection of that rich, historical tradition of activist-scholars applying rigorous intellectual coherence to the on-going re-shaping of labour within the context of capitalist politically economy, and assessing its implications for the future of workers’ organisations.
Similarly, this empiricist insight borne of activist experience, ensures that this book, opposed to others on a similar theme, is predicated on a degree of practicability and relevance to those engaged in organising and educational activity in the context of precarious, poor work. Thus, the focus in the introductory chapter on the sources of power open to precarious and vulnerable workers, is as relevant in analysing the on-going success in the United Kingdom (UK) of the McStrikers, as it is when applied in the second part of the book, to domestic workers in Accra, Ghana.

The book applies an ethnographic approach across a series of case studies of organising experience in Ghana, India and South Africa to examine the challenges and opportunities of organising across the informal economy. It addresses questions of how informal workers come to organise, and helpfully examines models of self-organisation, and the use co-operatives as a means to generate and sustain decent work. Importantly for those engaged in issues of trade union renewal, the book offers insights on the ways in which organisations comprised of precarious workers engage with trade unions and other civil society organisations, and their respective response.
The first part of the book caters for the broad theme of agricultural work including a focus on tea plantation workers in India, oil palm plantation workers in Ghana and in South Africa coverage of farm workers based in the horticultural sector in Gauteng, and wine farms in the Western Cape. The second part of the book is more diverse, and across six chapters examines:  the experience in India of home-based workers in Maharashtra and steel utensil manufacturing workers in Delhi; the experience of organising through the collective agency of domestic workers in Accra, Ghana; waste pickers in Accra, Ghana, and Pune, India; and a chapter on municipal workers in Johannesburg South Africa.
 This approach to critical comparison works well, as it helps underline that which is common, for example, in distinguishing the legacy and endurance of colonialism as a key feature differentiating the experience of precarious work and the typologies of workers between the Global South and North. And, that which differs across the case studies, for example, between clumsy attempts by the ‘official’ labour movement in South Africa to absorb the informal economy into its purview, contrasted with wholly independent, new forms of workers’ organisation emerging in India.
The introductory chapter to the book outlines its conceptual and theoretical basis. As such we start with a clear sense of how processes of globalisation, accelerated by neo-liberal policy, have induced the rapid, yet uneven informalisation and casualisation of work and employment.
Thus, whilst the readership of the book will span trade union activists and officials, as well as students of political economy, development studies and labour studies, it will have an appeal also to radical geographers also, as the book is reflective of the following dominant themes.

The Organising Space
Conventional analysis of strategies to organise and mobile workers is typically predicated on conventional forms of work, workplace/space and worker. Precarious work often by its nature, and whether formal or informal, takes place in the unconventional, whether this is the street, the home, or performance space. A considerable strength of the book are those chapters, like that of Wilderman on farm workers in the Western Cape, which bring fresh dynamic insight to the relevance of the ownership of public space as a feature of organising strategy. Here, the takeover by striking farm workers of a motorway held significant symbolic power as a counterweight to their otherwise subdued state through a form of paternalistic feudalism whilst living of farmland.
Worker Identity
A major impediment in the informal economy to strategies to collectivise workers’ interests, and express these through representative channels, is that work, sometimes undertaken in an educational context as the book documents, which helps shape a collective consciousness of being workers located within the economy. Gartenberg’s insight on this work with poor women workers in Maharashtra, is a considerable asset to those engaged in similar work in the Global North. The generation of identity and agency is achieved here through the relatively simple device of using existing activists in the LEARN Women Workers Union to overcome an often innate sense of inferiority held by informal economy workers, but compounded here by patriarchy and the caste system.
Worker & Employment Status
Intrinsic to those challenges of organisation and mobilisation identified above, is that caused with the fragmentation of work across supply chains at both global and level levels. Similarly, as witnessed in the UK postal and package delivery service, the concerted effort to fragment workers between core and periphery, has led to widespread concern around the abuse of workers engaged in false self-employment. Those chapters dedicated to the experience of organising waste pickers helps shed considerable light on the ways in which work in the informal economy, and the status of workers involved, reflects a complexity of status, and the challenge of organising those workers.
Between these chapters clear delineation of status can be established which then helps distinguish strategies for organising. As Gadgil and Samson reveal when examining the narratives of waste pickers in Pune, India, attempts to regularise and formalise work through the formation of co-operatives enables negotiation with local government to improve the conditions of work, and the safety of workers. As is known through others studies of the union-co-op relationship in organising workers and creating safe, decent work, hybridity can generate solutions, as well as challenges. This chapter does not shy away from acknowledging these, and this approach ensures that the approach overall in the allied chapters, combine to provide rational, honest assessments of the durability and resilience, or not, inherent to organising in the informal economy.
 Ultimately, the book retains an optimistic, rational tone. Its strength is to make the often invisible work of poor, vulnerable workers in the informal economy, open to scrutiny and analysis. It conjures an honest assessment of the relative strengths and weaknesses of organising approaches to-date, and most importantly, establishes a constructive sense of informal workers as capable of creating organic models of solidarity to protect and promote their collective interests.

In Solidarity