Monday, 21 April 2014

International Bargaining and Regulation Seminar: 29th April 2014


On behalf of the good people (Joe Holly, Dave Spooner et al) behind the Global Labour Institute (GLI) can I encourage you to attend a half-day event in Manchester next week. All details are below including how to book a place. I can't think of a better time for such a gathering and so I commend the GLI and its partner organisations for putting together a thought-provoking programme with a dynamic cross-section of speakers.

A half-day seminar to explore current thinking and experience in international collective bargaining and regulation. The seminar is one of a sequence of events that follow GLI’s International Summer Schools, enabling trade unionists and academics to explore and discuss some of the key issues in greater depth. The seminars are organised as a partnership between the Global Labour Institute in Manchester, the European Work and Employment Research Centre at Manchester Business School and the Critical Labour Studies network.

Harold Hankins Building Room 10.05 (10th Floor) 
Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, M13 9PL


12:30 Welcome and informal lunch

13:00  New Developments in Trade unions, International Bargaining and Regulation
General discussion introduced by Prof Miguel Martinez Lucio and Dr Stephen Mustchin (MBS)

13:30  European Works Councils and the new dynamics of participation in the EU  Prof Jeremy Waddington (MBS)

14:00  Global Union Federation strategies for International Collective Bargaining
Dave Spooner/Dr Joe Holly, (Global Labour Institute, Manchester)

14:30 Break

15:00 Collective Bargaining in Transnationals – Theory and Reality?
John Storey (Exec Council Member, Chemicals, Pharmaceuticals, Process and Textiles,
Unite the Union)  Martin Mayer (Chair of the International Transportworkers Federation Road Transport  Section, and Exec Council Member, Passenger Transport, Unite the Union)
Followed by discussion

16:00  Legitimacy, Tripartism and Decent Work Deficits  Dr Phoebe Moore, Middlesex University

16:30 Prospects for effective international bargaining and regulation
Roundtable discussion

17:00 Close

To register, please contact Joe Holly at GLI –

In Solidarity


Monday, 7 April 2014

Staying Power: Black Trade Union Activists in the UK Labour Movement


I had the immense privilege to spend this weekend delivering the second stage course in leadership skills for BME trade union activists of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) at the union's residential education facility at Alvescot in Oxfordshire.

An inspirational group of  black trade union activists at Alvescot this weekend
The specific focus of the weekend was upon measures to support an increase in the proportion of black activists in senior lay and paid positions across the union and active across its structures. 

I've been very fortunate to have spent a large proportion of my trade union teaching career involved in similar work, and I am particularly pleased to have been asked to engage in this work by Trish Lavelle the union's Head of Education.

Such activity is always welcome, but sadly it recognises that there is still much to do across the UK labour movement in improving the way in which black activists are able to fully inform  policy debates and share in leadership activity at local, regional and national levels.

Kambi and Romanus: Poetry in a Motion
A useful barometer of the health (or not) of the movement in this context comes in the form of the periodic reports produced by the South East Region TUC (SERTUC) titled Swimming Against the Tide - the title of which offers a glimpse of the challenge facing black workers, women, LGBT activities etc:

One of the most startling findings of the SERTUC reports is that many UK trade unions either do not collect data on the ethnic status of members and/or monitor representation at fora including conference, NEC etc. Similarly, is their a disproportionately low number of black full-time officials in a number of UK trade unions with a high black membership.

Michael, Prince, Roseberry, Kuldip and Bimba hard at work
It is true to say that much has changed in the UK labour movement in its attitude and focus on race. The active support of the movement for societal change, particularly in the workplace, in the wake of the McPherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence is one that I am particularly aware as much of my teaching activity, as mentioned earlier, is linked with the trade union momentum generated by McPherson and subsequent, related legislative change.

Despite this however, deeper, wider structural change still alludes the bulk of the movement, and we are not without a historical wealth of literature which has either explored the context of trade union paucity in this area and/or provided diagnosis and remedy. My personal historical favourites include Ron Ramdin's Making of the Black Working Class in Britain ( and Peter Fryer's Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (

Adam talks about his experience of the BA ILTUS at Ruskin
Taken together both books help unfold a complex story race within the UK labour movement. It isn't always a bleak story as, for example, parts of the labour movement supported the position on the Labour Party in championing independence for Commonwealth countries in the post-war era. Similarly, the Grunwick dispute, comprising principally Asian women workers, provides some evidence of the movement at its best.

In general though, the books reveal a combination of ambivalence at one end of the spectrum, and outright racist resistance (sometimes in collusion with employers) at the other. In order to ensure, however, that this historical pattern did not become a structural continuum, there has been a wealth of research which has more explicitly focused on race and trade unions in order to more specifically prescript measures to resolve historical failings.

This brief blog post can't do justice to the range of depth of this material but it includes that from academic colleagues including Jane Holgate and Miguel Martinez Lucio who have typically analysed specific organising or educational initiatives concluding that wider/deeper cultural and organisational long-term change does not occur as a result e.g:

Others, including Organising the Unorganised: Race, Poor Work and Trade Unions by John Wrench and Satnam Virdee (both have written extensively in this field) speaks of an urgent need for trade unions to organise workers engaged in 'poor work' (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) and in particular via collaborative initiatives with allied agencies/organisations outwith the labour movement:

Virdee's recent publication (Jan 2014: places such poor workers squarely within the traditions of British working class life, and as such have played, and should continue to play a central role in agencies of the working class: A short blurb for his new book reads:

Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider offers an original perspective on the significance of both racism and anti-racism in the making of the English working class. While racism became a powerful structuring force within this social class from as early as the mid-Victorian period, this book also traces the episodic emergence of currents of working class anti-racism. Through an insistence that race is central to the way class works, this insightful text demonstrates not only that the English working class was a multi-ethnic formation from the moment of its inception but that racialized outsiders - Irish Catholics, Jews, Asians and the African diaspora - often played a catalytic role in the collective action that helped fashion a more inclusive and democratic society.

Ultimately, the bulk of research dedicated to race and organised labour, leaves us with a clear sense that the work of the CWU black activists this weekend is not just necessary, but part of a long, shared concern that the UK labour movement is missing out on a vital component in the critically important debate on trade union revitalisation - this is Virdee's central point in his recent book.

The most optimistic message I can send to those reading this item is that those activists who gathered this weekend have an abiding commitment to their union and to the wider labour movement, and are committed to working collaboratively to make change happen. I very much look forward to continuing to work with them and to witness the unfolding change both in the CWU and wider movement.

In Solidarity


Saturday, 29 March 2014

Of labour, by labour, for labour: Salt of the Earth


Often in my teaching of trade union activists and officials I'll say that before you evaluate or analyse any form of action, consider the proportion and form of the reaction.

And so, as we mark this month the 60 year anniversary of the talismanic US labour movement film Salt of the Earth, we should start our assessment of its impact by acknowledging the visceral assault upon the film, its makers and cast, by Hollywood, the US government and elements of the US labour movement.

The film is now no longer subject to copyright, so if you've not watched it before you should firstly hang your head in shame, and then sit down for 90 minutes of pure labour movement joy, using one of the many online sites where it is available e.g.

Salt of the Earth gained immediate notoriety on its release by becoming the only film banned during the McCarthy-era witch hunts of the 1950s. The film's makers were blacklisted by Hollywood, and the film languished for decades as a result until the emergence of radical politics in the 60's led to a renewed interest in the film and and of why it posed such a threat.

The film explored and recounted actual events during the 1951 Empire Zinc miners' strike in New Mexico. One of the most remarkable features of the film was in its equal treatment of issues of race, class and gender. Similarly, the bulk of the film's actors were miners and their families from the dispute and they were involved centrally in determining how the film would depict their fight for decent wages and good health and safety standards.

The movie's director, Herbert Biberman, was one of the infamous Hollywood Ten imprisoned for six months refusing to provide any information to McCarthy's show trial for Un-American activities.

Gender becomes a central feature of the film when lead actor Juan Quintero, playing strike leader Ramon Quintero, leaves any sense of radicalism outside of the home and effectively treats his wife as a second class citizen. In response his wife Esperanza, played by Rosaura Reveultas, leads a revolt of the miners' wives to demand an equal role in the dispute and to be recognised as offering a valuable role in fortifying the strike picket lines. Thus the film is depicted from a feminist perspective as we are able to determine the specificity of gender as a distinct means to analyse the relationship between the striking men and their wives and this also allows us to see how the disputes realises a differing form of relationship between them.

The film was sponsored by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers a union expelled from the CIO in 1950 for alleged communist leadership. This treacherous act shocked many in the left of the US labour movement as it was the historical radicalism of the union which led it, amongst others, to create the CIO in 1935. The pedigree of the union must be noted as it had, in its earlier incarnation as the Western Federation of Miners, played a key role in helping to forge the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905.

Given the anniversary of the film, and of its notoriety, there has been much incisive coverage in the press and online recently e.g.,

For those interested in a detailed account of the story behind the making of the film, and of the backlash thereafter, you should treat yourself to a copy of James Lorence's 1999 book The Suppression of the Salt of the Earth.

The film has rightly carved out a place for itself in US (and international) labour movement history  (I hope to show it as Ruskin College under the umbrella of the 84-85 miners' strike anniversary events) and can be seen from many perspectives as creating a distinctive form of cinematography in depicting issues of organised labour through an equal treatment of the typically intersecting issues of class, gender and race.

I do hope that the 60th anniversary events enable the film to be brought to a new generation of activists both within and outside the labour movement.

In Solidarity


Monday, 24 March 2014

She shall bring thee to honour when thou dost embrace her

Mancunians do nothing in half measures. And so, when E Vincent Harris was looking for inspiration for the design of Manchester’s central library in 1934, he reached for the Pantheon in Rome, knowing that only one great civilisation should speak unto another. OK, so as a proud Mancunian, I am prejudiced, but Manchester’s name is derived from a long period of settlement by Romans after all, so the link to Rome is not contrived.
(Sadly, tonight as I posted this item the photo function of blogger wasn't working. So, sorry that this post doesn't project the glory of which I speak.)

Now that the central library has had a £50m makeover the library has not only been returned to its former glory, but the majority of the building, and its long-stored treasures, are open and available to the public.

My particular fondness for the library is that it was here, in the spring of 1989, that I wrote the assignment which accompanied my application to Ruskin College. As computers were not the norm in libraries (or homes, colleges etc.) at this stage I sat in the domed glory of the grade II listed building  earnestly and laboriously drawing on several weighty legal text books to answer a question along the lines of, is the British judiciary impartial in its rulings on trade union strike action? Invariably you can guess my answer, and although I would cringe at the juvenile approach to my writing and analysis if I could see that assignment again, it did the trick and forever after I was in debt to this mighty institution.

There has been some great coverage of the restoration work (e.g. and having visited recently with my daughter the visionary new building that houses Birmingham’s central library, I am pleased that Manchester stuck with a project to restore our/my library to its neo-classical glory.

Legions of Mancunians, and other welcome visitors, have poured through the doors of this magnificent institution, maintained for decades with a strong, confident pride in the principles of municipal socialism. Manchester looks and feels today quite different from that groggy, disparate place that I left in the late 80s to re-enter education, but it is with great pride that I look upon the remarkable change in the fortunes and landscape of the city now, knowing that legions more will benefit as I did from a source of such inspiration and hope.

By the way, the title of this post is taken from the statement which circles in carved stone across the vast domed interior of the main building. Taken from Proverbs 4: "Wisdom is the principal thing therefore get wisdom: And with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her, and she shall promote thee. She shall bring thee to honour when thou dost embrace her. She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace; A crown of glory she shall deliver to deliver to thee."

Good luck Manchester central library.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Men of Vision, Men of Action


I have  just presided over a minute's silence in respect of Bob Crow and Tony Benn with BA labour and trade union students who are here at Ruskin this weekend. We are fortunate to have Steve Skelly with us as part of the 2010 cohort, and who sits on the NEC of the RMT, to provide a personal perspective on the leadership and personality of Bob Crow.

Many thanks to Andy Danforth of UWE for forwarding the two pictures below, taken by Robert Byford a PhD student at UWE and researching the last dispute at BA.

This has been an incredibly difficult week for the British labour movement, and I don't feel I have much to add amongst the massive outpouring of commentary and retrospectives, so I'll just comment from a personal perspective, and leave you with some of my favourite quotes of Crow and Benn.

Before I do though, I should add that the title for the posting draws on the chapter from the book by Richard Lewis, Teachers and Leaders. The book examines the impact of miners on the development of worker education in the UK, and in particular the impact of the South Wales Miners Federation (SWMF) in sending miners as trade union activists to Ruskin College, and thereafter what happened to workers' education through the rise of the Pleb's League and the creation of the labour colleges movement.

For me, the link with Bob Crow and Tony Benn was firstly their very proud association with Ruskin College, and secondly their acknowledgement that movements for social justice typically rest of the acquisition of a layer of knowledge on the part of working class women and men.

Bob Crow embodied that which makes the union strong (to draw on the title of Tony Lane's book) in that no struggle for workers' right, be that in the form of improved terms and conditions, or improvements in the law, has historically note come through little or no struggle. When I listened this week to Londoners bemoaning the transport strikes led by Crow I wondered why they didn't ask how the rights they enjoy (weekend leave, sick pay, maternity leave etc etc) came about, nor why they didn't query the role of Boris Johnson in forcing the hand of the RMT in pursuing industrial action as a legitimate response to his attempts to reduce the quality and standard of London transport.

On being told of Thatcher's death "I wont shed one single tear over her death. She destroyed the NHS and destroyed industry in this country and as far as I'm concerned she can rot in hell."
"I was brought up according to Labour movement principles and to believe that the 11th commandment is 'Thou shalt not cross a picket line"

I first heard Tony Benn speak in the mid-80s at Manchester Town Hall in the aftermath of the riots in Moss Side. I was soon to join the Labour Party and a comrade insisted I come along and hear the old geezer. From that afternoon and thereafter I was in awe of Benn's passion and conviction in that the fight against oppression and injustice was a moral one, and that I was part of a long, historical tradition of radical movements fighting class elites, corporate power and state corruption. I first get the opportunity to read Benn's prolific output when I got to Ruskin as a full-time student in 1989, and I remember distinctly spending time first with Arguments for Socialism, and being transfixed with the idea that the fight for working class democratic representation could be rooted in a Christian socialist perspective.
"I’m not frightened about death. I don’t know why, but I just feel that at a certain moment your switch is switched off, and that’s it. And you can’t do anything about it."
"If one meets a powerful person ask them five questions: 'What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?' If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system."
Although many people internationally will necessarily mourn the loss of Tony Benn and Bob Crow, it is, from my perspective, that with which they leave us that it more important. It is the sense that the fight for social justice is a moral one, and that this fight can be made orally, and in words and writing, as well as on the streets through strike action and protest. It is that there is no shame or fear in standing up to power in the form of elites, the state or employers, and ultimately, that history tells us that we can and do win when we act with conviction and in solidarity.

RIP Tony Benn and Bob Crow

In Solidarity


Sunday, 2 March 2014

Where is the Workers' Party?


Yesterday's Labour Party special conference in London voted overwhelming to renounce the century's old traditional relationship of the British labour movement with an industrial and political wing.

This occurred in the same week that the Tory party, with no sense of irony whatsoever, attempted to re-brand itself as the workers' party.

Thus we need to seriously ask which mainstream political party clearly and evidently places the interests of working class women and men squarely as a core value, and seeks to represent these values through Parliamentary and other representatives drawn primarily from this constituency.

Where is the British workers' party?

My personal view is that the Labour Party has capitulated to a right-wing assault on the trade union movement, a view neatly captured in a recent article by Seumas Milne in The Guardian. His piece cogently compared the opaque donations to the Tory party of corporate lobbyists and big business with what is arguably the cleanest, most transparent and honest money in British party politics - that from trade unions and from the membership fees of trade union members.

Miliband has essentially used the allegations of trade union manipulation and/or bullying tactics at Falkirk and Grangemouth as a smokescreen to smash the only real direct link the Labour Party has to the mass working class. As Milne argues:

That is the context of the permanent onslaught on Labour's links with the trade unions, the only force still connected to mainstream politics which sits outside the corporate merry-go-round and gives political access to working class people. That's why the media keeps up its Orwellian denunciation of elected union leaders as "bosses" and "barons", while company bosses are described as "business leaders" – and why every strike is treated as tantamount to high treason.
It's also why the only media and Westminster test of Miliband's Labour reforms is whether they cut union influence enough. At the moment they're not entirely sure, perhaps partly because most reporting of the issue is so wildly inaccurate. In any case, nothing short of the exemplary arrest of a few union leaders would satisfy some of Miliband's tormentors. (
Whilst a formal relationship will still exist, and trade unions will still be able to make donations to the Party, the decision yesterday to implement in full the recommendations of the Collins report ( means that the Party will have moved away by 2020 from its capacity to legitimately claim that it is a party of the working class - although arguably there are many within and without the party who do not wish that to be so in any case.

A key initial outcome of Collins' adoption yesterday is that individual members of the Labour Party who gain their Party membership and pay their membership fee via a trade union will no longer be able to do so and must now join the Party directly. Miliband's narrative is that this direct democracy will be healthier for the Party and more representative of an approach to "letting people back into politics".

His gamble however omits to acknowledge two inconvenient truths:

1. Party membership via trade union membership does not actually translate into a loyalty to the Party. UNITE and UNISON polling before the 2010 general election portrayed a dominant rejection of Party policy across a significant minority of members who were Party members.

Although this analysis may form part of Miliband's approach here (i.e. we should only have as members those who support the Party), what needs to be understood is that those current Party members who are swing voters (or reject Labour altogether) are not likely to join the Party directly once their membership is severed.

2. The national and international trends are heavily indicative of a movement away from membership of established political parties. I have blogged previously about the phenomenon of millennial momentum ( which predicts a continuing, increasing tendency of people to avoid formal affiliation with organisations, whilst at the same time possibly remaining loyal through voting for example.

I joined the Labour Party when I was 16 and despite a remarkably bumpy ride past 30 years - including a period of suspension linked to what I can only describe as a miscarriage of justice - I have retained my membership regardless of central contradictions in my personal political values and the changing character of Party policy.

I am not sure whether I shall retain my membership, but it is quite clear that yesterday's events will place thousands of trade union activists in Party positions (elected and voluntary) in a very difficult position and which will invariably weaken Party organisation on the ground.

I'll come back to this issue later in the year and confirm my decision at that point.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 23 February 2014

Ruskin: A Keyword for 115 Years


Yesterday Ruskin College celebrated its 115th birthday. I had hoped to post this item then but was at Ruskin teaching a BA labour/trade union studies group, which is a valid diversion from time spent with the blog.

That Ruskin has reached this ripe old age is some going for an institution largely renounced by its namesake John Ruskin, and which for over a decade after its creation as Ruskin Hall in 1899 had no formal, long-term home. The (in)famous student strike of 1908 which led to the formation of the Plebs' League, and thereafter the National Council of Labour Colleges, helped destabilise Ruskin's potential long-term future, but also helped cement a view that as Ruskin was borne to serve the radical educational needs of the burgeoning trade union and allied social movements, it could hardly not reflect the political. social and economic tumult and fervour at the turn of the 20th century.

Soon to admit thousands: The entry ticket to Ruskin's inaugural open
event at Oxford town hall on 22nd February 1899
Who could know what the next 115 years would hold? As Ruskin celebrates its birthday, it does so at a time of significant change and challenge in the context of neo-liberal dogma in the further and higher education sectors that the College straddles. As historical precedent demonstrates however, neither internal or external challenges are reliable barometers of the College's likely survival.

Ruskin's impact and legacy is reflected, I would argue, partly through the reissuing of Raymond Williams' seminal publication Keywords: a masterclass in understanding the ideological interrelationship between language and politics, and that in the battle for ideas working class women and men required Ruskin College as an institution to rebalance the power of elites.

Keywords as an expression of the power of language
The reissue of Keywords is supplemented by an accompanying exhibition at Tate Liverpool and which together provide a both a textual and visual means for new generations of activists to absorb the power and subtlety  of Williams' 1976 classic.

The first issue of the book contained 110 micro-analyses of the etymological, political and cultural trajectories of selected keywords: words without it is difficult to interpret dominant influences on our historical and contemporary lives. Thus the '76 first edition included such analyses of the words "bourgeois", "bureaucracy" and capitalism".

Without such interpretation (whether supplied by Williams or those who came before him), and accompanied of course with supplementary material and applied contextual relevance, legions of Ruskin's students would have been incapable of resuming or moving on to occupy vanguard positions in trade union, social and political movements internationally.

Andy Beckett's article in last weekend's Observer on the Williams re-issue helps re-focus the continuing relevance of Williams to the on-going work of Ruskin with current students:

"On the surface it was a history of language and ideas; underneath it was a history of England's economy, politics and society since the late middle ages. The rise of the middle class and the free market, the industrial revolution, the effects of democracy and leftwing dissent, the increasing Americanisation and atomisation of 20th-century England – all these themes recur in Williams's economical discussions of his chosen words."

Over time Ruskin College has (I would hope) become itself either a keyword, or perhaps a byword, for radical education supplied within the context of a distinct ethos and mission. I can confirm honestly that staff hold fierce to that mission of enabling  working class women and men to capture and apply their own understanding of primary keywords as part of the historic fight for social and economic justice.

Happy birthday Ruskin College.

In Solidarity