Saturday, 24 January 2015

Government of Itself: Public sector trade unionism and the limits of democracy


I've had little time to sit and write since returning to Ruskin after the Christmas break given the pace of work, although I have been desperate to write something in order to reflect upon and interpret much thought related to recent teaching, and in particular linked to critical reflective practice and also trade union leadership.

I think I shall come back to these themes (not least as they will appear a lot within my teaching over the next few months) and instead use this post to grind an axe over a remarkably porous and ultimately ill-conceived new book published this month.

Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences by Daniel DiSalvo was published on 6th January by Oxford University Press (OUP), and is hailed in the marketing blurb thus:

As workers in the private sector struggle with stagnant wages, disappearing benefits, and rising retirement ages, unionized public employees retire in their fifties with over $100,000 a year in pension and healthcare benefits. The unions defend tooth and nail the generous compensation packages and extensive job security measures they've won for their members. However, the costs they impose crowd out important government services on which the poor and the middle class rely. Attempts to rein in the unions, as in Wisconsin and New Jersey, have met with massive resistance. Yet as Daniel DiSalvo argues in Government against Itself, public sector unions threaten the integrity of our very democracy.

Before I engage with the book, it is helpful to note that DiSalvo is a fellow of the Manhattan Institute (MI), a right-wing thinktank established by none other than William Casey, who was director of the CIA under Reagan. In its modern-day guise the Institute retains a ruthless, authoritarian position on the state, privatisation, immigration, welfare etc., and is core funded by a league of ne'er do wells including the Koch brothers. Here is a useful background institute and its background and contemporary status:

The MI status of DiSalvo is critically important in understanding (a) the dogmatic, irrational and deeply flawed theses of the book, and (b) why, in the frenzy of the post-Obama era, and search for the Republican presidential candidate, the books 'findings' have been leapt upon with such glee by the right, as a way to undermine any trade union support for the Democrat candidate.

Although it may set your teeth on edge, any sound critical analysis of the book (it isn't worth buying, trust me) requires listening to a first-hand account of the premise of the book by DiSalvo himself at a MI bash a couple of weeks ago:

Whilst I may sound na├»ve, I am surprised that the OUP have published a book whose critical weaknesses rest principally on the explicit bias and prejudice of the author, and thus can withstand no simple analysis of its many flawed arguments.

DiSalvo's principle position is that public sector workers rule government, particularly at local/state level (by supporting pro-union councillors etc.), and thus contrive corrupt rules and enjoy lavish benefits that no other workers enjoy. He claims a pretended love of private sector unions who, he argues, have nothing other then simple bargaining power to achieve vastly disproportionate levels of pay/benefits, and thus, somehow, are better/true unions, as a result.

Thatcher and DiSalvo: You can't
trust public sector trade unions
If you wasn't aware of DiSalvo's MI patronage, you'd wonder what he was up to, and how he could reach such conclusions, but then everything falls into place. Whilst DiSalvo claims, as Thatcher did in the 80's when banning unions at GCHQ, that there is a contradiction in allowing independent trade unionism in delivering sensitive public services, he is, unremarkably, silent about issues of impartiality/trust etc., when it is the private sector as service delivery agent.
Similarly, whilst he argues that public sector unions are a threat to democracy, he seems incapable of drawing a more relevant conclusion when analysing the rise of state power vis the state - but that's because he explictly ignores the issue, as he sees no conflict here in any case. That ALEC is one the organisations allied to MI is a testament to how corrupted is DiSalvo's position on the threats to liberal democracy in the US. Read Paul Krugman in the New York Times (NYT) on ALEC to understand my point:

Trade unions can indeed be reactionary, conservative self-serving bodies, and there is a vast body of literature which chronicles how this pattern of behaviour has both precipitated labour movement decline, and in some contexts is an impediment to renewal. DiSalvo's book however, has nothing to add that was not known already, nor does it  offer an authentic, original, scholarly approach within the field.

At a time when the limits of democracy in both the US and UK preclude the interests and values of the bulk of the population, trade unions can and do act as a corrective in providing an equilibrium within the imbalance of corporate influence on mainstream political parties, and thus on government. Additionally, public sector trade unions have a legitimate place as civil society actors in alliance with the public in defending services, particularly in the context of austerity measures. Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage provide a cogent insight on this in the Canadian context in Public Sector Unions in the Age of Austerity:

This book could have been a useful assessment of why and how trade unions seek to gain power and influence in the US, and perhaps even how this may act as a detriment to workers', society and government interests. Instead, it serves the beneficial purpose of realising further the manipulative reach of corporate interests within the academic/research sphere.

In Solidarity


Thursday, 8 January 2015

2015: Reasons to be Cheerful


Have returned to Ruskin from the Christmas break and, as it is as hectic as ever, I am copping out slightly of writing an original first post for 2015, by referencing a great article written In These Times just before the end of 2014, which signalled another set of reasons to remain hugely optimistic about the future of organised labour.

I had better not get into hot water with the good folks at In These Times so rather than reproducing the text, here is the link to the article on the 9 most important victories for workers in 2014:

When we come together, when we fight together, we can win.
As we have always known and understood as trade unionists, a victory for workers anywhere, is a victory for workers everywhere (nicking and adapting a profound Martin Luther King phrase). So, whilst the article focuses on gains by the labour movement in the US, we all gain strength from these, not least in the context of a neo-liberal globalisation.

When I first read the article I was already minded to think that some of the gains e.g. those by the courts and NLRB extending workers' rights to those nominally deemed to be self-employed, or recognising that franchisors (like McDonalds) can be treated as employers and held liable for infringements of employment and labour laws, and even confirming that workers can use company email for union/organising activity, were anathema in the current economic and political climate the UK and much of Europe.

Indeed, as I reflected on the article, and the job losses at City Link where I live in Coventry, it placed the US gains in even sharper relief, as these UK workers find that the company, bought for £1 by venture capitalists, would have to rely on the government scheme to possibly get the redundancy payments they are entitled to (the self-employed, so called 'partners' entitled to nothing) as the company was revealed to be run on the basis of debt and perversely a company's workforce is not a preferential creditor in such circumstances.

The casino capitalism of City Link: A sure-fire way to destroy local and national economies.
As the day's rolled by after the closure of City Link the scandal of how the company was run in order that 'investors' be shielded from its eventual implosion was revealed in successive articles by the Guardian (e.g.

It is only a strong international labour movement, backed by regulatory fairness in employment practice, that can act as a corrective to the casino capitalism that lays behind the scandal of City Link.

As the In These Times article, and many other labour movement victories in 2014 evidence, we should never abandon the struggle to realise these goals on a global scale.

Those who built labour movements around the world didn't, and nor should we.

I look forward to reporting on further victories in 2015, and discussing them with you if our paths should cross.

In Solidarity


Saturday, 20 December 2014

What Manchester says today, England says tomorow (Best wishes for 2015)


A strange title indeed for the last posted item of 2014, but I had to nip into the offices of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) yesterday as the organisation is on the move to a new base adjacent to the hotel it bought a couple of year's ago (Quorn Grange - a great venue for TU and left events: and I had left a pile of books there when I left my part-time role to become full-time at Ruskin in Dec 2013.

One of the books, The Industrial Syndicalist, is a compilation of the newsletters of the same name which were edited by Tom Mann, and is a fascinating insight into that era when the GFTU was seen, alongside many trade unions, as the principal vehicle to facilitate and lead syndicalist debate, and ultimately the transition to a syndicalist economy and society.

The first conference on industrial syndicalism was held at the Corn Exchange in Manchester on 26th November 1910, and when the Industrial Syndicalist (Vol 1, No.6 Dec 1910) reported on the outcome of the event it's opening title was, A Manchester message to the workers of Britain, and the title of this post was used to introduce the article.

Whilst the current role of the GFTU has changed somewhat from the heady days of the early 20th century, it is still nonetheless an important institution of the national and international labour movement, and I wish my colleagues all the very best in continuing to serve the interests of small, specialist trade unions and professional associations.

Coincidentally, the famous labour movement artist Walter Crane created the original GFTU logo in 1898, and I used one of his images for the postcard given to current students of the MA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin.

Naturally, it is important to recognise the cultural and political traditions of the labour movement, and whether through the continued use of the imagery of Crane, or the analysis of more contemporary forms of syndicalist worker organisation (see Manny Ness's latest for the best, latest coverage:, I am delighted that myself and my colleagues at Ruskin College (Tracy Walsh, Fenella Porter and Caroline Holmes) have the opportunity on the BA and MA ILTUS to ensure that we honour our collective past and investigate our collective future in our pedagogical approach with trade union learners.

It has been a fantastic year at Ruskin, and whilst we hold our breath based for the outcome of the May general election, we remain undiminished in our commitment to uphold the highest standards of worker and trade union education.

I wish you all the very best for 2015, and hope you have some time for rest over the next few weeks.

In Solidarity


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Ruskin College: The legacy of trade union education and research


My colleague Caroline Holmes (co-ordinator of the BA ILTUS) at Ruskin College has pulled off a fantastic feat in organising the first student-based and led symposium of the Critical Labour Studies network (CLS:

The network provides a forum (via an annual symposium and email discussion list) for critical engagement with the intersection between research activity and issues of work and labour internationally. Thus praxis is a central dynamic of the CLS philosophy, and exemplified in the international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) programme at Ruskin.

The event next week allows BA and MA students (including alumni) to showcase their research approaches and subjects underlining the inexorable role of praxis in responding the trade union crisis and renewal theme which runs thorough the ILTUS progranme at Ruskin.

Adam Alarakhia address sister and fellow activists of the Communication
Workers Union (CWU) at a black leadership event in April on his
experience of the BA ILTUS at Ruskin and the importance of radical education
in social justice movements
The event is a considerable milestone in marking Ruskin's historical role in contributing to and shaping research by and for labour movements. It also recognises the pivotally important role that Ruskin now plays in being the only educational institution in the UK which still provides labour and trade union studies education.

The event next week reflects the spirit of hundreds of similar occasions at Ruskin, and allied publications. One of these events/publications is still used on the MA and is a continual reminder to me of what Ruskin has contributed to trade union research, but also of the need to maintain our reputation.

The new MA ILTUS cohort with Dan Blackburn of the
International Centre for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR)
Trade Unions and Social Research was published by 1991 and is jointly edited by Keith Forrester and Colin Thorne. It is the only book that I know of which focuses specifically on the research needs of labour movements and how these might be met, both by trade unions themselves and/or with academics.

The book brought together papers from a number of those who attended a conference in July 1991 and which focused on this specific theme.

Despite the distinctive nature of the book, and its continuing relevance to trade union learners, an ironic omission given that the event which led to the book, was held at Ruskin, was the role of the trade union learner/student in contributing to the research needs of labour movements.

Hence the relevance of next Saturday's event, and the need, all being well, to publish student/staff research output from the ILTUS programme area at Ruskin.

Here is the text from the publicity flyer that Caroline has put together:

Ruskin College hosts the First: Student Critical Labour Studies Conference

On 13th December 2014, between 11am and 6pm, Ruskin College is hosting the inaugural student Critical Labour Studies conference as part of the CLS network. This is the first conference of student work, that is being hosted by current BA students for the specific purpose of discussing and debating subjects that current and former BA and MA International Labour and Trade Union Studies (ILTUS) students are researching.

Students will be presenting their research topics and presenting them to an audience of students, academics and other interested parties, for discussion, feedback and debate. Topics on the agenda will include Sexism in the media, UK Trade Union Political Education and how are migrant workers viewed by the trade union movement in relation to the enlargement of the European Union? 

The conference is free and open to any interested parties who want to attend. Please just turn up on the day. The canteen will open for lunch and refreshments until 2pm. The conference will be held in rooms 209 and 210.

We are looking forward to a lively and active conference that will give students an opportunity to share their ideas with others who are studying within their field.
Come along and join in.

For more details contact:  
Caroline Holmes Programme Co-ordinator BA ILTUS. 
01865 759608.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Modern Slavery: Traditional Remedies


We are approaching the last wretched gasps of the Coalition government, so it is no wonder then that much of the most urgent legislative reform is tabled at the end of a Parliamentary period, only after the ConDems have placed own priorities on the statute books.

Thus the Modern Slavery Bill (, long-since demanded, rears it head only now.

The case for such a bill is, sadly, as evident now, as it was when the Coalition was formed. Indeed, an article in this weekend's Guardian ( estimates a record number of 13,000 slaves across the UK. Given the very nature of this human tragedy however, who actualy knows the exact number?

Indeed, as reported by the Institute for Employment Rights last week (, the Global Slavery Index (GSI) of the Australian NGO Walk Free Foundation, records a 23% increase on last year's estimate of the total annual number of people bonded by modern forms of slavery, and places the figure at 35.8 million people

It isn't just the ConDem's neglect in the timetabling of the Bill that reveals the abject disinterest in the issue; there are actually many other ways in which forms of modern slavery are accelerated by Coalition policy and practice.

Anti-Slavery International, for example (as commented on in the Guardian article cited earlier) note that exploited and vulnerable workers - particularly those who are undocumented and fear deportation - remain trapped in a situation where abusive employers exploit this fear.

Similarly, and as documented last year by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation ( there has been an 84% drop in the number of prosecutions by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) despite the massive rise in documented cases of forced labour or employment below the national minimum wage in those sectors covered by the GLA:

It is evident to anyone who has followed the devastation of ConDem policy that the 'war on red tape' and support for the 'wealth creators' has led to  pulling back on regulatory and enforcement bodies specifically in the area of employment, but more generally right across the public sector in the UK.

Thus we have definitive evidence of rising modern slavery, and declining cases of prosecution.

To add a further dimension to understanding why modern day slavery will remain undisturbed in the UK, and may yet set to rise, Cameron's speech last week to European Union (EU) leaders was somewhat diminished in tone, and did not carry the full set of proposals (e.g. capping benefits to EU migrants), yes was nevertheless posited on an ever hardening position on migration.

Labour's Pat McFadden recently acknowledge that political rhetoric on migration was akin to treating the matter 'as if it were a disease'. Labour's own recent behaviour around EU migration has not helped in creating a more humane, tolerant treatment of the issue:

This behaviour of political parties around migration, and Cameron's speech last week, is now having a multiplicity of effects, not least boosting UKIPs "told you so" rhetoric on the need to renegotiate Britain's status within the EU, but worse still, placing EU migrants specifically, and all migrants generally, at an exposed position to exploitative work. In the rush to the bottom employers know that they are able to trade off those disgruntled unemployed British nationals enamoured by UKIP's siren calls, with those recent migrants desperate to get work at any cost.

And it is often in between these cracks of sometimes formal, although exploitative work, that migrants fall and comprise the largest proportion of those estimated to be amongst the 13,000 in modern slavery.

Thus, the remedy to such a situation is not just through statute but through principled leadership which understands the punitive, corrosive social effects of allowing slavery to continue and consciously chooses not to look the other way.

As William Wilberforce said of those in Parliament who fought his anti-slavery campaign, despite knowing the volume of people and sheer misery involved:

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”  

Cameron et al are in exactly that position now.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 23 November 2014

Trade Union Blacklisting: Our Turn to Make a Fuss


On Friday in Manchester, Mike Emmott of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), spoke at the 50th anniversary event of the Manchester Industrial Relations Society (MIRS) and condemned as "a big fuss" the trade union fight against blacklisting.

Dave Smith of the Blacklist Support Group ( has written a response, below, which has been distributed this evening by Jane Holgate via the Critical Labour Studies (CLS) network.

Dave's statement (including responses from many blacklisted trade unionists) is an elegant, thoughtful response to Emmott. Invariably the man from the CIPD will see this as yet more fuss. Rightly, the statement reflects on the impact on families of blacklisting, which was the dissertation research of Dermot Finn who graduated from the BA ILTUS programme at Ruskin earlier this month.

Dermot Finn, blacklisted electrician, chronicled the impact
on families of blacklisting in his BA dissertation.
On Saturday in the Guardian magazine there was a lengthy main article on the profound personal and professional impact of whistleblowing, which invariably includes blacklisting - and on occasion is done in a formal, authorised manner, not the usual seedy notes in cheap cardboard files of bodies like the Consulting Association.

Coincidentally, the first story, of Raj Mattu, is one I am very familiar with as he worked at Walsgrave Hospital which is where I live in Coventry:

Mattu's story alone gives the lie to Emmott's position as blacklisting as "a big fuss about very little".
Emmott also claims to find as "distateful" trade union attempts to investigate historical episodes of blacklisting. Yet it has been the trade union movement which has helped generate evidence of police and secret service collusion in blacklisting. Curious then that Emmott claims "trust, fairness and respect" as fundamental to the employment relationship.

Neil Smith ends Dave Smith's statement noting that the trade union movement's fight against blacklisting will continue. Invariably Emmott's "big fuss" claim will ensure that the fight is going to get bigger and better.

From Dave Smith, Blacklist Support Group...

Mike Emmott, CIPD: Blacklisting is "a big fuss about very little".

Chair of ACAS, Sir Brendan Barber has publicly clashed with Mike Emmott  from the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) over the issue of blacklisting. The very public disagreement was in front of 200 of the UK's leading industrial relations academics, HR professionals and union officials when both men addressed a conference to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Manchester Industrial Relations Society.

Emmott, a former senior civil servant and the CIPD 'employee relations expert' was a keynote speaker on behalf of the HR body, a central theme of his speech was the need for HR managers to embed a "culture of trust, fairness and respect".

During the Q&A session he was questioned about trust and fairness by GMB union political officer Neil Smith over the lack of response by the CIPD to blacklisting. In response Emmot first claimed he did not know a great deal about the issue but then went on to describe the blacklisting scandal as a "big fuss about very little" and stated that he found "union moral outrage over blacklisting, rather distasteful".

There were audible gasps and an immediate rash of tweets from the audience. The conference then loudly applauded follow up questions that identified a number CIPD Fellows personally being involved in blacklisting union members. A flustered Emmott again responded by claiming to not know about the matter, even though the issue has been front page news in the media, including the CIPD's own journal. He concluded by saying he would be happy to have the CIPD members accused of wrong doing as his neighbours.

ACAS chief, Sir Brendan Barber (former TUC General Secretary) followed Emmott and publicly stated that he totally "disagreed" with the CIPD spokesperson stating that "blacklisting is a major injustice that has not been resolved" adding that it "raises huge issues about corporate culture and responsibility"

The comments by Emmott were even more shocking as blacklisted workers and Shrewsbury Pickets were in the audience and Manchester Royal Infirmary was the scene of the two year dispute which finally exposed the Consulting Association blacklisting conspiracy.

Tony Jones, Mancheter electrician & MRI picket, blacklisted for many years after raising concerns about electrical safety commented: "Yes, it is a big fuss about nothing when you cannot feed and cloth your kids and don't know why. To me that's a form of child abuse"

Steve Acheson, Blacklist Support Group chair and Manchester electrician added:"BSG has submitted a complaint to the CIPD for breaches of the code of ethical conduct but 2 years later not a single member of the professional body has faced any sanction. Nor has any senior manager involved in blacklisting been disciplined by their employer, most remain in post or have even been promoted to the Board. The firms and CIPD have cried crocodile tears about blacklisting but the mask of hypocrisy worn by the HR profession has finally slipped.""Blacklisting breaches our human rights. It is morally wrong. For any individual to face every day of his life, with no prospect of securing a legal right to employment because of a conspiracy is a complete crime."

Neil Smith, GMB political officer whose question sparked the row, said:"GMB will continue to campaign to name and shame those guilty of blacklisting and will work with other groups to get justice for those that were wronged. CIPD and others involved will be took to task no matter how long it takes."

In Solidarity


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