Thursday, 23 April 2015

International Workers' Memorial Day: 28th April

Hold an event next week!



Wednesday, 22 April 2015

What is critical labour studies?


There is much that feeds into the educational and pedagogical strategy of the international labour and trade union studies programme at Ruskin College.

Some of this is a reflection of our day-to-day work with trade unions when meeting their own educational needs and from this devising a sense of what activists and officers 'need' from us in the form of the BA and MA ILTUS. Similarly, as we read to prepare for teaching (and creating allied resources) there is much rich material to draw from (the activist experience of our students is a constant source of material also and co-production of teaching/resources with students is a Freirean fundamental) and engage with.

Of course we also draw on our own activism, and critical reflection of this is essential to continual change, improvement etc.

I must though give special thanks to those who comprise and contribute to the Critical Labour Studies (CLS) network. The stalwarts of the network (Jane Holgate, Miguel Martinez Lucio, Simon Joyce, John Stirling) do a essential job in keeping the network alive and functioning despite their own workload challenges.

MA ILTUS Full-Time students (Matt, Chilayi, Nokwazi and Paul,
with Fenella Porter (vital MA staff member) and I, after the MA
students presented papers on their dissertation research at the 2015
CLS symposium
The network has proved to be a vital source of guidance and inspiration for trade union learners and teaching staff at Ruskin, and if it didn't exist, it would have to be created. Join it, contribute and come along to the annual symposium.

John Woods (BA ILTUS) contributes
to the 2014 CLS symposium
Below is a short piece written by John Stirling (hopefully to be published in Red Pepper) about the network from the perspective of the last network symposium at Ruskin at the end of Feb.

I wanted to publish John's piece here to provide an insight on the work of the network, but also to show that in the tradition of workers'/adult education, it acts as a key bridge between the scholarly and the 'coalface'. I wanted also to do this to send a note of thanks to all of those who comprise the network and for their help with the work of the ILTUS students and staff at Ruskin.

What is critical labour studies?

Strikes in China’s docks; organising migrant workers in the UK and domestic workers in Turkey; fire fighters and floods; the future of socialist feminism along with the quantified self were all up for debate at this year’s Critical Labour Studies conference at Ruskin College. CLS was founded over a decade ago to bring together radical academics working in the field of employment relations with trade union officers and activists to build joint working and provide a forum for new ideas and open debate. Today the conference is also joined by new researchers as well as students on Ruskin College’s trade union studies degree programmes alongside international trade union visitors and researchers.  

Katia Widlak (MA ILTUS) contributes
to the 2014 symposium
From its foundation CLS participants have engaged with the major issues facing trade unions and the labour movement and one recurring theme has been the importance of organising – but organising for action not abandonment. For example, Phoebe Moore explored the significance of new ways of working for controlling work and workers and inhibiting organising and solidarity. She introduced us to the ‘quantified self’ which builds on the tracking devices already familiar to warehouse workers by giving employees the wrist bands we can all buy to monitor our eating, breathing and sleeping. This time though, the data helps employers to see how your sleep patterns disrupt your productivity and even the ownership of the data is open to question.

Pete Dwyer, Academic Co-ordinate of
Humanities at Ruskin, presents a paper
at the 2014 symposium
With the Greens surging forward to the election there were important contributions on unions and the environment with Daniel Jakopovich discussing alliances across unions and campaigning groups and Fire Fighter Paul Hampton of the FBU using their action on the floods to highlight the continuing austerity attacks on the service. Both emphasised how far unions were now moving on environmental issues and campaigning, from a past when this debates had often focussed on jobs at any price.

The Scottish referendum also figured as a conference theme with Paul Stewart providing a detailed analysis of the voting patterns followed by a discussion of its implications for Labour and the unions. The enormous activity and action the debate provoked in Scotland has major implications both for UK politics and also for campaigning and organising strategies.

The Ruskin student input from Matt Hannam showed how vital the CLS academic/activist interface is as he drew on the early stages of his research to show the devastating impact of Tory policies on school education. Shifting employment practices have undermined pay rates but also, potentially, driven a wedge between qualified teachers and classroom support workers which required new ways of organising.

We can hardly do justice to the range of argument and debate which often prompted a return to the opening conference paper on workers control and why trade unions should still be interested in the idea. The discussion of domestic labour and social care workers highlighted the significance of ideas about retaking control of work. CLS is asking its contributors to post their contributions on their website if you want to follow up some of these issues in detail or view what went on at previous conferences. You can also join our mailing list at the websiteand get involved in future conferences.

In Solidarity


Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Power from the people: why trade union decline should concern us all


This short article of mine has been published today on the Future of Work Hub website:

Power from the people: why trade union decline should concern us all

Who benefits from trade union decline, and what lessons can we draw from this analysis about the state of the political economy in the United Kingdom? 
Power from the people’ by established International Monetary Fund (IMF) economists, Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron, provides an intelligent, robust analysis of the correlation between the reducing size and influence of trade unions as an institution of labour markets in advanced economies, the increasing wealth of the top 10% in these economies, and the shrinking value of wages for low and middle-income earners.  
Much of this analysis can be garnered elsewhere. For example, the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) has charted the steep, persistent decline of the value of wages in marked contrast to increasing productivity and overall profitability of private sector business. What is of allied concern though, is what structural factors are at play that catalyse trade union decline, precipitate the increasing precarity of UK workers and have resulted in a profound imbalance in the status of the average UK worker relative to that of corporate power and influence.
Some economists argue that strong trade unions disrupt ‘market clearing’ influences which normalise and stabilise wages in free market economies. Jaumotte and Buitron unravel this well-worn trope, dismantling also the free market assumption that trade unions are a causal factor of high unemployment: 
The empirical support for this hypothesis is not very strong, at least within the range of institutional arrangements observed in advanced economies. For instance, in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) review of 17 studies, only 3 found a robust association between union density (or bargaining coverage) and higher overall unemployment. (p.30) 
The critically important outcome of the report however, is the finding that: 
“lower unionisation is associated with an increase in top income shares in advanced economies during the period 1980–2010, thus challenging preconceptions about the channels through which union density affects income distribution”.  
Whilst there have historically been concerns about trade union power and influence, one outcome of their presence in advanced economies following the second world war era onwards, was in the stability of earnings relative to economic growth (see for example, A Booth’s ‘The Economics of the Trade Union’). 
The latest collection of essays from the Resolution Foundation focuses on this very issue, albeit with attention to the plight of young workers (and their relative absence from trade union membership) a large proportion of whom increasingly find themselves locked out of the UK economy on the “low road” of poorly paid insecure work and lack of career progression.
The dismantling of trade union power and influence has been a planned-for outcome of sustained implementation of neo-liberal policy agendas from the first Thatcher government of 1979, through the New Labour era and under the current Coalition government. 
This loss of influence has had wider implications other than in the arena of pay and reward. As the IMF report suggests, the resulting economic inequality “could also hurt society by allowing top earners to manipulate the economic and political system”.  
This arguable manipulation is seen, for example, in the joint report of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs and Business, Innovation and Skills committees, into the collapse of logistics firm Parcel Link on Christmas Day 2014. The firm maintained trading during the run-up to Christmas knowing of impending liquidation and that it was unlikely to be able to afford the minimum period of consultation prior to redundancy let alone notice of contract termination. Due to the complicated way in which City Link was purchased by private equity firm Better Capital, the taxpayer is left with the redundancy bill, and thousands of self-employed drivers are unlikely to see outstanding fees paid. 
Complicit in this manipulation, and using the mantra of ‘the fight against red tape’, is the Coalition government who in 2013 introduced fees to pursue a claim through the Employment Tribunal Service for a case like that arising from City Link. To compound the situation of workers like those at City Link, in the year prior to the introduction of fees the Coalition reduced the period during which employers had to consult with unions over mass redundancies. It should be a profound concern that a firm like Better Capital can behave with such arrogant disregard to the welfare of its employed and self-employed staff and face no judicial or governmental penalty as a result. 
The Conservative Party and parts of the UK media would have us believe that Britain suffers from a ‘dependency culture’ particularly in the context of welfare. We can agree on this, although I contend that the real dependency culture exists in myriad form between parts of the private sector (Better Capital being a case in point) and the state. This dependency culture has found common, contemporary form around, for example, limited liabilities for corporate tax payments, exemptions from employer liabilities towards employees and the increasing scope for significant segments of public services to be awarded to private sector contractors. 
Actually, where I would start in accentuating the corporate dependency culture is in the form of the massive subsidy paid from the welfare budget to workers employed across a range of sectors, but particularly retail, catering and hotels/hospitality, where wages are so low, and hours so limited, that they are reliant on welfare to survive. According to Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack in their book ‘Breadline Britain: the rise of mass poverty’, the ‘British corporate welfare state’ is one where poverty has risen fastest for those families in work, and is overall at a post-war high. I would argue that this is a result of defined corporate strategy to offset the wage bill through welfare payments. 
The future of work
The economically insecure, poorly paid women who comprise the majority employed in the social care sector exemplify not only the scandal of the corporate dependency culture, but are also a critically important barometer of where the UK is heading as the country races headlong towards a hardened, structural two-tier economy.  
The future of work: Jobs and skills in 2030 from the UK Commission on Employment and Skills (UKCES) is a particularly sobering read in this context. Its main message is this: 
If current trends run a steady path, in 2030 the UK workforce will be multi-generational, older, and more international, with women playing a stronger role. While the highly skilled will push for a better work-life balance, many others will experience increasing insecurity of employment and income. As businesses shrink their workforces to a minimum using flexibly employed external service providers to cover shortfalls, a much smaller group of employees will be able to enjoy long-term contracts. (p.5) 
A two-tier economy may benefit some, but it will, as now, be at the expense of a large segment of the UK workforce, with dire, complex consequences around issues of social cohesion, health and well-being. Similarly, the on-going toxic debate around immigration in the lead up to (and no doubt thereafter) the general election serves no beneficial purpose to the long-term health of the UK economy. 
Whilst the benefits of trade union activity may be subject to ideological dispute, any examination of the future of work in the UK (and across advanced economies as the predicted patterns are similar) should give all of us cause for concern for the future economic and social stability of society and the well-being of the population. 
Like it or not, strong trade unions create economic and political correctives essential in the kind of free market economy created by the mainstream political parties.  The position of organised labour relative to capital means that it is one of the few, arguably only, civil society actors capable of leveraging concessions from employers and the state. 
If you remain unsure as to the value of trade unions, think about the past week, month or year of your life and ask yourself if you, your family or friends benefitted from any of these.  Then ask yourself who fought for them and what life must have been like before these:  weekend leave, sick leave, sick pay, paid holidays, compensation for injury at work, minimum wage, maternity leave, maternity pay, a pension, a written contract of employment, freedom from discrimination, equal pay between men and women etc. etc. 
Ian Manborde is the programme co-ordinator, MA International Labour and Trade Union Studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin College in Oxford.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Researchers & Activists Forum on Precarious Work (23-24 April Loughborough Univ.)


A reminder that this event is coming soon and one of significant interest to trade unionists internationally. There is a fantastic line-up of speakers and current/past students of the MA ILTUS at Ruskin speaking about their allied research/outcomes.

There are no costs to attend and lunch is provided on both days free of charge. Places are limited though so please email Ruth Cufflin asap to secure a place:

In Solidarity - Ian

Monday, 30 March 2015

Workers Rights in a Global Economy


Ruskin College is an associate member of the Global Labour University (GLU) which is a network of universities, trade unions and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) delivering an MA programme similar to that run at Ruskin:

It is a real privilege to belong to the GLU community and I am pleased to be able to advertise the first (and free) online course to come out of the GLU initiative: workers' rights in a global economy.

The term MOOC stands for massive open online course, and so this GLU MOOC is a real opportunity for trade unionists globally to get to grips with the issues of securing workers' rights globally.

The course summary is:

Rights and dignity at the workplace are fundamental human rights. However, workers’ rights continue to be violated every day - millions of people worldwide are facing exploitative working hours, poverty wages, humiliation and mistreatment at work. There are estimates that today’s world has a higher number of slaves than any other time in history.

This MOOC discusses what Global Workers’ Rights are and which instruments and strategies can be used to implement them. Based on a careful mix of video lectures, readings, online resources and interviews with activists and labour scholars from around the world, you will gain both knowledge and practical skills for furthering workers’ rights worldwide.

At the end of the course you will understand the history and concept of global workers’ rights and the institutional structure of the International Labour Organization (ILO) as the key player in setting International Labour Standards. You will be able to join the economic debate about labour standards and competitiveness, and understand the concepts behind the fundamental rights of Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining.

You will understand the different approaches for realizing decent work in the informal economy and gain an overview of instruments and initiatives beyond the ILO. The course also allows you to apply this knowledge to a practical case from your country and gain skills and competencies for using the existing instruments and mechanisms for protecting workers’ rights.

This is a fantastic opportunity for trade unionists to get to grips with one of the most profound challenges we face.

You can sign up for the course here:

And there is an introductory YouTube video here:  

In Solidarity


Sunday, 22 March 2015

Audacity and the Power of Union Education


I've just finished an exhausting, but hugely rewarding weekend's teaching on the MA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin.

A huge thanks to all who contributed. On Friday this was:

Sue Ledwith (creator of the MA and now Ruskin emeritus fellow) on the gender pay gap and its relationship with union leadership

Stephen Mustchin (Univ Manchester Business School) on international regulation and collective bargaining

A joint guest speaker session with

Becca Kirkpatrick (Citizens UK - Personal capacity) on a perspective of how/whether trade unions are achieve renewal through community unionism

Jane Holgate (Leeds Univ - via video interview) on the background to community unionism and whether this is a route to trade union renewal.

On Saturday this was:

Jo Cain (Head of LAOS, UNISON - Personal capacity) on culture, organisation and union leadership.

Jack Cao (Keele Univ) On workers' resistance in China.

The keynote event was Saturday night and the presentation by Ethel Buckley (Head of Campaigns at SIPTU) on the 2014 Greyhound lockout and the union's strategy to win.

Although I must thank all colleagues who contributed (and of course Fenella Porter who shares running the MA with me) over the weekend, the student feedback confirmed that it was Ethel's session which, as a form of praxis, brought the entire weekend's teaching session together.

Many thanks to Roger McKenzie (AGS UNISON) for getting off the ground the idea of an activist in residence and for Ethel to agree to spend 18-22 March in the UK spending time with UNISON branches in Oxon and at Ruskin.

Her presentation to the MA students on Saturday night about the strategy developed by SIPTU to overcome the workplace lockout at Greyhound refuse in Dublin in 2014 was an exemplar of how trades union can still beat overtly hostile employers in a legally and economically hostile climate.

A key theme of Ethel's was the need for trade unions to be as audacious as employers, and this was exemplified in how SIPTU worked closely with those communities affected by the lockout.

Before Ethel left Ruskin earlier today I read a short passage from Jonathan Rose's Intellectual Life of the British Working Class as I wanted to underline the need for the ILTUS programme at Ruskin and the activist in residence as a place/space for ideas to be shared in the context of Ruskin's tradition of trade union education.

The pictures below provide a small glimpse into the dynamism and excitement of the weekend.

Construct a winning narrative: Ethel's first lesson for the group
Jack helping students to analyse worker resistance in China 
Mary, Chilayi, Janet, Marie, Matt and Louise: Deep dissertation discussion!
Annie, Phil, Byron and Paul: Getting to grips with research questions
Nimisha and Marie: Making a start on research design
Ethel addresses the whole group
In Solidarity


Sunday, 8 March 2015

Organising the Unorganisable? Voices from the bottom up: Researchers and Activists Forum on Precarious Work 23-24 April


Maurizio Atzeni has organised a fascinating, international line-up of speakers around the theme of workers' organisation and precarious work at Loughborough University 23-24 April.

The event reflects key themes of his last book ( which is a result of the research arising from his Marie Curie Fellowship:

Maurizio taught on the MA ILTUS in October whilst there invited myself and students to attend the event to discuss how teaching trade unionists at Ruskin reflected/projected theory/practice around precarious work and organising.

The event details are below, and I welcome those who read this blog to come along. Please contact me for further details.

Organising the Unorganisable?
Voices from the Bottom Up
Researchers and Activists Forum on Precarious Work

Loughborough University 23-24 April 2015
An insight view of workers struggles in China- Ralf Gongchao Collective

The organisation of work in Chilean Ports and dockworkers organisation- Lucas Cifuentes, Advisor of the dockworkers Union/Universidad de Chile

Migrant organising in the UK-Gabriella Alberti, Univ. of Leeds  and Independent workers of Great Britain; Joyce Jiang, Roehampton Univ. and J4DW (Justice for Domestic Worker)

Workers in retail distribution centres in the UK and in Italy- Workers' Initiative Poland (Inicjatywa Pracownicza), Angry Workers of the World, Devi Sacchetto Univ. of Padua/Connessioni Precarie and Giorgio Grappi, Università di Bologna/Coordinamento migranti di Bologna e di Connessioni precarie

Forced Labour in Brazil (and beyond),  Fabiola Mieres, Durham University

Workers’organisation in textiles sweetshops in Argentina- Jeronimo Montero, Ministry of Labour and CONICET Argentina

Pedagogical insights of producing knowledge for and with activists and union organisers- Ian Manborde, Ruskin College, Oxford

Organising informal transport workers in developing countries- The Global Labour Institute and the International Transport Federation  

In Solidarity