Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Beautiful Trouble

Dear Colleagues,

As life has been particularly frantic over the past few weeks I've had no chance to write a blog post - despite there being much to write about.

So, just a quick post to give a plug for a new activist resource (including a fantastic new book - available as an e-book for just $1) rolled out under the wonderful name of Beautiful Trouble: http://beautifultrouble.org/

Go to Or books to get a e-copy for $1 or a print version for a 20% reduction: http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/beautiful-trouble-pocket-edition/

There are so many resources out there for activists, and also for activist learning/teaching. For example, I am a big fan of the Barefoot series that I have blogged about previously: http://www.barefootguide.org/download-the-guides.html

The great thing about Beautiful Trouble is that it provides, as the web site blurb reads, "Beautiful Trouble is a book, web toolbox and international network of artist-activist trainers whose mission is to make grassroots movements more creative and more effective."

It can be a fairly daunting business to make social, political and economic change happen, and although anyone can do it, it's nice to see time and energy put into resources being made available.

Although there is a lot of detail in the website about the resources and how to use them, have a quick look at this background video on what the BT collective are setting out to do.

If you buy the book and/or use the resources in some way, please let me know your thoughts.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 16 October 2016

From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation

Dear Colleagues,

Just a short post to thank Brian Richardson for visiting Ruskin College on 13th Oct to deliver a blistering session, as part of Black History Month, on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the context of police, racism and the state. 

Bryan is a highly regarded barrister author and activist: (http://www.mansfieldchambers.co.uk/brian-richardson/) and came to Ruskin last year to discuss his last book, Say it Loud. Here is a link to a review: http://socialistreview.org.uk/383/say-it-loud

The session was very well attended by students and staff. I was really pleased to see such a high take up by students, and that Brian's session was grounded in an historical appreciation of the roots of the BLM movement in the history of brutal racist oppression, violence and murder suffered by black people across the history of the US. Brian quoted from a recent article he'd written for Socialist Review which helped provide insight and rigour to his talk: http://socialistreview.org.uk/417/black-lives-matter

At the heart of Brian's talk (and a core thread of his article) is that a history of exclusion and marginalisation has found modern form in the recent brutal deaths of a series of young black men at the hands of police officers. The notion that black lives matter is a stark, simple phrase designed to articulate justified rage and anger.

The article showcases the first book to document this nascent movement. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, provides a coherent account of the lineage of a modern movement with a history of repression. As Brian states in his article:

Taylor’s book goes on to demonstrate how the treatment of black people within the US criminal justice system is the most gruesome aspect of an overall experience of marginalisation and exclusion. African-Americans are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts, the net worth of white households is 13 times that of black households and black life expectancy is four years lower than that of white Americans. In short, there has been a 25 year long period of increasing inequality.

The book is available to purchase here: http://www.haymarketbooks.org/pb/From-BlackLivesMatter-to-Black-Liberation

The long struggle for freedom is the essential thread of Taylor's book, and I shall certainly get 'round to reading this. By sheer coincidence I picked up whilst browsing in Ruskin's library Michael Honey's classic account of the Memphis sanitation workers dispute in 1967-8. Going Down Jericho Road is a seminal account of Martin Luther King's last, great battle as part of the US civil rights movement before he was murdered. It is a particular favourite of mine as it provides, alongside Jessica Tait's Poor Workers' Unions, an insight on the role of organised labour as principally social movements in the context of the civil rights movement.

Thus Taylor's book helps provide new students of black civil protest in the US, and internationally, with an up-to-date account of the emergence of the movement in historical context. Many thanks again to Brian for providing such a coherent historical means of linking BLM to the past, with an eye to the future.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 2 October 2016

Writing for a Blog: Some ideas

Dear Colleagues,

Later this year I will be running an evening course at Ruskin - one of the 'digital evenings' that form part of the exciting range of Courses for Interest: http://tinyurl.com/jlnwgln (sign up for a
session - you'll love it!)

Having written this blog for a number of years - and commented on others' blog posts - I volunteered to run the session on 6th December, Write Your Own Blog.

Although I haven't yet decided on the definitive content, I have spent a little time this afternoon thinking through the rationale of maintaining my blog - which is largely connected to issues of pedagogy - and wanted to write up some short notes (and provide links to useful blogs as resources) as part of thinking through my lesson plan for the session.

This blog started - as the header reads - to maintain contact with students/activists that I meet from across the UK and internationally. At the time I was working for both Ruskin College and the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) and this involved teaching on a significant number of short courses (and the MA at Ruskin) on a massively diverse range of trade union/employment relation issues.

Writing to reflect upon activist teaching and learning:
Sharing the outcomes to support trade union renewal
The teaching and learning would typically be quite intense and there would invariably be on-going discussions to be had and lessons to learn. Thus my first post appeared on 22nd July 2007 as a way to write and reflect upon my teaching and keep in touch with colleagues. I thought it valuable also to post pictures from this teaching (look at bottom right-hand side of the blog)  to provide a material insight on people/places/context that reflect my teaching throughout the year.

As my teaching changed at Ruskin - particularly when I became full-time to run the MA ILTUS - I started to focus also on writing/research that I though relevant to activists/officers, but the accent remained on sharing ideas from my teaching that I thought relevant, particularly in the global debate around trade union renewal.

There are many really good blogs out there - not least across the labour movement - and I'd recommend a scan of those indexed by TIGMOO: http://tigmoo.co.uk/

Similarly, there are a number of notable politics blogs worthy of scanning from time to time - whether to gain an insight on good, and poor, approaches to writing: http://www.vuelio.com/uk/social-media-index/top-10-uk-political-blogs/

More generically, there is plenty of sound advice on (a) creating your blog and (b) writing blog posts, for example:


My own, simple advice, on writing a blog - which probably reflects the advice/guidance out there is wrapped around several questions:
Be prepared: Think about your writing as much as the blog itself.
Why? Why are you writing and why will others want to read it? You'll see that most advice suggests that you have a good sense of what will motivate others to want to read your blog, and to keep coming back. This question will also help you look around the different options for a free (or priced) blog and to think about structure/design/layout etc. I didn't think enough about this when I started and although Blogger is OK, it doesn't have the range of layout/design options that WordPress does.

How? How will you keep yourself motivated to keep writing, not least so that the content is fresh and, linked to the above, relevant? It is a struggle to think of something good/relevant to write about on a regular basis.

What? Linked to the above is a concern both abut what you'll write about, but also whether it is written coherently and is readable. I will often write-up the text for my blog on trains and then proofread and edit in the evening. It can take a long time to (a) think of something good to write about and the (b) to write it up so that it is readable. Keeping a blog is as much about the craft of writing - as it is about the tech-side of blogging - so be prepared to spend time writing as much as typing.

When? Linked to the above, how often do you want to add content/posts? I have no formula here, but this will depend on your response to the Why question above Try not to set yourself up to be too ambitious. Life indeed gets in the way, and writing content takes time. If keeping a blog stops being fun and interesting your blog may well end up in that massive, virtual dustbin of blogs since abandoned

That's it for my advice! I am certainly no expert, but what I hope to cover during the Ruskin session in December is some sense of (a) how and where to start and (b) how to keep going.

The rest really is about your imagination and creativity.

In Solidarity


Thursday, 22 September 2016

Critical and Liberating Dialogue: ISS 2016

Dear Colleagues,

In a post on 6th July I reported on the outcomes of a splendid few days spent with many fine trade unionists from around the world at the annual Global Labour Institute Summer School. As I mentioned in that article the summer school is pitched in an explicitly political context.

Full details of the content/outcomes of the summer school is here: http://global-labour.net/iss16/

Participants at the GLI Summer School 2016
I wrote a short reflective article about the experience which has been published in the latest edition of the International Union Rights (IUR) journal which is published by the International Centre for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR). As you'll see the title of the article is 'Critical and Liberating Dialogue' and reflects a core theme of my on-going doctorate research which aims to generate a critical pedagogy of trade union education.

The accent on dialogue in the context of education which seeks to generate radical, social transformation is entirely appropriate for an event like the GLI summer school. For educationalists like Paulo Freire dialogue is not simply the mechanistic notion of conversation, but reflects a relationship of co-education between 'teachers' and 'students' who are jointly committed to political change. As Freire states in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

“[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.” 

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is Freire's classic statement on critical pedagogy for social transformation and change. You can read the book - and others like it here: http://www.historyisaweapon.com/

Below is a scan of the full article and my short, reflective piece.

In Solidarity

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Workers' Knowledge as Workers' Power

Dear Colleagues,

As you'll know I have been toiling on my doctoral thesis, the focus of which is the MA programme I run at Ruskin and its focus on the way in which trade unionists learn. Although I felt I had a handle on this, the research and reading process has been fascinating in extending my awareness and appreciation of this process.

As I have posted already, I was utterly unaware of the theory of embodied learning (http://tinyurl.com/zcq2sg5) and its symbiotic relationship in imbibing and accruing knowledge through the physical and emotional processes of activism.

There is though much more on the different ways in which activists develop and produce knowledge, research and theory in social movements than there is in labour movements - see the earlier posts on the work of Aziz Choudry for example. So, I look forward to getting the thesis complete (all being well by the end of the year) and starting to use the findings to write/research further and disseminate/discuss.

Picketing for Worker's Rights at Zara in New York
Scanning the labour movement news on coming back from leave I was blown away by the fantastic organising result in the US of retail workers at the Spanish fashion retail outlet Zara: http://www.labornotes.org/2016/08/organizing-gets-fashionable-zara-workers-beat-odds

and: http://tinyurl.com/jpbjh88

What struck me as particularly interesting in this story - aside from the fact that unionisation and recognition has occurred in one of the most exploited employment sectors - is that workers' knowledge was central to the success of the story.

The creation of the new union (Retail Workers (RWDSU) Local 1102) arose in part through close collaboration with a number of community-based organisations, but also the New York City worker center, the Retail Action Project (RAP) (http://retailactionproject.org/). Here, the RAP provides training on some of the core skills required for the job (and necessary for promotion, getting work etc.) that is often not supplied in the cut-throat retail sector.

Allied to this also is the education required to facilitate organising/mobilising. What I found particularly interesting is that the success of unionisation rested on a relationship between the skills/knowledge required for the job and that for building a union from the ground up.

The relationship between skill and unionisation is in fact the story of the emergence of organised labour historically, As the Zara story reveals though - particularly at a global level - is that the relentless drive towards de-skilling and precarity has been a successful means to undermine organised labour across a wide variety of sectors. Books like Ralph's Darlington's The Dynamics of Workplace Unionism are a great insight on how trade unions have attempted to resist this process through the concentration of workforce skill/knowledge: http://tinyurl.com/zsopxqz

I have spent some time in writing my thesis examining a similar experience in the UK around the learning/skills agenda precipitated by the lifelong learning agenda of the Blair/Brown governments. I have personally been involved in many projects funded with money from the Union Learning Fund (ULF) that have resulted in profound change in workers' lives and positively impacted on the strength of union organisation and ultimately benefitted the employer in a variety of ways.

My thesis supervisor, Cilla Ross, and other colleagues at the Working Lives Research Institute (WLRI) co-wrote a publication which provide a fascinating on outcomes from skills/learning activity: https://www.unionlearn.org.uk/publications/research-paper-14-learning-journeys-trade-union-learners-their-own-words

Whilst I am questioning in my thesis the tangible impact on trade union renewal in the UK from trade union activity around the learning/skills agenda, it is clear that unions can make a difference to workers' lives when they concentrate on the skills/knowledge that workers need for the job.

Taking a quote from one of the article linked above:

Janna Pea, deputy communications director for the union, hopes competitors take note of the message Zara is sending: “There is a way that you can operate a company, remain profitable, and recognize workers' rights to respect on the job.”

Please read the two article and leave a comment here on your thoughts.

In Solidarity


Monday, 1 August 2016

Trade union activist knowledge production in practice

Dear Colleagues,

I am very proud to re-produce below an article which has just been published by New International magazine.

This article has been written by Kath Holder, a current student of the MA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin. Kath is a UNISON shop steward at an academy school in outer London. The article draws on Kath's dissertation research findings which focuses on the health effects for the school workforce of neo-liberal education policy and practice in the UK.

Whilst I am very proud to re-produce the article, I am particularly pleased as it reflects a key theme of my doctoral thesis: that is of the ways in which trade union activists develop and produce knowledge as a result of their experience, and the way in which this helps generate theory to enable a response to the many challenges they face.

If you'd like to read the original article follow this link: https://newint.org/blog/2016/07/27/education-trade-unions/

Take profit out of education – and put teaching back in

By Kath Holder

Across the globe, governments are privatizing education as part of their drive to force neoliberal agendas onto public services. In Britain, 27 per cent of the Conservative Party’s funding comes from financiers and equity firms – who are thus well positioned to ‘win’ contracts in education. As for-profit companies move into the education sector, we will see further reductions in the quality of tuition, attacks on staff pensions, pay and conditions, and pressure to realize higher revenue.
The semi-privatization of schools is a growing trend, with community assets being taken out of public control and turned into commodities. This ‘softening up’ of education has opened the door to further privatization, with educational establishments perceived as businesses. Many parents now see themselves as ‘consumers’, adding to the pressure on overworked staff.

‘Below Target’, my recent study of neoliberalism, education and occupational stress, found staff alarmed about the future of the education sector. Concerns included privatization; the creation of Super Heads; a ‘sausage-factory mentality’ (schools just being concerned about churning out results); the lack of focus on ‘soft skills’ such as team work and social skills; a belief that technology can fix all; and pupils suffering school-related stress at an ever younger age.

Cuts in funding were of concern to 83 per cent of respondents, followed by increased workload (80 per cent), reduced staffing (77 per cent) and government policies and reforms (76 per cent). One respondent bemoaned ‘the creation of a two-tier system of education’ and the ‘resultant lack of opportunity for social mobility’. Another said that the current model was a ‘huge step backwards in education’.

The UK’s Treasury is looking for an average 17-per-cent spending cut to government departments for 2015-2019, with no commitment to protect the education budget. Austerity measures, including the recent 24-per-cent cut in the Adult Skills Budget, severely impact on the quality and choice of education.

Psychologists Against Austerity connect the rise in stress-related illness to austerity measures. They have identified ‘Austerity Ailments’ – specific psychological links between austerity policies and increased mental illness (humiliation and shame, instability and insecurity, fear and mistrust, a feeling of being trapped and powerless, isolation and loneliness).

Education is now an under-resourced, under-staffed environment with high levels of daily stress. This has a damaging effect both on the health of employees and on the students – who are constantly judged on their success or failure in attaining certain grades. Students’ work is marked ‘on target’ or ‘below target’; similarly, this is increasingly how staff feel judged.

The report found that the main issues contributing to stress in the workplace were: pressure to work intensely/insufficient breaks (63 per cent), unachievable deadlines (61 per cent), lack of information/communication (59 per cent) and performance reviews/competency procedures/poor line management (54 per cent).

Human Resource Management and appraisals are now firmly integrated into schools, with far-reaching consequences for employees faced with the ‘top-down approach’: unachievable targets are used as a means of coercing more work and responsibilities for the same wages. One Child Development Officer said that ‘good people will have their abilities and confidence undermined by bullying management techniques’.

A Head of Department had very real concerns regarding her ability to teach until she was 67:
‘Teaching is a lot more stressful than I thought it would be and not a job for life. I always thought that I would be a teacher for ever, but I’m not really sure if physically and mentally I will be able to do this until my pension kicks in at 67. It is the most rewarding career I could ever think of being a part of; I just wish that teaching was the main priority rather than everything that has been bolted onto this position.’

Some methods to relieve occupational stress can be implemented. For example, Staff Consultative Committees can reduce some stressful working practices (such as bullying and friction between colleagues). Nevertheless, these measures are merely papering over the cracks.

Although teachers are generally in trade unions, lower-paid staff struggle with membership fees and support staff have consistently been a marginalized group. Though many are highly skilled, their roles are perceived by management as transferable: ‘anyone can do the job’. With the majority of support staff only employed for 39 weeks a year, increasingly on temporary contracts, the imbalance of influence creates a ‘them and us’ situation. Though many support staff are also union members, this imbalance means that collective union responses alongside teachers are likely to be difficult.

Contributors to the ‘Below Target’ report said they wanted greater trade union support. They feel that unions should be more visible and proactive (industrial action, lobbying government, training on employment rights), and develop coherent national policies and strategies to fight for education, working collectively to prevent unions being played off against each other in future.

Encouragingly, many believe that by campaigning and acting together, they can adopt strategies to help employees manage the rise of stress-related illness. Unions are perfectly placed to deliver training on coping mechanisms such as Wellness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and this would be an effective way to reach new members and ensure relevance – essential as public-sector cuts continue apace.

Trade unions must also work together to gain the support of parents. A commonly held perception is that teachers’ pay and conditions are more favourable than those of the majority of workers. This leaves many to question why they should support industrial action by teachers, ensuring a ‘race to the bottom’ rather than striving to improve conditions for all. Inspiration can be taken from the example of the Chicago Teachers’ Strike, however. It achieved success by working with community groups and other unions, making the campaign not just about themselves, but about the students as well.

Following a recent visit to Chicago to research this subject, Matt Hannam, who is Constituency Case Worker for Naz Shah MP, said:

‘We need to organize and resist in a much more ideologically nuanced way. Whilst we respond in an issue-by-issue way (over pay, or testing, or curriculum) we allow the bigger ideological assault to continue unabated. How we push back is hard to conceive of, but communities and unions in Chicago have suggested that there are possibilities if a more politicized counter-narrative is developed and a bigger audience, namely parents and pupils, are included in the process and development of an organized response.’

Kath Holder is a UNISON Trade Union activist and works in a UK school. She has recently completed an MA in International Labour and Trade Union Studies at Ruskin College. Findings from ‘Below Target’ were also presented at The British Universities Industrial Relations Association Conference 2016.