Saturday, 19 May 2018

Choke Points: Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain

Dear Colleagues,

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

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

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

My interview with Manny is here:

In Solidarity


Sunday, 6 May 2018

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

Dear Colleagues,

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

Crossing the Divide: Precarious Work and the Future of Labour

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

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

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

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

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

In Solidarity


Sunday, 29 April 2018

On New Terrain: Book Review

Dear Colleagues,

I had previously reported on the latest publication from veteran scholar-activist Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital Reshaped the Battleground of Class War. I'd promise to post a review of the book that I've written for the British Journal of Industrial Relations, which is below. Below also is an excellent interview with Kim by Left Voice Magazine.

Having read the book thoroughly for the review, I would wholeheartedly recommend that you buy a copy. If you are interested in the future of organised labour, and what may impede or accelerate this, you won't regret it.

As co-founder of the rank-and-file media, educational and organising initiative Labor Notes, and leading intellectual of the United States (US) labour movement, Kim Moody has come to represent through books like An Injury to All (1998) a critically important barometer of the state of the ‘official’ labour movement and of sources for the generation of new forms of workers’ political and industrial mobilisation and organisation. For those engaged in activist education in the United Kingdom (UK) Moody’s analysis at a global, comparative level of significant change in production regimes through analysis including Workers in a Lean World (1997) has helped shape educational approaches to critically analysing the failure of the neo-liberal era of New Labour and labour movement leaders to arrest trade union decline, thus engendering the need to explore a new broad-based radicalised form of worker’s organisation through social movement unionism (SMU). For Moody SMU is "deeply democratic, as that is the best way to mobilize the strength of numbers in order to apply maximum economic leverage. It is militant in collective bargaining and in the belief that retreat anywhere only leads to more retreats-- an injury to one is an injury to all" (p.121).

In his latest book Moody revisits the need to re-examine the failure of traditional political alliances to assert the interests of organised labour within the context of recurrent transformation in the composition of the working class precipitated by unprecedented change in the organisation of capitalism in the US. As such the central aim of the book is to present capitalism as having entered a new phase in the recent era, in which the restructuring of the working class consolidates new terrain for a renewed upsurge of labour and social rebellion.

The book is structured in three parts. The first examines the effects of lean production, new technologies and the rise of flexible working from the early 1980s and the resultant industrial and occupational restructuring of the US working class. Part two moves on to examine the arguable shift in the terrain of class conflict through corporate processes of merger and acquisition, but most notably via the ‘logistics revolution’ required to support global supply chain infrastructure. The final section of the book explores the potential for a radical class politics in the US which provides an alternative to the ‘big money’ influences of the Republican and Democratic Parties. Here, Moody argues, that a confluence of organising potential in the workplace combined with urban-based mass working class political activism is key to generating a socialist-appealing body of politics outwith conventional party machinery and that will “go beyond conventional social democracy.”

It is the second part of the book which is its arguable strength, and certainly from the perspective of trade union activists and organisers (like myself) dedicated to examining how the landscape of capitalist political economy derives new, thoughtful opportunity to generate diverse forms of politicised workers’ organisation. It is in this section that Moody argues, for example, that the fixation on the rise of precarious work and the rise of the ‘gig economy’, not least from an organising perspective, ignores bigger change (and as witnessed in the UK and across industrialised economies) in the relative decline in living standards of an increasingly heterogenous working class set against increases in productivity derived from new production regimes. He concentrates on this using data illustrating how wages of working class adults have stagnated, remaining below their average level in 1972, with share of total national income going to the top 10% shifting from 35% in 1982 to 51% in 2012. The extreme forms of income inequality in the US leads Moody to state that, “this makes the United States more unequal economically than any other European nation, even though inequality has grown there as well”.

The significance of the approach is an argument, not necessarily new, or original, that the failure of the Democratic Party to address the parlous state of labour, both economic and political, has created a vacuum in which radical, socialist alternatives have increasingly gained legitimacy and status. Similarly, this section of the book carefully exposes the over-reliance in the national and global logistics supply chain of a relatively low-paid, ethnically diverse labour force inviting vulnerability to disruption through spontaneous direct action, or the deployment of crafted labour movement strategy to generate leverage, as in the UK case of UNITE’s Industrial Hub initiative. As Moody writes, “The vulnerability of logistics systems and supply chains is increased by the fact that for the most party their reorganization and tightening has meant that on average each supply chain employed in the production of a final commodity has seen a reduction in the number of suppliers, making the task of organizing them somewhat simpler and the impact of direct action in any one ‘node’ in the chain more effective.

Thus, whilst the readership of this book will include those interested in political economy, labour geography and labour studies, it is a critically valuable resource for labour educators and organisers also.

In saying this however, it’s important to acknowledge that whilst the UK economy mirrors that of the US in many ways, the relative under-development of the logistics network, which Moody acknowledges, is one.  Nevertheless, Moody’s cogent analysis helps explain the UK’s ‘new terrain’ laying the basis for new forms of worker’s organisation, and the more traditional, having organising success amongst groups notably comprising migrant workers across service industries from cleaners to Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers.

Whilst the strength of the book is a careful surveying of the US economy politically and industrially across the 20th century, a critical weakness broadly, but more specifically in terms of crafting authentic labour movement organising and education practice, is the absence of coverage of the implications of climate change on production regimes, and the response of organised labour. The burgeoning literature of ‘climate solidarity’, and activity including that of the UK Fire Brigades Union (FBU), has meant that it is an issue we ignore at our peril.


Moody, K. (1997) Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy. London. Verso

Moody, K. (1998) An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism. London. Verso

In Solidarity


Sunday, 8 April 2018

Working Together: Trade Union and Co-operative Innovations for Precarious Work

Dear Colleagues,
I am very pleased to report that I'll be attending (representing Equity) a conference on 18th April in Manchester with the critically important theme of exploring ways in which the labour and co-operative movements can better collaborate to organise and represent the interests of precarious workers. The event falls under the umbrella of a recently published report following an extensive research exercise.

The report, titled 'Working Together: Trade Union and Co-operative Innovations for Precarious Work' calls for increased collaboration between trade unions and co-operative to protect the rights of part-time, zero hour contract, temporary, self-employed and freelance workers.
Supported by the Network for Social Change, Wales Co-operative Centre and the Institute for Solidarity Economics, the report highlights Indycube as a blueprint for how partnerships between trade union and co-operatives can flourish.

Cilla Ross, Vice-Principal at the Co-op College (and my thesis supervisor) outlines in the clip above the crisis of precarious work in the UK and the opportunity provided to create a resurgence of worker's control in the way that the labour and co-operative movements respond.

Further details of the report and event are here:

I'll post a short comment on the outcomes of the event at some point after 18/04.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 18 March 2018

Social Movement Learning and the Intellectual Work of Activism

Dear Colleagues,

Although I have plugged this book before, as I continue to work on writing-up my thesis findings, I need to record my thanks for the output of Aziz Choudry. His edited book (with Dip Kapoor) Learning from the Ground Up, was my early introduction to what my thesis could reflect in examining how my work at Ruskin through the MA ILTUS, could impact upon labour movement renewal.

It was however Choudry's last book, Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements, which most influenced my thoughts on the political purpose of my research, not least in championing a greater alliance between the learning that takes place between trade union and other social movements.

I've been grateful to see this happen recently in a number of ways, but am particularly thankful for the work of John Page in enabling this to occur under the umbrella of the Ella Baker School of Transformative Organising:

What I am keen to do once the thesis is submitted is work more closely with John, and others, in realising other forums which allow for a reflection on how activists in progressive movements learn through and from their activism, and how this shapes their political consciousness.

So, back to the writing.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 11 March 2018

Thumbs up for Analytic Memos

Dear Colleagues,

Just a short break from thesis writing to stress how much I have benefitted from adopting a simple, yet profoundly important, stage in the process of critically interpreting and analysis data generated from fieldwork.

The analytic memo (AM) is the simplest device: constantly write short sharp, precise notes to yourself as you review what you have found as you sift through your data, and in particular document those moments, events etc. which are what you feel critical stages in developing an argument, theory etc.

We were introduced to the AM early on in the professional doctorate programme, but as with most part-time programmes you forget a lot, and don't adopt everything which is suggested as making your life easy. As I was fortunate to have a sabbatical from Ruskin College at the time of coding/analysing my data, I had the chance to review those early notes from sessions on how to make this process as easy as possible, but also how to yield the greatest insight from what you've gathered.

There is plenty of material out there on the role of the AM (some links below) and of course the standard textbooks like Alan Bryman's Social Research Methods, provide a solid introduction. What I would say though is, don't get bogged down in thinking there is a right/wrong way to do write these.

My pointers would be:
Write them often and in clear as language as possible. You'll be reading them months/years later and you might not remember certain acronyms, phrases etc you use at the time.
Accurately record date, time etc.
Write statements on why you feel the need to write what you are writing e.g. you have been tired and missed earlier connections between findings.
Don't feel that you are writing comments that will prove unhelpful later - you can decide later on what's helpful/useful or not, but best to have too much to sift through than too little.
Keep the notes regularly backed up. I used Cloud options, but would also email myself a copy of each set of AM at the end of each day.

There is loads of useful material, and sample AM out there:

Right then, back to my writing. It's good to get these thoughts out of your head and posted. Hope they are useful.

In Solidarity


Saturday, 3 March 2018

Still Busy (but focusing on writing thesis)

Dear Colleagues,

I am conscious that I haven't posted anything for far too long, although happy that my time is being spent wisely focused on writing-up my docoral thesis, and getting stuck into the new job at Equity.

To prove that I am up to good things I thought I'd post a brief message, and a small sample of photos from my various travels, not least to emphasise that I am combining travels with a continued focus on activist education, so I am still mining experience for my thesis.

I've been fortunate over the past few months to (a ) start to engage in the unique form of activism which springs from Equity's focus on freelance/gig/self-employed/unemployed activists/members and (b) maintain a link to the more conventional forms of activism in UNISON etc.

This bridge between the conventional and non-conventional forms of activism is fascinating, and is a real plus for some of analysis/thinking in my thesis research.

One particularly interesting experience which relates to the thesis arose during the Ella Baker retreated in Doncaster last month. This episode underlined the inherent tensions and antagonisms which spring from different organising traditions, and perhaps also from the differing appreciations of the politics of organising between community and TU organisers. My thesis is arguing for greater degrees of co-operation between the two - reflecting multiple and over-lapping forms of political mobilisation as a feature of an ecology of movements in capitalist economies.

I'll try and post more over the new few months, but apologies again for what will be period of happy writing/organising/activism, but limited/few posts :)

Sat 24 Feb: Facilitation UNISON SW Black Activist Development Day

Ella Baker School of Transformative Organising: Weekend Retreat
RMT Educational Centre, Doncaster 16-18th Feb

24-25th Nov, Bristol. UNISON Black Activist Development Weekend

14th November. With activists who comprise Equity's D/deaf and Disabled
Member's Committee

22nd November. With the activists who comprise Equity's Women's Committee

In Solidarity