Monday, 18 May 2015

The Spirit of the Levellers': The Antidote to Austerity


Just a short piece to report on a truly amazing day on Saturday accompanying the students of the MA ILTUS at Ruskin who have worked tremendously hard to gain a day off to attend the annual Levellers' Day event in nearby Burford.

I had come to know of the Leveller's through the writing of Fenner Brockway (particularly through his Britain's First Socialists), Tony Benn (where they appear in both Arguments For Socialism and Arguments For Democracy) and Christopher Hill in books like The Century of Revolution.

If you need some introduction background to The Levellers' try these: (website for the annual event) (a good introduction/overview) (a definitive insight)

As stated by the speakers at Saturday's event what is needed in the UK's post-election period is a constant, high-profile series of debates/events/marches articulating an alternative to austerity.

Prominent amongst the Leveller ideal was the notion of 'the commons'; of land purposed for the common good. As house prices and rents soar following the election result, basic Leveller tenets take on a new purpose and appeal.

Sadly, I haven't time for a lengthier piece about The Levellers' and austerity, but I did want to post some of the images from Saturday.

They reveal a solid sense of the good times had by the hard working activist-scholars of Ruskin College; women and men who will play a leading part in re-imagining the Leveller tradition in the days and years to come.

Colm proudly sings The Internationale

Comrades together! Amina, Chilayi, myself and Kalvinder

Very proud of Byron (and Bryan) for agreeing to be dressed as Levellers
Thanks to Simon for acting as custodian of the Ruskin banner during
the Levellers' day events at Burford church.

Well done to Neil for bringing his PCS branch banner!

The plaque commemorating the three Levellers murdered in Burford churchyard

In Solidarity


Saturday, 9 May 2015

What next for organised labour?


Without doubt the 2015 general election outcomes present organised labour with considerable short and long-term challenges.

Len McCluskey's statement represents, I feel, an important state of preparedness in what will clearly be  a difficult five years' ahead.

What we have been promised by the Tories is an economic and political landscape which can only accelerate the range and degree of economic inequality in the UK, not least in the manifesto commitment to cut deeper into the welfare budget.

We know also that the Tories plan to render industrial action as beyond the means and scope of trade union members in seeking redress for legitimate grievances.

The press release issued by the TUC yesterday of Frances O'Grady's statement on the election outcomes represents the concerns of us all.

This was not a one nation campaign

“We have to hope that David Cameron’s pledge to govern as a one nation Prime Minister will be his first major U-turn - for his campaign and manifesto was anything but.

“His main political tactic was to talk up nationalism and deny the legitimacy of Scottish voters. And his programme for government is as divisive as they come.

“The welfare cuts that he has refused to outline only add up if taken from those in low paid work and the vulnerable, and will be used to fund tax cuts for the better off.

“His proposals on trade union law are so draconian that they would make legal strikes close to impossible. This puts him far to the right of almost every mainstream party in advanced democracies, and is likely to leave many of his more thoughtful backbenchers uneasy at a time when living standards are still running well below pre-crash levels.

He will face an unprecedented campaign from Britain’s unions against this attack on the basic rights of people at work.

“The prospect of a referendum on Europe will be destabilising for business and the economy. Many of our best jobs and workplace rights depend on EU membership. I say to business leaders today that if you press for stripping away worker rights, environmental protection and consumer safeguards as part of a renegotiation then it will be harder to win the yes vote we need for a prosperous Britain.
“Other parties have had a disappointing night with talented and serious figures from both Labour and Liberal Democrats losing their seats. Opposition parties should not rush to glib explanations for what looks like a complex result with very different trends in different parts of the country.

“But while they will need time and energy to rebuild they should not go quiet and allow the new government to win arguments uncontested - especially as we still only see a slow and patchy recovery that could be easily derailed by deep rushed spending cuts. “

In Solidarity


Thursday, 7 May 2015

UK General Election 2015: A Union’s Job is to Fight for Working People’s Rights


Just a quick post as I am tied up preparing for teaching this weekend, and I want to follow the news of the early outcomes of today's general election in the UK.

So much hangs in the balance for the British labour movement of the election outcomes, and similarly for organisations like Ruskin College.

In the worse case scenario of a government comprising the Conservative Party then the major challenge for the British labour movement is not just how it responds, but how quickly, and with what force and precision.

In this context I have been buoyed by an article written by Len McCluskey, General Secretary of UNITE, and first published in The Guardian in March 2015. This argues cogently that it is incumbent on organised labour, the largest civil society actor in the UK, to consider breaching and breaking law which seeks to erode workers' human rights, and deny organised labour those civil liberties which are a precondition of a functioning democracy.

Whilst we wait for the outcome of the election to be confirmed please read the article. Of course, the outcome of the election will be the next item I post here.

Unite’s rule book sounds just the sort of dusty tome to give employment lawyers headaches. Last week our governing body, Unite’s executive, unanimously agreed to make it shorter. It recommended the deletion from our rules of six little words that have governed our union’s actions: “so far as may be lawful”. So far, so mundane, you would be forgiven for thinking.

But that would be the wrong conclusion: the proposed change in the constitution of the biggest union on these isles marks the sorry place we have reached in our national democracy.

Our executive wants these words gone not because we are anarchists, not because we are suddenly planning a bank robbery, but because we have to ask ourselves the question: can we any longer make that commitment to stick, under any and all circumstances, within the law as it stands? I am aware that this is a dramatic question to raise anywhere, let alone in a room full of lawyers, as I did last night when I addressed the Law Society.

Let me emphasise Unite’s continuing determination to operate ever more effectively within the law, even when that law is an ass and ill-serves our people. Legislation restricting the right to strike, attacking the capacity for trade unions to organise and conduct their own business in line with their own rules, became some warped national consensus last century. Other aspects of that “consensus” – a deregulated financial sector, a flexible labour market, being intensely relaxed about the filthy rich – have been discredited since the global crash. Re-regulation, not deregulation, is the order of the day.

Yet trade union law remains untouched and politically untouchable, the great unmentionable of British politics. It is time it was subjected to the same scrutiny as all the other nostrums and dogmas of the 1980s. Trade unions do not need a change in the law; society as a whole needs a change in trade union law, or little else can change for the better.

The financial crash pulled back the screen on the ugly reality: widening inequality, wealth concentrated at the top, a shrinking percentage of GDP going into the pockets of workers, and governments unable or unwilling to confront vested interests. This is the world in which trade unions now operate. It is not by chance that these trends have accelerated at the same time the role and function of trade unions have been restricted and diminished. As long as companies can make more money by paying their employees less, or by sacking easily and then hiring cheaply, or by cutting corners on safety, then trade unions will need to exist. This was the case at the onset of industrialisation and it remains the case today.

Labour’s victory in 1997 was one of the happiest days of my life, and it brought many achievements to be proud of, not least extending civil rights for minority groups, the minimum wage, the family friendly policies that saw vast improvements for women and children, and significant investment in our public infrastructure and the NHS. But that first Labour government, with its huge parliamentary majority, did nothing to alter the legal superstructure that allows for the skewed accrual of wealth and power in our society. Tony Blair even boasted that Britain’s labour laws were the most restrictive in Europe.

Today, thanks to those laws, it is hard for any employer to fail to get an injunction against a contemplated strike – even a fully balloted and mandated strike. It is no exaggeration to say that the right to strike in this, the first country of free trade unionism, was and is hanging by a thread. Should there be a Conservative majority in May, there will be a new attack on trade union rights and democracy. The bar for a strike ballot will be raised to a level that hardly any MPs would reach in their own constituencies, by a government that has refused our requests to use modern, more effective balloting methods.

Agency labour scabs will be licensed to break strikes. Restrictions imposed on our campaigning role in the Lobbying Act will be followed by laws to make picketing nigh on impossible, too, attacking our ability to put pressure on an abusive employer in defence of our members.
It’s tempting to see this as simply a reversion to type by the Tories but that’s only half the story. The attack on trade unions is Tory core practice because they are well aware that they can get away with their desired assault on our national fabric only if they neuter any potential opposition, and the trade unions above all. They want to reduce us to the role of concerned spectators while they tear to bits every advance that working people have secured, every protection we have built up. Against that background, should the law, when made by an elected parliament rather than a despot or a dictatorship, be respected under all circumstances?

To take a stark example, before 1967 any man who slept with another man was breaking the law, as made by an elected parliament. Who, today, would dare to say that they were criminals, or that they should have been obliged to obey a law that, however democratically sanctioned, represented no more than the prejudice of ages? A more recent example: when Margaret Thatcher criminalised trade unionism at GCHQ, would any employee there who, in secret, maintained his or her trade union membership, be a criminal? Were they not right to break that law while it was in force?
It was, of course, a Tory, and eminent lawyer, Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) who first warned of “elective dictatorship”, of a majority imposing its views – ignorant ones in the case of both gay rights and trade unionists as a security risk – on a vulnerable minority. People have intrinsic rights that can sometimes be violated, even by democratically elected legislatures. The right of working people to combine, to organise, is one of them.

If partisan legislation designed to push the legitimate democratic work of trade unions outside of the law is driven through parliament then we, in Unite, will not go gently into the night. We will rage against the dying of the light. We will drive forward with modern technology and use it to increase turnouts in our ballots without being shackled by prescriptions – such as postal ballots – imposed in another age. We are not going to let the Tories destroy our democracy by shackling us to archaic procedures.

A union’s job is to fight for working people’s rights. If, in the year in which we mark the anniversary of Magna Carta, the government wants to challenge fundamental rights of the citizen, then I believe they will be facing not just the trade union movement, but a huge section of our civil society. When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it? I am not really posing the question. I’m giving you the answer. It ain’t going to happen.

By Len McCluskey

In Solidarity


Friday, 1 May 2015

Solidarity Forever


In recognition of the last post, and the need to focus on solidarity action for the people of Nepal, I wanted to post this famous Walter Crane May Day painting from 1889. Please do what you can to raise funds to send via your unions.

Wherever you are today I send a message of comradeship and solidarity from the students and staff of the International Labour and Trade Union Studies (ILTUS) programme area at Ruskin College. Ian

Thursday, 30 April 2015

On May Day we will be mourning: Solidarity with Nepal


All of us have been following the news following the tragic events in Nepal.

There have been a series of initiatives launched across the global labour movement, working in alliance with other organisations to distribute aid and support the work on the ground of the bodies like the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT).

A note of some of the actions has been brought together in the latest newsletter from the International Federation of Workers' Educational Associations (IFWEA):

This includes a news item written in Equal Times which includes an interview with Bishnu Rimal, President of GEFONT which I wanted to re-produce below. Please read the IFWEA news item, particularly the call for support from the ICTU and find out what aid and support your own union is providing.

It is at times like this that the international labour movements works at its best.

“On May Day, we will be mourning”

Less than two days after the powerful earthquake and subsequent aftershocks that hit Nepal, leaving at least 3,700 people dead and thousands more injured, Equal Times spoke with Bishnu Rimal, President of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT).

How is the situation on the ground in Nepal?
The capital Kathmandu is devastated. Many buildings, temples and World Heritage sites have collapsed. We are still pulling people out of the rubble.
Many neighbourhoods have no more electricity. There is a lack of food. Thousands of people are living in the streets and on public places – in tents or with just a few blankets.
We are very worried about the situation in the villages of Nepal. Some of them are hard to reach and we fear that the death toll could be much higher, especially because most of the population in these remote areas is made of elderly people, women and children.
It is a consequence of the lack of jobs here and the use of Nepali workforce for construction projects abroad, especially in the Middle East.*

What are the most urgent issues to tackle at the moment?
Rescue workers are working around the clock and foreign help is starting to arrive. We need to continue searching for survivors and helping the ones staying outside by providing food, medication and any other kind of relief.

Fortunately, the earthquake hit on a Saturday, which was a public holiday. If it had happened during the week, a lot more people would have died in the office buildings and workplaces that were damaged.
What is the labour movement of Nepal doing to help?
We are asking all our affiliates to encourage their members to donate blood and to help the people affected by any way they can. We need to mobilise as many volunteers as possible.
We have also decided not to celebrate May Day this year. Instead we will mourn and pray together for those who died and those who are injured.

Finally, we are pushing the government to increase the search and rescue efforts and to provide help to the people who have lost everything.
What can the international labour movement provide?
We need solidarity. At the moment it is still too early to determine exactly how. We are still collecting information and data before asking for international help.
But one thing is for sure: a lot of reconstruction efforts will be necessary. We will need help and expertise to rebuild the infrastructures and buildings that have collapsed.
But we have to be careful not to repeat the scenario of Haiti, where aid was not properly allocated and foreign companies took advantage of the disaster to push their own interests.
To prevent this, we will need to keep pressure on the government both locally and on the international stage.

But we are hopeful. We believe we can work together with the authorities to turn this tragedy into an opportunity by creating jobs, social benefits and reducing inequality in Nepal.

In Solidarity


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