Friday, 17 October 2014

Culture & Organised Labour


This is just a short post, based on a brief discussion I had today with two colleagues at Ruskin, John Retallack and Helen Mosby, of the Foundation Degree in Writing for Performance ( on the way in which I use social media (including this blog) to promote our politically valuable work at the College and the MA ILTUS.

The discussion with John and Helen reminded me that for some time I have wanted want to explore in much greater detail my understanding of the nature and notion of culture (not sure of my definition even - will need to speak to Helen and John) and its implications for both intellectual development across the working class, and for the realisation and interpretation of experience within organised labour.

Thus, the work of Raymond Williams (e.g The Long Revolution), Jonathan Rose (The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes) and in particular my history tutor at Ruskin, Raphael Samuel (e.g. Theatres of Memory Vols 1+2) have profoundly informed my opinion - and that's before we engage with the mass of literature  that we ought to e.g. Richard Hoggart (e.g. The The Uses of Literacy). Here is Stuart Hall's fantastic critique of the book and of Hoggart's wider influence on cultural study and analysis:

As I need to be brief (because I am teaching this weekend, and wanted to type up basic thoughts), but want to make a point that there is an epistemology of cultural tradition within organised labour, I must use the book Hard Lessons: The Mine Mill Union in the Canadian Labour Movement as a case study analysis of how culture (writing, performance, song, spoken word etc.) enabled organise labour to realise an expression of experience - if you can get the book, read chapter seven: creative response in organisation and culture.

There is a rich tradition of literature (often sociological in orientation) that we can also draw on here, and none better, I would contend, than Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The pitiless experience of the migrant labourer, and the brutalisation of organised labour are themes meticulously executed, and which allow us to gain a perspective on this experience from a fictionalised perspective.  I would also add Orwell's Down & Out in Paris and London as both sociological interpretation and cultural expression worthy of reading and analysis. Zola's Germinal is perhaps the major work of fiction which has the most significant, personal impacton me - one of the few books I re-read to grasp an understand of how and why I teach trade unionists.

In terms of film, Salt of the Earth (which I have written of here before) was a major leap of the way in which the experience of workers/organised labour was interpreted and thus simultaneously attacked under McCarthyism such was the fear that workers/labour had realised a medium through which to express itself:

There is masses I could say here (e.g. Sillitoe's Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, the Ashington Group: et al) but I won't, other than to say, I welcome on-going discussions with colleagues at Ruskin (and elsewhere) which enable me to better understand and appreciate how to inform my appreciation of the relationship between culture and organised labour as part of my approach to teaching and learning.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Solidarity with Striking NHS Workers on 13th October 2014

If you want the full story behind the significant shopfloor backing for the industrial action on 13th Oct, read this:

In Solidarity with NHS workers on 13th!


Sunday, 5 October 2014

South Africa: A Battle for Ideas


Apologies for the delay in posting anything recently, but workload has kept me away from blogging, and I had a fantastic opportunity to journey to South Africa for a week 1-7 September with my colleague Sue Ledwith (who created the MAs in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) and women's studies at Ruskin College).

There were many reasons for Sue and I to be in South Africa, and I can't believe that we managed to fit in so many meetings with so many organisations, all of whom with long-standing links to Ruskin College long pre-dating the collapse of apartheid.

Ruskin College has a long. proud history of association with the liberation movement which fought the apartheid regime. I have written of this history and relationship previously (search the blog posts on David Kitson and this year's Mandela Day event for example) and if you want a snapshot of this search the online archives of the Non-Stop Against Apartheid blog (an amazing achievement and run by Gavin Brown at Leicester Univ: and the digital archives of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (which became available online in March this year:

In the picture here (downloaded from the AAM archive) Ruskin students are pictured in March 1970 on the inaugural annual march from Oxford to London as part of the campaign calling for the release of David Kitson imprisoned at the time by the South African regime for 20 years.

I am very proud to record that I was a student at Ruskin College when, on 11 Feb 1990, Nelson Mandela was released and as was the case for decades before there were a number of South African students present and discussions with these comrades were incredibly about issues I was unfamiliar with , for example on the rise of the black consciousness movement.

Not only was the liberation struggle a backdrop to my formative years as a young trade unionist, but I had taken a special interest in South Africa and kept abreast of developments principally by reading the South Africa Labour Bulletin:

Wind forward two and a half decades and the situation in South Africa under a black majority government is not as straightforward as promised or predicted, not least in the form of endemic corruption within the ruling ANC government and parlous state of relations between the triple alliance of ANC, COSATU (main TU confederation) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

There is a fascinating critique of the current parlous state of affairs by Leonard Gentle - and in particular the crisis in the labour movement caused by the decision of NUMSA to challenge the ANC:

Tony Burke's website provides links to videos at the last NUMSA conference in 2013 which spelt out the union's strategy to create a new workers' party:

Whilst in South Africa I was able to meet with Crystal Dicks and Ntokozo Durban of the education unit of NUMSA. It was fascinating to spend time with them in order to understand the position of NUMSA and to hear them describe the union's decision to oppose the ANC - rooted critically in the Marikana massacre of miners - as a 'battle for ideas'. I will no doubt return to this issue in this blog.

The last matter to comment on as a key reason for the visit to South Africa was to launch - with the support of our close education partners Ditsela ( - was to formally launch the Nomvuyo Ngwaxaxa scholarship in the memory of Numvuyo (known as Vuyo) who was education officer for NEHAWU and then COSATU and who was an alumni of Ruskin College.

The scholarship funds two women from the global south to undertake the MA ILTUS that I run at Ruskin and one of these has to be from South Africa.

The first successful recipient of the scholarship, Nokwazi Magwaza, attended the launch event on Friday 5th September and it was attended by many trade unionists who knew and worked with Vuyo and members of her family.

It was an amazing event and one made more profound by the way in which it underlined the particular role of women in the labour movement during the liberation struggle and the impact on children.

The pictures below were taken at the event: myself and Nokwazi, Sue speaks of Vuyo's time at Ruskin, a group picture of friends of Vuyo.

In Solidarity


Wednesday, 27 August 2014

You are history, you are legend:75th Anniversary of the Spanish Civil War


As a young Mancunian socialist and trade unionist I was fascinated by the involvement of women and men from the British labour movement in the Spanish civil war.

Soon before I left Manchester to go to Ruskin College Ruth and Eddie Frow opened the Working Class Movement Library in Salford (in 1987) and this aided the development of my fledgling knowledge both of the background to the war itself, but in particular the contribution played by the International Brigades.

The Library still carries on its vital work of championing the cultural history of the working class, but needs your support: Please also pay a visit to the Marx Memorial library if you too have a fascination with the war in Spain, as this library is a leading international repository:

This is just a brief post to thank the International Brigades Memorial Trust (IBMT) for choosing Ruskin as the host of its 2014 annual general meeting (AGM) on 6th Sept - 2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the war. The AGM is part of a weekend series of events designed in part to raise funds for a permanent memorial (to be unveiled during the weekend) to the women and men of Oxfordshire who fought in the Brigades.

If you can join us in Oxford for these events please do come along:

I had hoped to work closely with Ruskin colleagues Keiron Winters and Paul di Felice on delivering a presentation during the AGM on Ruskin's link to the Brigades, but other workload stopped me from making a full effort in tracking historical material down. And so it has been left to Keiron to unearth some fascinating archival material.

For example, here is a recorded interview with Ruskin student Jim Brewer, a miner from South Wales, who fought in the war:

The title for this post is taken from the famous speech of Dolores Ibárruri, leader of the Communist Party of Spain, given to the Brigades as they assembled to leave Spain in November 1938.

Maxine Peake, herself a patron of the IBMT, delivers the speech in full - one of my most enjoyable YouTube clips. I encourage you to listen to this short video, not least to get some sense of the occasion, and how it must have felt to feel the war concluding, and to reflect on the role of the Brigades:

If you can make the weekend of the IBMT AGM that would be great, but if not perhaps you can make a donation to the work of the IBMT and/or the WCML and MML - all of whom play a phenomenally important part in chronicling and championing the historical political, economic and social lives of working class men and women.

In Solidarity


Thursday, 21 August 2014

We Make Our Own History


Just back from a relaxing, exhausting, exhilarating two weeks in Morroco, with my family.

As a north African country Morocco reflects positive global currents of militant worker/social resistance in the national context of an entrenched colonial-era constitutional monarchy.

As is shown by the ITUC's Global Rights Index for 2014 ( the over weaning powers of the current monarchy, despite putative governmental reform, allows national and multinational companies and corporations to act with impunity in their violation of workers' rights.

Even Danone, a company supposedly operating in part under an international framework agreement, and often reported upon positively by the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) feels free to operate in a wholly arbitrary, vindictive manner as evidenced by both the Index for 2014 and also the ITUC's sister survey on violations of trade union rights:

How best can we perceive of and analyse arguably contradictory currents of resistance on the one hand and autocratic state/corporate power on the other?

The latest book from Laurence Cox (an impressive writer on Marxism and social movements and who directs the MA in community activism, equality and social activism: and Alf Gunvald Nilsen (also an influential writer on global social movements)) helps to do this, although I do have a concern regarding some assumptions they make.

We Make our own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight on Neo-Liberalism was released by Pluto Books on 20th August, and follows hot on the heels of their 2013 publication Marxism and Social Movements co-edited with Colin Barker and John Krinsky.

The introduction to the 2013 publication is here ( and is worth a browse as the latest book covers similar themes and pick ups where the prior ends as in essence both books focus on how best to generate a Marxist theory of social movements.

The essential reference point for each book is how best to understand, analyse and translate diverse movements within a coherent framework in order to gauge, for example, whether and how such movements are replicable in diverse contexts.

Both books are, I argue, essential reading for labour and trade union studies students who wish to gain some sense of the historical and contemporary relevance and interrelationship of workplace inspired/based protest/action and wider protest/action/movements for social justice and of oppositional politics.

I am yet to read reviews of the 2014 publication (I don't take much stock of book reviews but read them all the same) but I am generally cautious about the notion of that we are in or approaching a twilight of neo-liberalism.

I cannot fault in anyway the canvas of myriad, collective, global protest and action that Cox and Nilsen paint, however, the forecast of a decline in the factors which coalesce to inform and construct neo-liberal dogma and policy are, if anything, in the ascendancy as a result of austerity-era economic policy.

In this article published soon before the release of the new book there is a convincing argument made for the need to better understand and comprehend an increasingly sustained, integrated body of global protest emanating from the outcome of neo-liberal policy: 

Even the article itself however appears to suggest that the rise in militant action is symptomatic of an increasingly aggressive form of state/corporate power pursued at local, regional and international level. I argue that one is largely reflective of the other, not in any significant sense combating or overcoming the other.

This is not to diminish in anyway the profound importance of such struggle (nor 2013 and 2014 publications - both well worth buying), particularly in the global south, more to caution against an assumption that the fight is nearing an end. I don't see enough evidence of  this.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 3 August 2014

Education as the Practice of Freedom


Just a brief, final post, before I head off on leave before the start of the new academic year.

I was hugely fortunate yesterday to spend a day in the company of a fantastic group of trade union teachers, activists, learning reps and others with a profound interest in adult, worker and trade union education. The event was called to discuss the future of working class education.

And so I must send a sincere thanks to those behind the event, Trade Union Solidarity magazine and Bridgwater Trades Council (particularly Dave Chapple) for organising one of the most thought provoking and engaging events that I have attended recently around this theme. Thanks also to these sisters and brothers for ensuring that Ruskin College was formally invited to speak.

There was some great debate and I was particularly pleased to hear Paulo Freire drawn upon on several occasions by those attending as having influenced their approach to teaching working class adults.  In particular he was cited as informing an approach which inspired formal and informal learning approaches predicated on Freire's notion of education as liberation and the practice of freedom.

I am keen to illustrate the event, rather than provide a narrative, as the images reveal the energy, engagement and insight of the event.

The pictures below are: Bridgwater Trades Council banner, my comrade and brother Mark Everden evidences an ability for manual labour having erected the Somerset Community Defence Campaign banner, examples of the archive of Plebs league material held by Dave Chapple, Dave kicks off the event with a few choice words about the Labour Party (and the left generally) but ultimately underlines the underlying concern around the educational needs of working class children and adults, Carole Valelly (GMB regional organiser) and Andy Newman (GMB Swindon GMB) awarded a vintage labour movement picture for recent successful campaigns), the event is kicked off by trades council chair Vicki Nash with the first panel including Trish Lavelle (CWU) and Marie Hughes (REO South West TUC), the second panel included Nigel Costley (SW TUC Reg. Sec.) who spoke passionately about his own trade union background and importance of language in working class education, I was honoured to join the final round speakers sandwiched between two proper trade unionists Carole Valelly and Becca Kirkpatrick - who now works for Citizens UK followng a long stint as a hugely effective UNISON activist in the West Mids. I was pleased to get the chance to talk about the continuing mission and ethos at Ruskin which centers proudly on the provision of education for working class adults. Final picture is captioned - lost at birth, twins Mark Everden and Peter Martin - found one another again at Bridgwater.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 27 July 2014

Who is a Worker? Creating and sharing comparative knowledge and experience


I had a fantastic opportunity last week (thanks to Mark Everden, TUC Centre Co-ordinator at Ruskin College) to speak to a group of organisers for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) about the background and focus of the MA ILTUS programme.

I always find the opening line of sessions like these difficult, not least as the MA focus is vast; literally anything globally associated with the world of work and its interrelationship (or not) with organised labour.

I am often tempted to kick off these sessions with a sharply challenging question along the lines of, and what exactly are you organising for? I tend to avoid that one now, as on a couple of occasions I have perceived that I have come over as an aged, sarcastic educationalist or have been completely misunderstood, and received earnest replies, suggesting no, apparent sense of the supposed profundity of the question.

Once I get past the ice breaker though I tend to find that most organisers by their very nature are fascinated by a discussion around the comparative difference in organising approaches globally, and one of the discussions I like to generate is that critical difference around who is organised, and by extension, who is worker?

The Continuing Informalisation of Work & Employment
The critical distinction I am working towards from these discussions is the central breach in traditional organising strategy that has broadly polarised approaches in the global north and south. Put simply, in the global north a worker actually is an ‘employee’, someone with statutory and contractual rights, a relatively fixed place of work, and someone with ‘an employer’. Whereas in the global south, the worker in a stricter Marxist sense is anyone who is engaged in an exchange of their labour value, be they street vendor, home worker, and of course this includes those occasionally or permanently outside of this process also but who are markedly part of a working class e.g. subsistence farmers.

The conventional employee occurs in the global south also, however, the nature and extent of the the informal economy is a critical separating factor here. Although, the rapid informalisation of labour markets, and indeed economies, across the global north are introducing (a) sweeping challenges for trades unions as (b) workers are forced to adopt working patterns and living conditions redolent (although of course not exactly the same) of those in the global south.

This distinction, although rapidly blurring through a global informalisation of labour, means that the shape and variety of organising activity between the global north and south, in broad terms, requires comparative analysis in order to understand basic differentiation, but also to encourage a sharing of experience and understanding. No longer is it the case (or that is has never been) that informal patterns of work occur principally occur in distinctly informal economies. The massive rise in the use of agency work and zero hours contracts in the UK alone foretells of distinct change in employment and working practices across liberal market economies (LME).

This urgency, to understand global forces catalysing and accelerating profound change in who works, where work takes place, and of what comprises work is a prime driver in shaping the BA and MA curriculum in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin College. Indeed, it is why I argue that we need more education for trade unionists which seeks to build an international, comparative perspective on trade union organising challenge and opportunity. (I’ll be trying to embed this argument in an event I am speaking at next Saturday on the future of workers’ education:

What Trade Unions Might Become
It is the actually the case though, that comparative analysis is actually required across and within all movements in an attempt to understand both constraining and liberating forces of organised labour.
It is not the case, for example, that little or nothing can be learned from the global north. In the UK context community organising strategies and practice move forward positively. 

Read this recent piece of research from Jane Holgate (to whom I send a formal thanks as out-going external examiner of the BA ILTUS at Ruskin) who compares community organising strategy/practice in the UK, US and Australia: Similarly the new edited book from Manny Ness (launched in the UK at a number of venues including Ruskin) on new forms of worker organisation ( illustrates that much can be derived from a global assessment of contemporary movements to revive and reinvigorate syndicalist and autonomist forms of labour movement organisation. 

Maurizio Atzeni will provide the keynote speech to the new MA ILTUS cohort at Ruskin in October, and in his last edited book, Workers and Labour in a Globalised Capitalism (see this great review by Phoebe Moore: brings together a highly cogent body of chapters which illustrate (a) the paucity of conventional approaches of analysing trade unions as ‘actors’ within industrial relations system, (b) the need to locate worker agency in analysis of a neo-liberal globalisation and finally (c) that such analysis must take place at an international level.

Richard Hyman is arguably a sound starting point in helping us understand both why and how such processes of comparative analysis are inherently important, and not from an academic perspective, but for any of those with a profound concern of the future of organised labour.
In this sound, introductory article ( he concludes:

“Our concern as committed researchers is surely not only what trade unions are but what they might become – and how. Our search for comparative understanding, even if impossible, may help build bridges nations and between reality and potential.”

The Struggle for the Rights of Street Vendors
The meeting last week with the NUT organisers was the partial inspiration for this item. For some time though, I have wanted to write a short piece like this supporting an even greater tendency within trade union education to examine and understand global, comparative examples of strategies which (a) seek to improve the economic and social context of workers’ lives and (b) do so under the umbrella of organisations centrally or broadly allied to organised labour.

The specific trigger to write this item was a recent article by a colleague (Sharit Bhowmik) who works at the Tata Institute for the Social Sciences (TISS), who is one of the institutions that comprises the Global Labour University ( of which Ruskin is an associate member.

Sharit’s article must be read in full to appreciate its link with the themes I am advancing here (, but the particular features which need drawing out are:

-       A significant improvement (or at least one which requires further work) in the rights of a marginalised group of workers in the Indian economy, and who actually perform a vital, social role.
-       The critical role played by organisations with distinct labour movement roots and objectives, but who play a wider social and economic role across the India economy, and on behalf of workers in the informal economy – particularly SEWA and NASVI.
-       As a result of the collaborative action between SEWA and NASVI 10 million street vendors will now be afforded protection from harassment and a statutory right to work as a vendor. This is the first such step globally, promises real change in the economic lives of street vendors, their families and the communities where they operate.

If you don’t subscribe to the Global Labour Columns, you should, and can do so here:

One of the benefits of working at Ruskin, and in particular of running the MA ILTUS programme, is having the time and scope to follow national and international developments around worker and labour organisation. In the context of street vendors in particular I was massively impressed with the creation in 2002 of StreetNet as an umbrella body for advocacy and organising activity:

The work of StreetNet (and the recent, allied developments in India) is just one of the reasons that I’ll often say that we must remain incredibly optimistic about the future of organised labour - be that in the form of conventional trade unionism, social movements, autonomist organisation etc. The key issue though is to keep an eye on what is happening globally, to learn the lessons of this, and to prepare to educate, agitate and organise in a new, radically different ways.

There are so many other texts/articles I could have cited here (most drawn from the focus of the MA ILTUS) but I wanted to try and stay focused (maybe I haven’t achieved it) on the simple notion of the essential, critical role of the international dimension in trade union education.

In Solidarity