Sunday, 28 June 2009

What's the Point of Trade Union Leadership?


So much of my work these days focuses on trade union leadership particularly within the debate around decline and renewal. Amongst other areas of work I have been monitoring for the GFTU the roll-out of a pilot series of courses on leadership and management, accredited by the Institute for Leadership and Management (ILM), at Northern College.

This weekend I am teaching on a leadership development course that falls under the auspices of a 2008-10 GFTU-Ruskin College UMF project around researching and developing future leaders.

Just recently though I have been wondering about the role and significance of classic trade union leaders not least Ken Gill (pictured above) who sadly passed away recently. Even the right-wing press gave him grudging credit for his discipline, deceny and effectivness:

In contrast however, we have recently witnessed highly effective unlawful industrial action organised across the energy sector (Lindsey Oil Refinery strikers pictured left) by a different type of grassroots leadership acting autonomously, utilising ICT effectively and acting concertedly in the face of significant mangerial agression and transgression.

Gregor Gall has chronicled this phenomenon and in a piece in the Guardian in June stated:
The current dispute has two dimensions. One is that the workers concerned are capable and willing, unlike many other workers (unionised or not), to take robust collective action to defend their right to work in the midst of a recession. This comes down not just to being unionised but being well organised at the workplace level with shop stewards, mass meetings and a collective confidence to act. Underlying this is the nature of the labour market in the industry where job security is absent with building projects beginning and ending when completed, with employment contracts based on this.
See the full article at:

In thinking this through and placing it within the broader discussions around the future shape and function of trade unionism (particularly in the UK) the distinctions between transformational and transaction leaderships of old become very interesting.

I do ask trade union studies students of this subject what their perspective is of leadership for the future. Typically the reply is that it must be much more diverse, reflective of the views and aspirations of workers and supportive of methods to effect and reflect responsive in structure and policy - tall orders indeed!

At the same time however significant interest in this new layer of trade union education should, I think, be seen as one way to, albeit gradually, to question where we are going as a movement and to properly refine and understand who should be in the vanguard of this.

If I can pose a question here based on the title for this post - what's the point of trade union leadership?

Contributions very much welcome.



Sunday, 21 June 2009

No Pain No Gain? Shares v Pay as Economic Reward


As a teacher of trade union/labour studies for over 15 years now I have never found a time that wasn't 'interesting'. Similarly, as a leftist, I always see the historic permutations in our modern times.

And so to the latest news that the British Airline Pilot's Association (BALPA) has agreed to a unique pay bargaining outcome which over the next five years will see pilots have share allocations instead of pay increases.

Some of you might find such an outcome deplorable. Please have a look at today's article in The Observer Will Hutton if that's the case:

Although Hutton writes within the context of trade union 'partnership' in an era of decaying capitalism I personally don't think that we as trade unionists should write him off automatically.

Hutton's position is much broader and you can see this in his video following a Unions21 event earlier this year. In it he propounds a more fundamental review of, for example, the position of trade unions where the state takes a greater stake in financial services:

In addition, in the Observer piece, he cites the work of Daniel Kahneman (2002 Nobel Prize Winner for Economics) to support the increased recognition of the position of workers to validate their greater significance in pay determination. There is a great interview with Kahneman on YouTube where you can derive some sense of this:

These events run alongside the momentous decision by the United Automotive Workers of America (UAW) to agree a controlling share in General Motors

For me much of these recent developments came together when earlier this month when I chaired a Unions21 event on the position of trade unions and cooperatives. Ultimately the suggestion at this event, and with what I have referred to here, suggests that we must discuss the controlling role of workers in relation to the organisation's they work for - a lot of this reminds me to some degree of what I read as a teenager in the work of Coates & Topham and workers' control.

The global economic depression is ironically accelerating the debate (and outcomes) around the greater degree of direct worker intervention in corporate financial activity.

Is this a bad thing?

Please let me know what you think.

As ever I hope that I stimulate alternative views. If I do please be constructive with your criticism.



Sunday, 14 June 2009

Long-Term Measures to Embed Migrant Workers


Have just completed a challenging, lively weekend with the students (pictured) on the MA in International Labour & Trade Union Studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin College, Oxford. The MA was created by Sue Ledwith (pictured centre with blue top) and comprises a fantastic crop of students from across the globe.

One of the topics discussed over the weekend was the trade union response to migration. In particular students were providing feedback on their action research that combined migrant worker interviews. Within this area of work there is a need to consider the long-term measures that unions should adopt to ensure, for example, that these workers are encouraged into positions of leadership/activism.

This will feature in the work in some of the work I will be hopefully engaged in with the GFTU as part of their proposals for funding from the third round of the Union Modernisation Fund (UMF). The focus of UMF III is vulnerable workers and the need to ensure that, aside from activity to reduce/eradicate vulnerability/exploitation, trade unions should seek to work collaboratively with potentially marginalised workers to encourage greater self-organisation, assertion etc.

Naturally this isn't easy work and the UMF projects will operate within challening environments. This work is long-term and will require unions to maintain activity and prioritise this area of work long after UMF funds have gone.

How and where do you think this work needs to start and how do we maintain it?

Your thoughts, as ever, are welcome.