Sunday, 11 July 2010

Critical Pedagogy as Trade Union Strategy


I've just been reviewing the July edition of The Shop Steward, journal of COSATU, and have been struck, as always, by the dominant theme of political education and consciousness raising as a critical feature of trade union organising strategy.

See the latest edition of the journal and archive to later editions here:

I've been fortunate over the years to work closely with a number of South African trade unionsists and have been conscious of the extent to which trade union education and political education are synonymous in that country in a way that it no longer is in the UK.

On the COSATU web-site there is a link to the distinct philosophy that underpins the Congress's educational strategy. COSATU places its approach within the context of 'critical pedagogy'. The Wikipedia link provides a definition:

"Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse."

This pedagogy (approach to teaching) is a core feature of COSATU's political and industrial and I was interested in the way that this feature in two new developments.

The first was in the wording (see p48 of the journal) of a declaration from a mass education conference hosted by COSATU in April and bringing together over 200 community, trade union and political organisations. The event sought to the COSATU 10th Congress Mandate:

(i) to deepen ideological work on a mass base through mass political education and the development of alternative consciousness,
(ii) to advance a programme for transformation of South Africa and the world we live in; and
(iii) for an organisational development and building programme responsive to new realities, and able to build community participation and leadership as part of ensuring maximum unity of the working class.

In order to achieve this, the conference adopted the following declaration:

During the week of 13 – 16 April 2010, we, over 200 delegates from trade unions, labour service organisations and community organisations met in Johannesburg to assess the momentum of class struggle in order to initiate and plan a strong mass education campaign whose primary aim is to raise class consciousness and develop alternative forms of knowledge and struggle in order to build working class power.

The second phenomenon of a deeply politically entrenched attitide to trade union education (see p.47) is in the launch of the SACP/NEWAHU Chris Hani Brigade. The initiative seeks to draw trade union activists into the role of political commisars in the image of the murdered political activist Chris Hani:

The union’s primary aim is to establish a team of national commissars who will continue with the struggle by actively working and educating our society about the socialist principles
that were championed by Cde Hani. These commissars will then in turn, run a similar programme in their respective provinces, supported and guided by the national office.

The educational programme for those selected includes:

1. Introduction to Marxist Theory
2. Introduction to Political Economy
3. The National Democratic Revolution and the struggle for Socialism – what role for trade unions?
4. Capitalism, Patriarchy and women oppression
5. Working Class internationalism
6. Political Economy of Health and Education

As I reflected on just two examples of educational activity of COSATU I pondered the vital role of trade union education in the UK as a direct response to the deeply reactionary political agenda of the coalition.

I know and understand that we cannot simply replicate in the UK the political philisophy of marketedly different economic and political contexts however, what I anxiously wait to see in the UK is the development of a dynamic, rigorous, sophisticated response to the continuity of a neo-liberal agenda that seeks to initially undermine, but ultimately smash trade union organisation as we know it.

The education of trade union activists can and should play a part in such a strategy and I welcome comments on whether, if it all you agree with anything said here and, if yes, what this educational agenda would comprise, and what it would seek to achieve.



Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...


Andrew Maybury said...

Interesting post Ian. I think we are good in the UK at providing education for skills in relation to representation such as disciplinaries and grievances etc.
I am unaware of any educational programmes specifically for trade unionists that would go into such areas as Marxist theory or political economy etc. It would be an excellent idea though for our union activists and members to be educated in the wider political, social and economic context, particularly in the light of the current and coming neo-liberal attacks.
My concern though is that our current union leadership are afraid of having an educated, politically confident membership. Too many are careerists who have not wanted to upset the political masters. Even with a change of government to this odious coalition I feel it unlikely that the culture will be willingly changed by our current leaders.

Ian Manborde said...


Thank you very much for responding to my e-mail asking you for your input.

I am very interested in your analysis as it ultimately suggests that, whilst there is room for progression in the UK's approach to developing the basis of/for TU education, we need to clarify the what/how its political content.

I am very interested in how bodies like the SACP, working with unions like NEWAHU, are able to foster and propel what you call their 'line' in developing education for TU activists.

My question is, who provides the checks and balances? Although I suppose your comment about expulsions answers the question about the response to dissent.

I know from working closely with you that, clearly (and as you freely admit) the TU ed approach in SA has had a significant, positive impact on your ability to critically interpret your surroundings and articulate objective commentary.

If we could achieve this within the framework of education for activists in the UK I would, as I say in my blog piece, be more comfortable of the position of the UK TU movement via Con-Dem coalition.

Thanks again for your input.


Ian Manborde said...

Hi Andrew,

Thanks as usual for your supportive contribution to the lastest posted item.

Your comments remind me of my first courses with what was then CPSA in the mid-80s as a teenager on the lowest rung of the civil service ladder.

CPSA would then place an NEC rep on a range of courses, particularly those for new reps, and anywhere where dissent could be found.

To be fair to the NEC bods I met they were always clear that their role was to spot 'trots' (never sure they knew what that meant by that) who might, as you suggest, use their confidence/knowledge to challenge what the union leadership were up to.

Just so you know there are some educational programmes available for trade unionists in the UK, but theysit outside of the core, mainstream offer of TUs.

Both Ruskin and Northern Colleges, for example, provide a broad political, economic and legal programme for trade unionsists. Let me know if you are interested, even if it is only to pass the information on.

Thanks again for your contribution.

Best wishes


Anonymous said...

Some people cannot see the wood for the trees.............................................................

Lou M said...

Hello former colleague! A PGCE student passed this onto me and it was good to read your thinking. I will be passing it onto one of your mentees in turn...

I don't give up on thinking of ways for us to connect and work together virtually. I'm getting into Twitter now, so will search you out if you're on there...maybe that's a way.

Lou x