Wednesday, 29 December 2010

2011: We are the Lions

"What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager."

When I heard the sad news that Jayaben Desai has passed away on 23rd December I couldn't decide whether her death signalled, once again, the irrevocable decline of the of the British trade union movement or instead provides a helpful narrative from which we can draw lessons for what will be a challenging period ahead.

Whichever your view will depend on the significance that you apportion to the famous Grunwick indistrial dispute of of 1977-78. For many people, including me, the importance of the dispute was the extent to which the dispute, led by Desai, challenged the government with the demand that workers automatically have trade union recognition when the majority of the workforce wanted it.

Although the strike was ultimately broken it became a rallying point for the majority of the British trade union movement and smashed the racist/sexist myth that black and Asian women could not of themselves build for and lead industrial protest.

There is a good (albeit) brief obituary in today's Guardian which I commend to you all of you as an excellent way to pay respects to Jayaben and to prepare for 2011:

I would like to wish you all the very best for 2011 and I look forward to documenting all of the challenges and changes to labour and social movements both in the UK and internationally.


Monday, 20 December 2010

A Winter of Discontent - or not?


On the same day that a number of trade union leaders are meeting Cameron at No. 10 to threaten, amongst other things, a programme of industrial action during 2011, I have just issued a press release (in my role as Projects Officer at the General Federation of Trade Unions) to announce a major European transnational project which will promote alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms - is this good or poor timing?

The background to the GFTU's initiative is the increasing workplace tension across the EU caused as a result of governmental austerity measures and employer belt-tightening in the face of the recession.

Naturally, as witnessed in Greece, France, Ireland etc., workers have taken to the streets and at the same time there has been an increase in the volume of workplace disputes resolved without recourse to court settlement.

A very useful snapshot on the rise of ADR was produced by the European Foundation for the Improvement in Living & Working Conditions (EUROFOUND) last year, and written by John Purcell at the Industrial Relations Research Unit (IRRU) at Warwick Univ:

Although there are some understandable variances in the approaches used by European trade unions to indsutrial action and to ADR itself the report concluded:

There is some evidence to suggest that attitudes to the use of ADR in individual labour or employment disputes are becoming more positive. In the last 10 years, 15 countries have seen initiatives of some sort in ADR. Trade unions are generally in favour of ADR, while employer organisations in most countries now support it and governments increasingly view ADR as a cost-effective and speedy alternative to court proceedings. It is suggested in some quarters that lawyers and judges are less enthusiastic about ADR, while others contend that it is the judges who are pioneering forms of pre-hearing mediation. All of these findings suggest that there is likely to be an increased take-up of ADR in the future.

Perhaps this is the reason that the GFTU has been awarded the funding by the European Commission, but a starker truth is that the industrial relations scene in the UK is set to become relatively bleak, and that any measure that encourages employers to settle disputes is no bad thing.

As Bob Crow has been quoted today as saying in reference to Len McCluskey's call for strike action:

"Len McCluskey is spot on. We need co-ordinated action, and a social and political movement that mirrors the anti-poll tax campaign if we are to turn the tide on the fiscal fascism of this ConDem government."

Full story:

Whether ADR is sufficient to respond to the growing crisis in the UK remains to be seen, but anyone who would like more information on the project is welcome to get in touch. Please send an e-mail to me:

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Just how do you mobilise for protest?


With the news today that UNISON has set up a £20m war chest which, to quote Dave Prentis, has been created because:

"We are facing the biggest onslaught against our members, and the services they provide, in our history.

We are determined to use this money to help our members on the ground to fight for jobs and services.

"We are sending out a clear message to the coalition Government that we will not stand by and see our public services devastated, without putting up a fight.

"The money will be used to step up campaigning and to help our branches and regions combat savage cuts to jobs and services in their local communities.

"Unison members are angry and frustrated that this Government has refused to look at any of many viable alternatives to cutting public services."

Just how this money will be utilised remains to be seen. What is not in doubt however, is the significant degree of sophistication and organisation of student protest which has been undertaken for a lot less. There are great pictures of today's protests at:

Much of the focus in labour and trade union studies in analysing what works in catalysing protest is based on John Kelly's mobilisation theory.

Kelly's theory seeks to identfy and explain "how individuals are transformed into collective actors willing and able to create and sustain collective organization and to engage in collective action against their employers"

There are many accounts of Kelly's theory in practice, this one isn't too bad:

Mobilisation theory focuses on the social processes of collective action. Notably this involves how interests come to be defined as common or oppositional, the processes by which groups gain the capacity to act collectively, and the organisation and opportunity requirements for collective action. Kelly’s interest in mobilisation theory is in exploring how people come to see their interests as a common concern and generate within a group, a feeling of injustice, which is powerful enough to move an individual reaction or attitude to a collective response.

Various elements of relationships and social interactions are seen as important in generating this sense of injustice and persuading people to come together in collective action in the trade union context. In particular, the actions of key union activists or union leaders are seen as crucial in promoting group cohesion and identity, persuading members of the costs and benefits of collective action and defending the collective action taken in the face of counter-mobilisation.

So, the principles of effective worker mobilisation are:

- Strong, effective leadership
- A collective sense of grievance
- A desire to resolve the grievance collectively

My question now then for British trade unions is the how and when?