Saturday, 21 July 2012

Union Rights as Human Rights

For some time now I have felt that the language of the UK labour movement needs to change, and that this change needs to take account of the impact of austerity and the stark, daily manifestations of the naked exposure of greed and cover up across the private sector from Barclays to G4S.

In a nutshell, I feel that we should argue not for justice for workers, but for social justice on the basis that it builds a common cause with the plight of all those facing inequality, discrimination and injustice of some form as a result of bankrupt systems of government and finance.

In their new book Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit advance a similar argument, although their concern is that the basic right to organise in the US should be enshrined within an amendment to the Civil Rights Act.

As the book review posted on In These Times outlines: The authors propose amending the Civil Rights Act to bar discrimination on the basis of exercising the right to unionize, just as employers are currently prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, gender, religion, marital status, physical ability and – in some jurisdictions – sexual orientation. They write, “The statute would effectively shift the basic right of an employee to join or organize a union from what has long been conceived of as a collective right to an individual right.”

Although I first came across the book on this site, there is a fuller review, with accompanying videos with the authors on The Century Foundation website:

In a deft rebutall of a negative review of the book, Kahlenberg reminds us in a subsequent article ( of the principle argument that he and Marvit are making and if you read the thrust of this paragraph, you'll see where (I hope) there is an overlap with my position of the notion of social justice advanced earlier:

The proposal to make labor organizing a civil right will be difficult for opponents to mischaracterize because Americans have an almost intuitive sense of what civil rights mean. Unlike labor law, civil rights have become so legitimated in American culture that it is difficult to mischaracterize the issue. From Ann Coulter’s bizarre response that civil rights only apply to African-Americans (and not to other racial or ethnic groups, sex, or religion) to this response that the true civil right is to lower the minimum wage for workers, conservatives have been unable to formulate a coherent and credible response to the idea that workers have a civil right to organize. Instead of debating labor rights in the arena of labor law, where conservatives have seized and controlled the upper hand for decades, workers’ rights should be fought on the field of civil rights, where progressives have retained the moral high ground and power.

Any comments, questions, feedback welcome.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 15 July 2012

Scranton PA: Organised Labour, Poverty and the US Elections


The role for organised labour has never been greater than in this depressing and depressed era caused, in the words of Marx, when an unleashed and unbridled capitalism ultimately eats itself, leaving workers, their families and communites nakedly exposed in an era of austerity to a second wave attack as the state uses the failed economy as a guise to hammer workers even further.

The town of Scranton, Pennsylvania is written of in this context and appearing over the past few days. First appearing as a blog item 'Screwed in Scranton' in the impressive In These Times website ( and then today in the The Observer in an equally engaging piece by Paul Harris (

The central message of both articles is the same which is that, in one of a number of US cities facing certain bankruptcy, the terms and conditions of public sector workers are seen as first and legitimate means by which deficits can be cut. Naturally also we are witnessing the offshoot of the successful attack on public sector trade unions in Wisconsin being played out under the guise of austerity.

As the In These Times piece argues this short-term vicious assault threatens the-long possibility of emergence from the current era of low growth and joblessness:

Scranton’s problems are actually typical of the financial death spiral facing many mid-sized towns in Pennsylvania and across the United States after three decades of deindustrialization and a halting economic recovery with continuing wage cuts. "Cities like Scranton have been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing and a loss of population, so that they are left trying to maintain services with a smaller tax base," economist Stephen Herzenberg, director of the Keystone Research Centre, a progressive think tank in Pennsvlvania, says. "But when the quality of services like education fall, better-off families will move out, and these cities won’t attract industry."

Harris agrees:

Instead, recovering from an era of huge borrowing by cities and citizens alike, and the bursting of one of the biggest bubbles in economic history, it seems easier to find people to blame rather than face up to some solutions.

Both articles chronice the response of the trade unions and their members caught in their descent to poverty and chaos as all public sector workers' salaries are slashed to the minimum wage.

Naturally, the plight of Scranton and the many other US cities like it will feature in the foreground of the US elections, not least as Mitt Romney continues to champion smaller governing and the kind of belt-tightening that he has never had to experience himself. Of greater interest will be the response of Obama - particularly in the context of being seen to side, or not, with the response of organised labour to the plight of cities like Scranton. His distancing from the recall vote in Wisconsin was notable.

By sheer coincidence I have been reading a book by Stephen Lopez on the industrial decline of Pennsylvania and what it meant for the future of US unions. Although the book was written in 2005, three years before Marx's prediction comes to life, it's focus on the crisis of organised labour is particularly relevant in its aftermath.

The sharp difference however, from the era of which Lopez writes, is the contrastingly rapid, advanced and naked attack on the position of US workers, particularly those in the public sector. A key difference also from prior periods of economic decline is that in which the impact on organised labour was secondary, not a pre-concceived feature.

Reorganising the Rust Belt: An Inside Story of the American Labor Movement is also well worth a read for those interested in the emergence of social movement unionism as a key renewal and revivial strategy for US labour.

There is a book review from the ILR department at Cornell here

A key message from this post is that solidarity with US unions - and others globally - is as important now as ever, and that evidence of the debilitating, degrading effects of workers/families/communities must consistently be used as part of the case for an alternative to austerity.

In Solidarity


Monday, 9 July 2012

African Struggles Today: Social Movements Since Independence

I encourage you to read a new book co-edited by my Ruskin colleague Peter Dwyer, our tutor in radical economics. This book has been edited by Peter and Leo Zeilig, Research Associate at the Center for Sociological Research in Johannesburg and a Senior Lecturer in the department of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

What this book does is updates our understanding of the forces that have helped push and shape social movements across Africa, but with a particular focus on the southern African states of Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Namibia and Swaziland.

What the book provides is a deep-rooted critical analysis of the range of opportunities and challenges facing social movements and other civil society organisations in the context of globalisation and the grassroots struggle for social justice.

The first review of the book has been posted by Socialist Review and written by Charles Kimber:

This is a book about the potential for social transformation from below in Africa, and therefore a rejoinder to the vast majority of writing on the continent. It is self-consciously designed as "a corrective to the tendency to see Africa's postcolonial half-century as one dominated by political repression, economic decline, and ethnic conflict" which can be solved by the intervention of various outside agencies - stretching from multinationals to imperialist armies to NGOs. The book is rooted in "the history of protest and resistance over the last six decades - as manifested in strikes, marches, demonstrations, and riots". But the major focus of the book is on developments over the last 20 years.

Almost unnoticed by the mainstream press, a series of democracy movements swept across Africa from about 1990. In four years some 30 regimes, many of which had ruled for long periods, were brought down by revolt. However, although these movements could topple ancient dictators, they did not fully develop into social revolutions. Instead they were generally brought under the wing of neoliberalism. This experience of explosive movements for change therefore has to be set against their limitations - including the question of political leadership and organisation and the ideological underpinning of the revolts. Such questions are not of importance for Africans or people who are interested in African politics alone: they concern questions that face activists everywhere. Therefore this history and analysis deserves much wider circulation. Readers who may have knowledge of one part of Africa will gain from the detailed analysis of countries that they are less familiar with. Dwyer and Zeilig helpfully discuss the role of the employed working class and its relationships to other social groups - peasants, the unemployed, "informal" workers and so on. They put forward a subtle understanding of the central role of workers (broadly conceived) but say, "There is no division between labour-based struggles and myriad acts of resistance' - they are in practice mutually reinforcing." Finally there is a good discussion of the "social forums" process in Africa .

Zeilig and Dwyer "hope that activists who read this book - both African and Western - will see struggles and movements as messy, ideologically confused, and inherently contradictory - but that the book will also help them navigate through the mess, clear up confusion, and expose contradiction."

They have done much to fulfil that hope.

Peter and Leo are happy to promote the book via a guest talk - email Peter to arrange this:

You can buy the book here:

In Solidarity


Wednesday, 4 July 2012

International Labour & Trade Union Studies at Ruskin College, Oxford


A video has been put together for us by a new company Aeonetic Video.

It is short and to the point and gives a good understanding of why Ruskin College is the place to be for trade unionsts who want to play a role in the building the future of labour movements globally.

I have struggled to embed the video into the post,so here is the you tube link:

The dynamic young team behind the video, are just starting out and have been established with sound ethical and political credentials: - please consider using them for any video/audio projects.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 1 July 2012

History tells us otherwise

Here's a link to a letter from me which appeared in yesterday's Guardian:

As you'll see it is a rebutall of Simon Jenkins suggestion in the Friday edition of the paper (link below) that there was some form of moral and historical equivalence between the behaviour of Barclays Bank and British trade unionism.

Jenkins' piece:

I won't labour the point that I made in my short, terse response, but it is plaintively obvious that British trade unionism (with all of its inherent historical and contemporary faults) serves entirely different aims and ambitions from that within the rotten core of modern financial services.

As a simple illustration of the deep faultline in Jenkins' logic I spent a highly rewarding day yesterday in the company of fellow and sister black trade unionists (pictured above) who had come together to attend a day school organised by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU).

We came together in the Birmingham office of UNITE (hence the TGWU banner in the background) to discuss how best black trade unionists could serve the goals of the UK labour movement by ensuring the wider interests of black workers and communities were at the centre of what UK trade unions campaigned on and fought for.

The concerns around lingering racism, high levels of unemployment in black communities, attacks on employment and trade union rights etc., were discussed in detail as were approaches to community activism based on an analysis of succesful campaigns of the US civil rights movement.

I am not sure where the Barclays Bank investment bankers were yesterday, perhaps Simon Jenkins could find out, but I am pretty sure that it wasn't spent given up time voluntarily and willingly in the goal of shaping and building solidarity with communities in the UK increasingly exposed to economic and social exclusion woven by the ugly sisters of Coalition policy and the raw greed of corporate financiers.

In Solidarity