Thursday, 29 November 2012

But then I found the movement


I have written before in this blog on the impressive phenonemon in Latin America around the self-organisation amongst child labourers of their own unions.

There was a great piece in Saturday's Guardian about the work of the Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (Unatsbo) which illustrates clearly that the phenomena is growing and is worthy of attention and analysis.

A nine-year-old child labourer amid bricks drying in the sun in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where many children have to work illegally to help support their families

A young street worker interviewed for the article, Rodrigo Medrano Calle, now a leading figure in Unatsbo , has lived an incredibly hard life, but in reflecting upon the importance of organising to protect the interests of other young workers says:

"I lived on the street for a time and was going in the wrong direction, but then I found the movement, and it gave me a reason to be. I'm going to fight for my compañeros' rights, not just my own."

The text of the article is below, and questions/comments are welcomed particularly on how such movements arise and whether they can be replicated elsewhere.

Rodrigo Medrano Calle is a Bolivian labour leader who meets and lobbies top government officials for his constituency's rights. That's not surprising in a country where pay is often low, working conditions harsh and unions play a powerful role in society. What's unusual is that Rodrigo is just 14 years old, and his union's members are all children.

"I started working when I was nine, and I've done everything, shining shoes, bus driver's assistant, selling. I've gone through most of the jobs common for child and adolescent workers," said Rodrigo, who now sells chewing gum and cigarettes in bars at weekends, making £4-£5 for a night's work. "I lived on the street for a time and was going in the wrong direction, but then I found the movement, and it gave me a reason to be. I'm going to fight for my compañeros' rights, not just my own."

Rodrigo's organisation, the Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (Unatsbo), represents thousands of under-18s, in seven of the country's nine departments. And it's not just a Bolivian phenomenon: there are similar chapters in Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru and Colombia. Often funded by international donors, the organisations seek to bring young workers together to defend their rights and promote education. In Bolivia, successes include organising pay rises for children who sell newspapers on the city streets of Potosí from 6 cents (½p) to 12 cents a paper, using negotiations and the threat of strikes.

Many international campaigners advocate an end to all child labour, but Unatsbo follows a more pragmatic line, arguing that, in a region where child labour is rife, it is more important to ensure young workers are not exploited. On paper, Bolivia bans under-14s from working, but nearly 750,000 children aged between five and 17 are involved in sometimes dangerous jobs.

Luz Rivera Daza, an adult counsellor for Unatsbo in Potosí, says many child workers are in a legal blindspot: their work is prohibited and so they have very little defence if employers exploit them through long hours, physical or verbal abuse or refusing to pay a decent wage. "If you have to work, then you have to work exploited," she said of those situations.

"This just makes you more vulnerable."

Bolivia's informal economy includes everyone from bricklayers to farmers to shoeshiners, who work without contracts and set schedules. Many adults are part of this market, as are the great majority of child and adolescent workers. These young workers seem to be everywhere – in the cities they pack groceries at the supermarket, shine shoes on pavements, collect fares on buses, and sell cigarettes and sweets late at night in smoky beer halls. In the countryside they help their parents in the fields, herd sheep and llamas, or do the brutal work of mining or the sugar cane harvest.

In a country where poverty is widespread and the minimum wage is $150 a month, living expenses can overwhelm a family, especially if one parent works. That was the case for Delina Juárez Mamani, whose son, Rolando, began helping her sell used clothes at a market stall in the city of El Alto when he was 12.

"I never brought my children to work," she said. "Then the father left us and since then my kids come because I need the help." Rolando, who is now 17 and a Unatsbo leader himself, puts together the large metal frame and tarpaulin structure of her shop, and makes a little money helping others do the same. He works two long days a week, and that money pays for his transport to and from school. Juárez Mamani believes combining a job and school can be hard on young people because they may be tired from working, but says that education is a top priority for her children. In fact, most working children and adolescents in Bolivia also go to school.

Rodrigo believes that instead of attempting to end many forms of child and adolescent work, the goal should be ending exploitation by creating part-time, safe and better paying jobs for young people who want them. "Why should there be a minimum age if the work is voluntary?" he asked. "The work of a child or adolescent is not bad – it helps society, it helps a family, and it helps us grow as people."

In Solidarity


Saturday, 24 November 2012

To tell the truth is revolutionary


Just back from the latest weekend of teaching for the professional doctorate in researching work (I'm in year two of four and progressing reasonably well)  delivered by leading academics in the field at the Working Lives Research Institute (WLRI) of London Met University.

The weekend was particularly special as it was the 10th anniversary of the creation of the WLRI and as well as featuring seminars on research completed by the Institute it was kicked off by Professor Carole Thornley, Chair of the Business School at Keele University, who is external examiner for the DProff, but also the MA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin.

Carole's session featured an overview of her seminal text, co-authored with Dan Coffey, Globalisation & Varities of Capitalism: New Labour, Economic Policy and the Abject State. The book provides a penetrating account of the notion of the abject state (the UK under New Labour as a case in point) created as a disinct feature of a hybrid capitalist globalisation.

It was a fantastic, challenging and fitting means to both explore and underline the vital relevance of the research output of the WLRI which acts as a means to generate a critical awareness of the changing nature of work and of this impact on working lives:

The DProff weekends are always hugely enjoyable but also a crucial test of a student's grasp of dominant theoretical aspects of topics being taught. Of the many explored this weekend, and related to the theme of this blog post, was the relevance of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci's theory of hegemony as a means to generate and disperse ideology.

So, plenty to think about and reflect upon. Coming back home on the train I had the chance to read the latest Paul Krugman column in the International Herald Tribune - always a fascinating, thoughtful insight on US political life. Krugman's piece - reproduced in full below - bemoans the unwillingness of the Republican Party to deal honestly with fact, even where proved as a means of lived reality, empirical observation or rational scientific analysis.

Rubio and Romey: The striated rock of anti-rationality
Speaking of putative presidential contender in the 2016 contest, Marco Rubio, Krugman witheringly comments that, "like striated rock beds that speak of deep time, his inability to acknowledge scientific evidence speaks of the anti-rational mind-set that has taken over his political party.

Rubio, as Krugman details, is sadly just the crusty outer fringe of the molten core of an essentially vapid and ultimately stupid Republican approach to the denial of evident truths.

For Gramsci (as the title of this post proclaims) "to tell the truth is revolutionary", for the US Republican party to even acknowledge that the truth exists is illusory. But then, Gramsci would argue that the Republicans are simpy being true to form, and that in constructing their own truths a prevailing dominant ideology - already a solid feature of US hegemonic values - enables ultimate control and domination over what is seen and understood to be 'common sense'.

For decades, for example, the Republicans have been able to harness the support of the poor, uninsured white working class in attacking any means to improve upon the skeletal provision of free healthcare, ditto tax rises, trade union rights etc.

There has been much talk of the need for the Republican party in the wake of Obama 2.0 to undertake a fundamental review its core beliefs and values, not least in its stance on issues of gender and immigration. How this process can commence with an inherently congential inability to engage with hard, inconvenient truths one can only wonder.

Anyway, read the Krugman piece and see if you can figure out the answer - and treat yourself to more of his writing via the link to the original article in the New York Times:

Earlier this week, GQ magazine published an interview with Senator Marco Rubio, whom many consider a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, in which Mr. Rubio was asked how old the earth is. After declaring “I’m not a scientist, man,” the senator went into desperate evasive action, ending with the declaration that “it’s one of the great mysteries.

It’s funny stuff, and conservatives would like us to forget about it as soon as possible. Hey, they say, he was just pandering to likely voters in the 2016 Republican primaries — a claim that for some reason is supposed to comfort us.

But we shouldn’t let go that easily. Reading Mr. Rubio’s interview is like driving through a deeply eroded canyon; all at once, you can clearly see what lies below the superficial landscape. Like striated rock beds that speak of deep time, his inability to acknowledge scientific evidence speaks of the anti-rational mind-set that has taken over his political party.

By the way, that question didn’t come out of the blue. As speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Mr. Rubio provided powerful aid to creationists trying to water down science education. In one interview, he compared the teaching of evolution to Communist indoctrination tactics — although he graciously added that “I’m not equating the evolution people with Fidel Castro.” Gee, thanks.

What was Mr. Rubio’s complaint about science teaching? That it might undermine children’s faith in what their parents told them to believe. And right there you have the modern G.O.P.’s attitude, not just toward biology, but toward everything: If evidence seems to contradict faith, suppress the evidence.

The most obvious example other than evolution is man-made climate change. As the evidence for a warming planet becomes ever stronger — and ever scarier — the G.O.P. has buried deeper into denial, into assertions that the whole thing is a hoax concocted by a vast conspiracy of scientists. And this denial has been accompanied by frantic efforts to silence and punish anyone reporting the inconvenient facts.
But the same phenomenon is visible in many other fields. The most recent demonstration came in the matter of election polls. Coming into the recent election, state-level polling clearly pointed to an Obama victory — yet more or less the whole Republican Party refused to acknowledge this reality. Instead, pundits and politicians alike fiercely denied the numbers and personally attacked anyone pointing out the obvious; the demonizing of The Times’s Nate Silver, in particular, was remarkable to behold.
What accounts for this pattern of denial? Earlier this year, the science writer Chris Mooney published “The Republican Brain,” which was not, as you might think, a partisan screed. It was, instead, a survey of the now-extensive research linking political views to personality types. As Mr. Mooney showed, modern American conservatism is highly correlated with authoritarian inclinations — and authoritarians are strongly inclined to reject any evidence contradicting their prior beliefs. Today’s Republicans cocoon themselves in an alternate reality defined by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, and only on rare occasions — like on election night — encounter any hint that what they believe might not be true.
And, no, it’s not symmetric. Liberals, being human, often give in to wishful thinking — but not in the same systematic, all-encompassing way.
Coming back to the age of the earth: Does it matter? No, says Mr. Rubio, pronouncing it “a dispute amongst theologians” — what about the geologists? — that has “has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.” But he couldn’t be more wrong.
We are, after all, living in an era when science plays a crucial economic role. How are we going to search effectively for natural resources if schools trying to teach modern geology must give equal time to claims that the world is only 6.000 years old? How are we going to stay competitive in biotechnology if biology classes avoid any material that might offend creationists?
And then there’s the matter of using evidence to shape economic policy. You may have read about the recent study from the Congressional Research Service finding no empirical support for the dogma that cutting taxes on the wealthy leads to higher economic growth. How did Republicans respond? By suppressing the report. On economics, as in hard science, modern conservatives don’t want to hear anything challenging their preconceptions — and they don’t want anyone else to hear about it, either.
So don’t shrug off Mr. Rubio’s awkward moment. His inability to deal with geological evidence was symptomatic of a much broader problem — one that may, in the end, set America on a path of inexorable decline.
In Solidarity

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Workplace Justice on Black Friday


Despite the extent of setbacks we face as trade unionists, there is always room for optimism and hope - and here is the latest cause for celebration.

Workers at Wal-Mart across the US are out on strike and currently campaigning for mass action on Black Friday (a mass shopping event in the US - where Wal-Mart makes millions in profit overnight).

Although different labour movement and/or social justice organisations are working with Wal-Mart workers to mobilise for the event, some of the best coverage (and organising activity) is being managed by the Corporate Action Network:

As an employer of 1.4 million people in the US alone Wal-Mart has consitently used its corporate muscle to attack attempts to organise in supermarkets. Thankfully, when Wal-Mart bought ASDA in the UK a similar attempt at union bashing was ultimately thwarted by the GMB, but only after the ruthless victimisation of trade union reps and workers across the UK chain of shops (

So, use the CAN site to read more about the latest cause for celebration for trade unionists globally. If workers in Wal-Mart succeed in improving terms and conditions the knock-on effect across the States and elsewhere will be phenomenal, so keep an eye out.

In Solidarity


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Farewell Bill McCarthy


With the sad death earlier this year of Bill Wedderburn, and now the passing away on Sunday of Bill McCarthy, the UK has lost arguably two of its most impressive, outstanding experts on labour law, industrial relations and the of the role of trade unions within these.

Despite the almost luminary position that Bill McCarthy came to occupy as an industrial relations academic, and also principal adviser to successive Labour governments – his input well established historically in those seismic shifts in UK trade unionism, the Donovan Commission report of 1968 and the flawed policy of Barbara Castle, In Place of Strife – his roots were much more common to those of us in the trade union movement.

Bill came to Ruskin College in 1953 supported by his union USDAW. He met his wife, Margaret Godfrey whilst at Ruskin and they went to become stalwart activists in the Oxford Labour Party.
Whilst Bill went on from Ruskin to pursue a career which dominated the industrial relations landscape of the 1960’s-80s’ he never came to conveniently ignore (as many others did) his trade union origins.

As a student at Ruskin in the 1980s Bill’s book, the magisterial Trade Unions, was seen as of such fundamental importance to building the knowledge base of new students that it was set as mandatory reading before we even set foot across the threshold. His written and advisory output over 40 years in academia and government circles was prolific but within this he retained his deep, abiding interest of what it was that could retain at a grandscale union strength and influence in collective bargaining and industrial relations machinery; but absorbed also by the minutia of the union rule book.

There is a wonderful obituary to Bill McCarthy in today’s Guardian, supplemented by a personal reflection from Geoffrey Goodman.
Taken together the coverage represents a fine critical analysis of the role of an individual during a period of fluctuating fortune for British trade unions; but one in which without the imprint of Bill McCarthy our current position as trade unionists in the UK could not have  been the same.
The Guardian obituaries are here:

As a mark of respect for Bill's work in support of British trade unions he became one of only two honorary fellows of Ruskin College, and at the next meetings of the College's Governing Executive and Governing Council, there will be a minute's silence.

In Solidarity

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

14/11/12: European Resistance Starts Here


Great up-to-the-minute coverage in The Guardian (and I am sure many other news sources, blogs etc.) of the phenomenal wave of protest across the EU (some in the UK, but not massive) against austerity measures.

Follow the coverage here:

In Solidarity


Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Support the IWW Dispute at John Lewis

Please do what you can to promote the latest protest in support of the impressive IWW action in support of outsourced cleaners at John Lewis.
The IWW is making phenomenally important progress in organising often marginalised workers in the UK. The text from the IWW press release issued yesterday is below. This dispute is of critical relevance given its bringing together of the demand for a living wage and on behalf of largely migrant workers - the fight here couldn't be more important. It needs your support.


Monday 12 November 2012

John Lewis Cleaners in New Pay Dispute

Today, Monday 12th November, the Industrial Workers of the World union (IWW) have lodged a fresh pay dispute on behalf of outsourced cleaners at John Lewis. This follows an IWW cleaners strike at John Lewis in Oxford Street earlier in the year – the first strike in John Lewis history.

In the run up to Christmas and January sales, John Lewis can expect to see profits spike, bringing in £millions. Meanwhile, our members working in their buildings are earning minimum wage of just £6.19 p/h.

Budget cuts have seen their workloads increase, leading to stress, sickness and depression. But with no sick pay, they have to carry on regardless. Meanwhile, poverty pay means home life is a daily struggle.

The cleaners, working at four John Lewis sites in South London including the famous Peter Jones store in Sloane Square and the company HQ in Victoria, are not part of John Lewis’ famous ‘partnership’. Instead they are employed by a contractor, Integrated Cleaning Management Ltd. (ICM), part of the giant Compass Group Ltd.

But now these second class workers have had enough.

Following extensive attempts by the workers to improve their situation, their union IWW entered a new pay claim with ICM on 26th October. Clear, realistic and reasonable, not to mention necessary, the pay claim aims at an immediate and backdated increase to £6.72 p/h for cleaners, £8 p/h for supervisors, plus a timetable of discussions aimed at securing full London Living Wage of £8.55 and full sick pay.

ICM have not been able to respond within the agreed 14 day period and therefore IWW have today lodged this fresh trade dispute. If no resolution is forthcoming, IWW and our members are ready and willing to pursue any lawful action available, up to and including lawful industrial action in the run up to Christmas and January sales.

Contact: for more information.

Notes for the editors:
1. IWW is an independent industrial union, organising workers in all industries. Please see for more information.

2. The new London Living Wage rate of £8.55 (£7.45 outside London) was announced last week by Mayor Boris Johnson during Living Wage week hosted by the Living Wage Foundation and KPMG. In the same week it was announced that 5 million workers (1 in 5) in the UK do not earn a Living Wage, the minimum amount necessary to live properly on.

3. IWW cleaner members, employed by ICM and working at John Lewis Oxford Street took strike action in August 2012 demanding a Living Wage and an end to hours cuts. They stopped hours cuts and won an increase from £6.08 p/h to £6.72 p/h.

4. Photographs of the previous strike at Oxford Street are available from Peter Marshall at

In Solidarity


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

MA ILTUS Cohort 2012-14: The Hard Work Starts Here


I am very proud to introduce the students of the 2012-14 MA international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin College, Oxford.

Drawn from a variety of countries, unions and sectors the new cohort are amongst the very best in the history of Ruskin's work with labour movement activists globally. I look forward to working with these sisters and brothers on our innovative MA programme.

Over the next two years (one year for the full-timers) these trade unionists will uncover, discuss, analyse and interpret the major challenges that labour movements face globally, and explore the extent to which we can respond to these challenges.

Our students will then go on to complete a  dissertation which allows them to generate an original insight and awareness of how we can secure the long-term future of trade unions.

The work of MA alumni is spread across labour movements and, whilst we wait for Ruskin's new MA ILTUS students to get started on their own areas of research, here is (very small) flavour of the output of our past students:

Carol Jess (MA 2008-10) wrote her dissertation around the phenomenon of partnership working within the financial services sector. Carol has just had an article published by the Global Labour Column of the Global Labour University:

Mary Compton (MA 2010-12) wrote her dissertation around the negative impact of neo-liberal policy in the UK and India in the achievement of millenium development goals. Mary runs the Teacher Solidarity website:

Walton Pantland (MA 2008-10) wrote his dissertation on the subject of whether cyberunionism offered a model for union renewal. Walton runs the Cyberunions website ( and contributes to the website and online resources of Union Solidarity International:

Ariel Castro (MA 2008-09) wrote his dissertation around a comparative analysis of trade union education models in the Phillipines and the UK. Ariel now works for the ILO but came to the UK as head of education for the Phillipines TUC. In 2009 Ariel contributed a chapter to the GURN publication Trade Unions 2009 - Strategies for Confronting the Global Crisis, Multilateralism and Trade and Investment Agreements:

In Solidarity