Friday, 29 November 2013

Goodbye and Good Luck GFTU


After 10 years' work for the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) in a part-time role working on educational initiatives and European projects, I leave today and start full-time at Ruskin College on 1st December managing the MA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS).

Coincidentally, both institutions came into being in 1899 and although they were not linked on inception it has been a great experience to have worked with two labour movement institutions with more recent strong links between one another.

GFTU Annual Generation Meeting of Affiliates, Dublin 1903

It has been a fantastic period of my life working for and alongside some of the most inspirational labour movement organisations in the UK, Europe and internationally.

A perfect snapshot of this diversity and impact is shown over the last week of my employment which started with the delivery of a course for new local reps of the Association of Educational Psychologists (AEP) in Bristol working alongside the General Secretary, Kate Fallon, and Regional Officer for the South Morag Farley and then led me onto kicking off a course for experienced union learning representatives (ULR) of the Bakers Food & Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) at Northern College.

The week has left me finishing off the final report for a large, multi-partner European project where the GFTU worked with partners in France, Netherlands, Bulgaria and Finland to devise and accredit new training opportunities for older workers in precarious employment.

Victory for BFAWU members in Wigan
Photo courtsey of John Harris/
As I end my time at the GFTU it is fitting that I can point to the work of the BFAWU as demonstrating the relevance and vitality of small, specialist unions in the UK, as it is this union which fought, and won, the first case of industrial action around zero hours' contracts.

As Ian Hodson, President of the BFAWU, has rightly said, the BFAWU dispute with Hovis in Wigan, proves that when workers fight together they can win together.


What a great victory and message to leave the GFTU with!

I shall retain my links with the GFTU, and a number of affiliates and hope to continue to report on the successful work/action of its affiliates.

In Solidarity


PS May I give a thanks to John Harris for the use of his photo for this item and strongly encourage you to visit the Report Digital website to buy images for your trade union (or related work):

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Future of a Millennial Momentum


Just a hastily posted item as I and my wife are soon going out to see Billy Bragg at the Symphony Hall in Birmingham, but I wanted to post something about the latest book from Morley Winograd and Michael Hais (authors of the earlier Millennial Makeover) predictors of a Millennial Momentum - the title of their latest offering.

Their thesis has a familiar ring to their last book in that those pre-ordained to be born between 1982-2003 were to be ascribed certain characteristics: engaged, politicised, civicly-minded, but resistant of formal affiliation with mainstream political parties, NGOs and other civil society groupings including trade unions.

Their argument (and associated data) certainly stacks up and reflects dominant trends in various campaigns, elections and protests in the era following 2000. The promo website carries some interesting videos and the usual testimonials:

I am drawn to a central hypothesis in the book, which reflects a certain Marxist tradition when analysing trends in the growth and decline of civilisations, which suggests that distinct eras in US history have born with them equally distinct patterns of civil and political unrest.

As such Winograd and Hais argue that the Millennials represent the modern manifestation of the US generation which backed the New Deal on the basis of seeing and understanding how best to organise and mobilise for a future rooted in a progressive vision of the American future.

The book's primary evidence rests of the densely networked, grassroots-oriented movement of predominantly younger, first-time voters who mobilised to ensure Obama's first election victory.

The book is certainly thought provoking but its constraints are of course that, firstly its sole focus is the US, so the rest of the world is left to ponder how significant the Millennial Momentum is elsewhere and also whether that pre-cursor Obama-based movement is built to last.

Avoiding any negative sentiment however, this book is certainly well worth reading and from the perspective of the labour movement in the UK, should be examined for what it portends here.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 17 November 2013

Trade Unionism Under the Spotlight


Happy students! Holly Smith (GMB Rep, Brighton City
Council and Katia Widlak, Local Organiser with UNISON)
I have just got back home from a fantastic weekend teaching the current crop of trade union activists and officers who comprise students of the MA in international labour and trade union studies at Ruskin College.

These residential weekends are always a great mixture of thoughtful critical analysis and discussion of the primary issues facing organised labour globally, and of the strategies which can assist renewal and revitalisation.

Now however, the students are expected to contribute to these strategies through their own dissertation research, and typically these seek to respond to some of the most profound external and internal dilemmas of organised labour.

Seumas Milne during a great debate around
his latest book The Revenge of History
This weekend was particularly vibrant as we were joined by Seumas Milne on Friday evening to discuss his latest book, The Revenge of History. What a great, sweeping book and one which Naomi Klein commented on as helping to provide answers to our major economic, social and political issues.

On Saturday Sheila Cohen joined us to discuss her latest book, Notoriously Militant, and we were particlarly pleased to see that she was joined by her partner Kim Moody of LaborNotes fame - they both contributed to a fascinating discussion around the nature of trade union democracy, the capacity of US migrant workers to generate the next upsurge in trade union prominence, rank and file trade uinion movements - and a whole lot more.

I was also very pleased to welcome back to MA Ben Egan. Ben graduated from the MA in 2012 and went on to gain a highly prestigious Marie Curie Doctoral Fellowship and he is now a student of KU Leuven university in Belgium.

Ben discussed his doctoral research which focuses on a strategy to assess how and whether multinational corporations are structured to enable greater capacity for trade union presence and collective bargaining. It's a fascinating piece of research which is massively relevant to the future of organised labour in the context of globalisation.

Sheila Cohen leads a wide-ranging discussion drawing on
her latest book Notoriously Militant
Overall then, a fantastic, inspirational weekend shared with a body of students who represent the very best of organised labour here in the UK and globally.
I am currently recruiting to the MA and welcome the interested to come and visit Ruskin and meet the current students during an open day. Send me an email and I'll send you an invite:

Ben Egan on strategies to improve trade union
presence and activity within MNCs

In Solidarity


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

UN Rights Save UN Lives: Your Help is Needed


I've blogged previously about the bizarre stance taken by the UN centrally earlier this year to seek the derecognition of unions and staff associations within UN agencies. As someone who has worked closely with a number of UN staff unions I have seen at close quarters what vital work they do to defend the interests of workers routinely exposed to the greatest possible risks when carrying out their work in scenes of natural disaster and conflict.

And, as UN agencies set up field and duty stations in those areas of the Phillipines most affected by typhoon Haiyan, we are reminded yet again of the vital role that UN workers play when disaster strikes.

This weekend the UN unions are hoping to have a mass publication of the letter below in a wide range of publications. And so now, UN workers need your help.

Will you please copy and paste the text and send from your union/branch/chapel etc?

It is vitally important that the world's leading body for social justice extends the basic human right of freedom of association to its own staff.


 The United Nations seeks to promote peace and human rights across the world by bringing nations together to settle differences through negotiation and diplomacy.

 We believe your readers should know that while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calls on world leaders to talk out their problems, he refuses to use his skills as a negotiator to settle differences with his own staff.  We call that double standards.

 UN staff work in incredibly dangerous conditions in warzones and disaster zones. They are increasingly becoming targets, with more than 200 killed since 2003. Yet they are unable to negotiate for better security, or rights for their loved ones if they die, after the Secretary-General walked out of talks with UN staff unions in June.  Union recognition was withdrawn by UN management, leaving both sides unable to work together to improve the safety and welfare of UN staff.

 This is at odds with what the UN says others should do. For example, it advises countries signing free trade agreements to include rules requiring the promotion of labour rights.

 The UN unions want to reach agreement on staff negotiating rights through reasoned discussion. For that to happen, Ban Ki-moon must stop undermining his employees’ human rights and restore recognition to their elected representatives.  If your readers agree, we urge them to send Ban Ki-moon this message: “Union Rights Save UN Lives.”

For further background reading:

In Solidarity


Sunday, 10 November 2013

On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance


Organic movements which form as a reaction to power and authority are a distinct tradition of organised societies. The very term 'resistance' is a live, dynamic feature of popular culture and the political imagination. In an impressive new book by Howard Caygill we have one of the few attempts to interpret the philosophical and practical roots of the tradition of resistance.

I particularly welcome this book as it provides a means by which current forms of protest and resistance can be best analysed - not least because protest and resistance are as much a necessary feature of the early 21st century as they have ever been historically.

The book has a great historical sweep and draws in the theory and activism of the usual suspects (Ghandi, Satre, Fanon et al) whilst ensuring that it provides a suitable nod towards the increasing relevance of technology and social media to constuct and portray a means of resistance..

At £20 this book is well worth buying and although isn't always easily digestible (Caygill is a philosopher by trade and pursues the book from this discipline) it delivers a means by which we can better interpret, analyse and understand the nature and purpose of contemporary protest and liberation movements as forms and patterns of resistance. Put simply, any activist worth their salt should have the capacity to analyse from where they come, and the ability to project how to get to where they want to be - this book helps.

There are some excellent reviews out there - themselves worth reading as a form of introduction e.g.

In Solidarity


Thursday, 7 November 2013

RIP John 'Bill' Hughes


As an ex-Ruskin student and now proud member of staff I have an inveterate snobbery about the place and position of Ruskin College in the history and tradition of the British labour movement. The tired old phrase I often drag out (I will have to find a new one) is that it would be difficult to write a definitive history of either the British labour movement and/or trade union education without an inclusion of the role of Ruskin.

With the sad news of the death of former principal John 'Bill' Hughes on 1st November this history and tradition is exemplified in his personal story. Bill Hughes retired as Principal just as I was starting at Ruskin in 1989 and he made way for Stephen Yeo. Despite his retirement Bill's legacy loomed large still not least because of his role in contributing to trade union collective bargaining strategy via the establishment of the Trade Union Research Unit (TURU). His own personal contribution to the day-to-work of trade unions was impressive, as was his contribution to the work of Labour governments in devising and implementing policy on labour and economic matters.

Bill's daughter Katherine went on to work at Ruskin and has penned this short statement which appears on the College web site. I just felt it important to add a personal note of recognition to someone who played a vital role in building and maintaining Ruskin's reputation as a College of and for trade unionism.

John Hughes, former Principal of the College, died peacefully in Headington aged 86 on Friday November 1st 2013.

John’s funeral will be on Thursday 14th November at 1.45pm at St Andrew’s, Old Headington. The coffin will process from Rockery Cottage and people are welcome follow.

John joined the College staff in 1958, under Bill Hughes, as Tutor in Economic, Politics and Industrial Relations and as resident tutor at Ruskin Hall. Prior to that he had worked for the WEA and Sheffield and Hull Universities designing and teaching educational programmes for miners and steelworkers, many of whom became Ruskin students.

John became Vice-Principal in 1970 and in 1979, Principal. He retired in 1989 to continue his trade union work in other ways.

John's time at Ruskin spanned important times in the Labour Movement and left wing and civil rights politics. His contributions were manifold. In 1966 he established, with Roy Moore, Denis Gregory and Sue Hastings, the Trade Union Research Unit, which produced dozens of research papers, trade union pay claims and political arguments for all the major trade unions ranging from the NUM, TGWU, NUT, the National Union of Seamen and many more. In 1974 he and Roy Moore wrote for The Miners, A special Case (Penguin 1974) which played a key role in the Miners' Strike of that year. He wrote widely too about European Labour issues, often with Ken Coates.

He worked closely with trade union leaders at the Oxford car plants helping to improve pay and conditions there. Thereto he worked with Labour Ministers in the Wilson Government and sat on the Prices Commission.

John's other and related passion was Adult Education. He believed that everyone was intelligent and condemned all too often to a limited educational experience and dreary employment with inadequate pay and poor conditions. Ruskin's role should be to give the best possible educational experience to people who would use it to advance the conditions of their fellow men and women. He established the tutorial system at Ruskin and ensured that students had access to the key Labour Movement minds of the day.

John was an approachable and modest person with the common touch. He had no snobbery or desire for self-aggrandisement, turning down many Professorships to stay at his beloved College. He liked nothing better than to sit down with students or shop stewards and talk politics and tactics chat and argue with students in corridors, and join the contingents on demonstrations.

John's wife, Vi, became Literature tutor in 1961 retiring in 1982. His daughter, Katherine, was a Tutor from 1986-2007.

John was very much a family man and leaves daughers Katherine, Stella, Nicola and Kirsty, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Katherine Hughes 4th November 2013

In Memory & Solidarity