Sunday, 27 July 2014

Who is a Worker? Creating and sharing comparative knowledge and experience


I had a fantastic opportunity last week (thanks to Mark Everden, TUC Centre Co-ordinator at Ruskin College) to speak to a group of organisers for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) about the background and focus of the MA ILTUS programme.

I always find the opening line of sessions like these difficult, not least as the MA focus is vast; literally anything globally associated with the world of work and its interrelationship (or not) with organised labour.

I am often tempted to kick off these sessions with a sharply challenging question along the lines of, and what exactly are you organising for? I tend to avoid that one now, as on a couple of occasions I have perceived that I have come over as an aged, sarcastic educationalist or have been completely misunderstood, and received earnest replies, suggesting no, apparent sense of the supposed profundity of the question.

Once I get past the ice breaker though I tend to find that most organisers by their very nature are fascinated by a discussion around the comparative difference in organising approaches globally, and one of the discussions I like to generate is that critical difference around who is organised, and by extension, who is worker?

The Continuing Informalisation of Work & Employment
The critical distinction I am working towards from these discussions is the central breach in traditional organising strategy that has broadly polarised approaches in the global north and south. Put simply, in the global north a worker actually is an ‘employee’, someone with statutory and contractual rights, a relatively fixed place of work, and someone with ‘an employer’. Whereas in the global south, the worker in a stricter Marxist sense is anyone who is engaged in an exchange of their labour value, be they street vendor, home worker, and of course this includes those occasionally or permanently outside of this process also but who are markedly part of a working class e.g. subsistence farmers.

The conventional employee occurs in the global south also, however, the nature and extent of the the informal economy is a critical separating factor here. Although, the rapid informalisation of labour markets, and indeed economies, across the global north are introducing (a) sweeping challenges for trades unions as (b) workers are forced to adopt working patterns and living conditions redolent (although of course not exactly the same) of those in the global south.

This distinction, although rapidly blurring through a global informalisation of labour, means that the shape and variety of organising activity between the global north and south, in broad terms, requires comparative analysis in order to understand basic differentiation, but also to encourage a sharing of experience and understanding. No longer is it the case (or that is has never been) that informal patterns of work occur principally occur in distinctly informal economies. The massive rise in the use of agency work and zero hours contracts in the UK alone foretells of distinct change in employment and working practices across liberal market economies (LME).

This urgency, to understand global forces catalysing and accelerating profound change in who works, where work takes place, and of what comprises work is a prime driver in shaping the BA and MA curriculum in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin College. Indeed, it is why I argue that we need more education for trade unionists which seeks to build an international, comparative perspective on trade union organising challenge and opportunity. (I’ll be trying to embed this argument in an event I am speaking at next Saturday on the future of workers’ education:

What Trade Unions Might Become
It is the actually the case though, that comparative analysis is actually required across and within all movements in an attempt to understand both constraining and liberating forces of organised labour.
It is not the case, for example, that little or nothing can be learned from the global north. In the UK context community organising strategies and practice move forward positively. 

Read this recent piece of research from Jane Holgate (to whom I send a formal thanks as out-going external examiner of the BA ILTUS at Ruskin) who compares community organising strategy/practice in the UK, US and Australia: Similarly the new edited book from Manny Ness (launched in the UK at a number of venues including Ruskin) on new forms of worker organisation ( illustrates that much can be derived from a global assessment of contemporary movements to revive and reinvigorate syndicalist and autonomist forms of labour movement organisation. 

Maurizio Atzeni will provide the keynote speech to the new MA ILTUS cohort at Ruskin in October, and in his last edited book, Workers and Labour in a Globalised Capitalism (see this great review by Phoebe Moore: brings together a highly cogent body of chapters which illustrate (a) the paucity of conventional approaches of analysing trade unions as ‘actors’ within industrial relations system, (b) the need to locate worker agency in analysis of a neo-liberal globalisation and finally (c) that such analysis must take place at an international level.

Richard Hyman is arguably a sound starting point in helping us understand both why and how such processes of comparative analysis are inherently important, and not from an academic perspective, but for any of those with a profound concern of the future of organised labour.
In this sound, introductory article ( he concludes:

“Our concern as committed researchers is surely not only what trade unions are but what they might become – and how. Our search for comparative understanding, even if impossible, may help build bridges nations and between reality and potential.”

The Struggle for the Rights of Street Vendors
The meeting last week with the NUT organisers was the partial inspiration for this item. For some time though, I have wanted to write a short piece like this supporting an even greater tendency within trade union education to examine and understand global, comparative examples of strategies which (a) seek to improve the economic and social context of workers’ lives and (b) do so under the umbrella of organisations centrally or broadly allied to organised labour.

The specific trigger to write this item was a recent article by a colleague (Sharit Bhowmik) who works at the Tata Institute for the Social Sciences (TISS), who is one of the institutions that comprises the Global Labour University ( of which Ruskin is an associate member.

Sharit’s article must be read in full to appreciate its link with the themes I am advancing here (, but the particular features which need drawing out are:

-       A significant improvement (or at least one which requires further work) in the rights of a marginalised group of workers in the Indian economy, and who actually perform a vital, social role.
-       The critical role played by organisations with distinct labour movement roots and objectives, but who play a wider social and economic role across the India economy, and on behalf of workers in the informal economy – particularly SEWA and NASVI.
-       As a result of the collaborative action between SEWA and NASVI 10 million street vendors will now be afforded protection from harassment and a statutory right to work as a vendor. This is the first such step globally, promises real change in the economic lives of street vendors, their families and the communities where they operate.

If you don’t subscribe to the Global Labour Columns, you should, and can do so here:

One of the benefits of working at Ruskin, and in particular of running the MA ILTUS programme, is having the time and scope to follow national and international developments around worker and labour organisation. In the context of street vendors in particular I was massively impressed with the creation in 2002 of StreetNet as an umbrella body for advocacy and organising activity:

The work of StreetNet (and the recent, allied developments in India) is just one of the reasons that I’ll often say that we must remain incredibly optimistic about the future of organised labour - be that in the form of conventional trade unionism, social movements, autonomist organisation etc. The key issue though is to keep an eye on what is happening globally, to learn the lessons of this, and to prepare to educate, agitate and organise in a new, radically different ways.

There are so many other texts/articles I could have cited here (most drawn from the focus of the MA ILTUS) but I wanted to try and stay focused (maybe I haven’t achieved it) on the simple notion of the essential, critical role of the international dimension in trade union education.

In Solidarity


Sunday, 13 July 2014

Celebrating our Past, Building our Future


Just back from a long, challenging, exhilarating week at Ruskin ending with a really enjoyable weekend of teaching a fine group of trade unionists who started the BA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) in 2010 and are now in the final phase of the programme. They, and other students of the BA and MA ILTUS at Ruskin, represent the very best of the international trade union movement.

Ruskin Radical Research Unit
One of the events that made the week so enjoyable was that the central policy making body of the College formally agreed to adopt a proposal, largely authored by my colleague Fenella Porter (, to support the creation of a major development at the College, the Ruskin Radical Research Unit (RRRU).

The RRRU (yet to be formally launched – but of which I will write when it does, and subsequently) faces an epic (although not unachievable) task of reviving the legacy of Ruskin’s centrally important historical role in contributing to research needs of the British, and wider labour movement.

Trade Union Research Unit
The Trade Union Research Unit (TURU), which is no longer in existence at Ruskin, was created in 1966 by the then Principal John Hughes, along with Sue Hastings (whose research of pensions, pay etc has played an important informative role for the British labour movement) and Denis Gregory and Roy Moore, who I benefited from being taught by when a student at Ruskin. Both Roy and Denis were both prolific researchers and authors in their own right contributing; for example, to the trade union pay negotiations of Fords at the Dagenham and Halewood plants. Denis maintains his research output and held a book launch at Ruskin recently with Maarten Keune and Kea Tijdens of the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies ( to launch their new book:

You can get a good, broad sense of the importance of Ruskin, and TURU, to the work of both the trade union movement and also to the Labour Party, in government and out, during the 60s onwards in this short obituary of John Hughes who sadly passed away in November last year (I blogged on John’s death at the time):

The Fight for Decent Pay
John’s obituary couldn’t possibly do justice to the dynamism of Ruskin’s presence, either centrally or tangentially, to the phenomenal growth in the presence and power of British trade unionism particularly in the 1960s: a central, epochal phase in our movement’s history.

A particularly important aspect of this phase was the fight for an improvement in the economic position of poor workers. This short paper by the well regarded labour economist William Brown helps illustrate the backdrop to the political economy of Britain in the 60-70s, and why key sections of the labour movement were placing pay, and in particularly an advocacy for a minimum wage, as central to their political and workplace bargaining aims:

Central to this positioning around a minimum wage were Alan Fisher (General Secretary) and Bernard Dix (Research Officer) of one of UNISON’s forerunners, the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE), whose members principally in local government, were amongst the lowest paid in the UK. Alan Fisher’s links to Ruskin led to one of our teaching rooms, used principally for the trade union education, being named after him following the refurbishment of Stoke House. In his research role Bernard Dix worked closely with Ruskin also and in particular with the TURU.

Bryn Roberts, NUPE & Low Pay
Central to NUPE’s historical mission (being formed in 1888 as the London County Council Employees’ Protection Society in 1888) was a pivotally important focus on pay. As General Secretary for the longest period in NUPE’s history (from 1934 to 1962) Bryn Roberts made his commitment to improving the pay of NUPE members clear in a speech to the union’s annual conference in 1936:

My mind is set towards the 100,000 membership mark for this Union. My mind is set towards raising the wages and conditions of public employees from the low and capitalistic levels upon which they are now based. 

My mind is set towards creating our own NUPE group of Members of Parliament in order to be on an equal footing with the other Unions within the service

Roberts is often penned as the ‘father of the UK organising;’ as he oversaw as general secretary an increase in membership from 22,000 to 220,000, and this growth was principally of poorly paid workers – largely ignored by other trade unions. Here’s a nice, short piece on Roberts from UNISON Manchester local government branch: A more definitive account of Bryn’s role in the expansion of NUPE, and of the explicit focus on pay is in W.W. Craik’s 1995 publication Bryn Roberts and the National Union of Public Employees.

Low Pay & How to end it
Of course many trade unions placed members’ pay at the heart of the bargaining strategy, but the obstinacy of the low pay issue across the public sector, and in particular in local government, means that NUPE’s role is central to any historical analysis of the trajectory towards the Labour Party’s implementation of the national minimum wage legislation (including the creation of the Low Pay Commission) in 1999.

Alex Callinicos has written a fascinating account of why NUPE remained focused on low pay and poverty, and explores this through the growth of rank and file movements within NUPE, and other unions in the public sector which, he argues, forced the union leadership to act as the General Secretary’s role transited between Roberts and Fisher:

Dix and Fisher published in 1974 the historically important Low Pay and How to End it. As William Brown’s article outlines, the British trade union movement had won hard fought for gains in setting wage minima, and bargaining mechanisms for this, in the form of wage councils. The ’74 publication however, was the first, authoritative advocation for a national minimum wage (NMW).

The fight for the NMW found advocates and opponents not only across British society, but also within the labour movement. Unsurprisingly it was unions liked the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW – one of UNITE’s forerunners) who were the fiercest critics of the Fisher and Dix NMW proposal, and as is shown by Mary Davis’s excellent, short account ( of the allied movement for equal pay, the reactionary role of segments of the labour movement has to be understood and acknowledged in properly interpreting labour movement history.

Peter Barclay & The NMW
As a result of current rising structural economic inequality an analysis of the movement for the NMW is of acute importance to the contemporary demands for a shift to a living wage. Indeed, a 2007 report for the Work Foundation by David Coats tells us much of how (a) history repeats itself in economic and political terms and (b) a profoundly weakened labour movement finds itself incapable of generating a collective bargaining solution to improved pay.

“A central element of Dix and Fisher’s argument was that the Labour governments of 1964- 70 had missed the opportunity to tackle low pay, poverty and inequality. Simply expressed, the government had capitulated to ‘economic orthodoxy’ and had failed to use a large parliamentary majority to ‘relate its social policies to economic needs and use them as a spearhead to attack the real problems confronting the country’. Thirty-three years on we may view much of this as mostly wishful thinking. Those governments confronted profoundly  difficult economic problems – balance of payments crises, speculative pressure on sterling,  devaluation, and inflation – and it was hardly surprising that what would otherwise have  been high social priorities were given less attention. But even if we accept that the Dix and Fisher critique was a little over-ripe, there was still something to be said for the argument that collective bargaining was failing to protect the low paid and that existing low pay institutions (like wages councils) were increasingly ineffective.” (

I was prompted to write this item not just because of the creation of the RRRU and the legacy of the TURU, but also because of the death on 29th June of Peter Barclay. Barclay was pivotal to maintaining a high-profile focus on social and economic inequality under Thatcher – and from outside of the labour movement. 

In chairing the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Inquiry into Income and Wealth (1995), he was able to bring together the TUC and CBI (and others) in agreeing a set of unanimous recommendations (including that of the NMW) most of which were adopted by the Labour Party, included in the election manifesto for the general election in 1997, and implemented within two years of forming government. Barclay had, in effect, taken the 70’s-based demands of Dix and Fisher and re-fashioned an approach to tackling the residual problems of low pay in a modern age. There is a suitably appreciative obituary of Barclay in this weekend’s Guardian. For anyone interested in how the fight for a NMW was won it is required reading:

It is the ambition that the new research unit at Ruskin can supplement our educational activity in the field of labour and trade union studies, and support the research needs of other programme areas at Ruskin. Undeniably the range of challenges that beset the contemporary British labour movement require acute, critical engagement and analysis, and I truly hope that our new unit can in some way continue Ruskin’s important, historical tradition of aiding the growth and stability of organised labour in the UK and beyond.

In Solidarity


Wednesday, 9 July 2014

An Expression of Solidarity for Striking Public Sector Workers on 10th July

My dear sisters and brothers,

On behalf of many trade union students who have been and will be at Ruskin, and the UCU branch here, I extend a message of solidarity to all those hundreds of thousands of public sector workers on strike tomorrow.

I won't use this message to send a long, unnecessary message, other than to say, when Manny Ness visited Ruskin several weeks ago to launch his new book ( he spoke distinctly about the importance of struggle/action/resistance as a key means by which workers build their experience of the value of collection organisation.

So, although the strike tomorrow is only one part of a long-term struggle for decent pay and social justice, it impact on those workers involved are immense, and help us build a mass movement for further, continued action.

The image below is taken from last general strike in India in 2012, a country which, I argue, sends a message of internal hope for the future of organised labour, as 100 million workers gathered over two days to send a powerful message to workers globally.

In Solidarity