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.

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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


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